In the late 19th century, luxury hotels sprang up across Southern California, inviting tourists to escape the frosty East Coast and winter under the region's sunny skies. Unlike Los Angeles' first hotel, the rowdy Bella Union, these establishments presented themselves as havens for sophisticated crowds of well-heeled tourists. Set far away from the gritty boomtown of Los Angeles, these hotels welcomed their East Coast guests to Southern California's natural splendor.
Among the most famous of these establishments was the Raymond Hotel. Perched atop Raymond Hill in what is today South Pasadena, the hotel offered commanding views of the then-pastoral San Gabriel Valley countryside.
"We have two long windows in each room and the view is magnificent," guest Amy Bridges wrote in her diary during her 1886 visit. "The hotel is on a hill and we look down over the valleys with their orange groves and vineyards and cultivated fields." To the north were the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. To the south -- on a clear day -- views stretched to the Pacific Ocean.
When it opened in 1886, the hotel filled a void that Los Angeles' forward-thinking business community had bemoaned for several years.
Since even before the Southern Pacific's transcontinental line connected Los Angeles with the rest of the nation in 1876, boosters had praised Southern California as a wonderland where crops flourished and ailments like tuberculosis faded in the region's mild, sunny climate. The 1884 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson's "Ramona" added a veneer of romance to the region's past, and the forthcoming arrival of the Santa Fe Railway and resulting rate war would drive down transcontinental fares from $100 to $1.
But, as Megan McLeod Kendrick explains in her 2009 dissertation, "Stay in L.A.: Hotels and the Representation of Urban Public Space in Los Angeles, 1880s-1950s," the lack of proper upscale accommodations prevented Southern California from reaching its full potential as a resort destination. When the first tourists with the Boston-based Raymond & Whitcomb excursion company arrived in Los Angeles in the spring of 1882, they lodged at the Cosmopolitan but stayed for only one day before departing for Yosemite Valley.
Hotels like the Cosmopolitan and its competitors, the St. Charles (formerly the Bella Union) and Pico House, offered well-appointed rooms but -- located in the heart of the city -- lacked the resort-like setting that drew visitors to places like Saratoga Springs and Atlantic City on the East Coast or Charles Crocker's Hotel Del Monte in Monterey.
On April 12, 1882, the Los Angeles Times proposed a remedy: a hotel set far away from the city one excursionist described as "dirty," a city still prone to frontier violence and -- despite racial segregation -- a place where people of different ethnicities and social strata mixed. The hotel, the Times opined, "should not be flanked all around by business houses, but be removed from the turmoil of commerce, and occupy an eminence from which as much of the country as possible can be seen. Such places we have, and a hotel of ample dimensions once erected upon the hill overlooking the city and valleys and the means of reaching it easily provided, there would be no lack of patronage for it, and the thousands of dollars that bella now slip through our fingers would remain here to enrich us all."
In 1883, Walter Raymond of Raymond & Whitcomb answered the Times' call, announcing plans for a palatial winter hotel. The spot he selected -- an outcropping of bedrock named Bacon Hill -- fit the newspaper's description perfectly. Located several miles from the city, it was surrounded by citrus groves and open fields of the Marengo Ranch, which stretched south from the nascent town of Pasadena. And though its remote location also placed it far from the region's existing transportation infrastructure, the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Valley Railroad, which was then planning to build a line through the area, supported Raymond's venture by locating a depot at the base of Bacon Hill.
More than 250 workers -- many of them Chinese -- spent three years constructing Raymond's hotel. In order to create suitable terrain for the hotel's 55-acre grounds, workers removed 34 feet from the top of Bacon Hill, blasting it with more than 1,000 kegs of black powder. Once the hill was sufficiently flattened, work began on the hotel structure itself. Four stories tall and designed in the Second Empire architectural style, the building featured 200 guest rooms, 43 bathrooms, 40 water closets, and a 104-foot-tall tower. The project became so expensive that Raymond ran out of funds and was forced to take on his father, a retired railroad baron, as a business partner.
In June 1886 the Valley Union described the nearly completed hotel as "the most imposing sight in Southern California, and, perhaps, the greatest undertaking ever carried through here."
On Nov. 17, 1886, an inaugural ball marked the hotel's opening. The Los Angeles Times called the event, attended by a throng of 1,500, "perhaps the most extensive social affair in the history of the county" and "the mark of an important era in the history of Southern California."
The Raymond immediately transformed Pasadena into a mecca for East Coast winter tourists.
Open annually from November to May, the hotel resembled an exclusive, hermetical community. While some adventurous guests took day trips to booming Los Angeles, dusty Pasadena, and other surrounding communities, most ensconced themselves on the resort grounds. An array of activities, from dances to concerts and from cards to billiards, kept guests entertained.
Although similar hotels opened across the region, including the nearby Hotel Green in Pasadena and the beachfront Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica, the Raymond remained Southern California's leading resort hotel until Easter Sunday, 1895.
On that day, while most guests were attending Easter services, an ember flew from one of the Raymond's 80 chimneys landed on the hotel's wood-shingle roof. No lives were lost, but within a couple hours the Raymond was no more.
Insurance provided only partial compensation for the hotel's losses, and it was not until 1901 that Walter Raymond was able to rebuild and reopen his hotel.
With 400 rooms, golf links, and formal gardens, the Raymond's second iteration was even grander than the first. At the entrance, a new floral display, augmented by 575 electric lights, announced in ten brightly colored letters that visitors had arrived at "THE RAYMOND." Guests then entered a tunnel -- which still exists today, though sealed, under Raymond Hill -- and ascended into the hotel via elevator.
The rebuilt hotel thrived over the succeeding decades, but whereas the original structure met its end in flames, the Great Depression spelled doom for the second.
Facing intense competition from Pasadena's newest luxury resort, the Huntington Hotel, the Raymond was unable to remain profitable. A bank foreclosed on the aging property in 1931 and, in 1934, the Raymond was demolished.
After World War II, vacant Raymond Hill became the site of a new housing development. Today the former site of Southern California's most palatial hotel is home to a quiet neighborhood of humble mid-century apartment buildings.