Superman and the Pasadena Mayor's Wife

Pasadena, California, is a city of contrasts. Located just northeast of Downtown Los Angeles and nestled against the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena in the 1980's was an old schizophrenic and dotty dowager whose glory days had long passed. Carved out of fragrant orange groves in the late 19th century, Pasadena became the place for the industry barons from the East to spend winters. The Gambles from Cincinnati built themselves a magnificent craftsman cottage, the Wrigleys erected an antebellum mansion and the Pullmans, the Harrimans, the Swifts, the Armours, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies stayed at the sumptuous Raymond Hotel on the southern edge of the city.

The Valley Hunt Club organized the first Tournament of Roses, a New Year's Day parade of floats richly decorated with flowers and other organic materials. The mercurial Professor Thaddeus Lowe built his "Railway in the Clouds", a combination funicular and railroad that whisked giddy sightseers to the top of Mount Lowe some 5,000 feet above the valley floor. But this engineering marvel lasted only a few years hinting at that strange longevity deficit that seemed to curse Pasadena.

Gradually the resorts closed or burned down, the orange groves vanished to give way to freeways and tract homes. Even the famous ostrich farm closed down and in 1929 Colorado Boulevard, the main artery that runs through the city, was widened by ten feet. This destroyed the fine Victorian facades that were replaced by an eclectic soup of architectural styles, giving some parts of the boulevard a patchwork appearance. It was undesigned, uncoordinated, and mostly unblessed by the city fathers. It was a free-for-all that happened without the design guidelines and conformity that is the bread and butter of today's city planners. It had spirit that was to be appreciated only decades later. But like many American cities, the commercial center, the Downtown, saw a gradual decline as stores moved to larger and cheaper premises on the periphery of the city.

By the time I arrived in Pasadena, Downtown was a collection of spit-and-sawdust bars, secondhand shops, adult arcades and flea-infested lodgings with all the flotsam and jetsam of humanity passing through it. There were drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps, and the ever present homeless and alcoholics. The sidewalks were stained with vomit and the alleys stank of urine. Most of the stores were shuttered - except the pawn shop and the porn shop that were symbiotically huddling next to each other.

But it was not all odious. Only a few minutes walk from Downtown was the lush Orange Grove Boulevard where the mansions were still painted dazzling white and where, in the old Wrigley mansion, the Valley Hunt Club planned its annual fest of traditional goodness - The Rose Parade. There may not be a deer to be slaughtered within a day's ride anymore, but the old money never ran out, old habits and pretensions never died, and Pasadena still had the chiffoned and coiffed debutants who did their absolute damnedest to look as pure as the virgin snow by giggling and squealing. The saccharine flavored worldview that the Rose Parade shamelessly flaunts, made Walt Disney look like a hedonistic pornographer. And for one day a year decrepit Downtown Pasadena became the quintessential Main Street America as the majorettes strutted their shapely thighs, the marching bands struggled to stay in key and the elaborate parade floats tried to follow the pink line down the middle of the street.

Just up the street a bit, Orange Grove Boulevard takes a dogleg east and the streetscape changes from Glenn Miller to Snoop Doggy Dogg. A staccato rap of ....church...liquor store...tattoo parlor...church...liquor store...tattoo parlor... now defines the boulevard. Casa de Poverty - the other Pasadena.

That is how I found Pasadena in 1983; tired, threadbare, smelly, violent and looking for a sugar daddy. I was part of one man's dream to make that work.

In early 1980, a bearded, blue-eyed Irishman from Idaho rode into town like a circus barker, which in a way, he was. He exuded prosperity and success. Few knew that it was humble commodes that made Jim Mulcahey's fortune. In the seventies he bought a few thousand porcelain chain-pull toilets from the Pentagon...for a few dollars each, and within a year sold the lot through mail order as "antiques" and a legend was born. Other architectural antiques followed. Jim would spend months each year in Europe, buying up old interiors of banks, apothecaries, pubs and the like and ship them in pieces to Los Angeles. After a while, it no longer mattered if the article was actually OLD; he simply certified it as old. Or, even better, he had it made by a carpenter in Yorkshire, England who had a knack for aging things and producing genuine certificates. "This period elevator cage was part of Pifflebrook Arms, the ancestral home of His Grace Lord Scunthorpe in northern Sussex"....and so it went. The fact that the elevator cage was stitched from a couple of post-Victorian wardrobe doors did not matter in the greater scheme of things.

Once a year, Jim would hold an auction in a abandoned Goodyear Tire Factory in Los Angeles. The factory had an Egyptian motif with huge elephant bas-reliefs facing the Golden State Freeway. Temple by the Freeway, they called it. He knew his stuff. Admission was $500; credited towards purchase. The auction lasted three days, with full entertainment, gourmet food, fast women and lots of liquor. There were Mai-Tais to go with the lobster for brunch and by the time it came to actual bidding the punters were too sloshed to see what a piece of crap they were bidding on. It was a success for Jim and he pulled it off nine times. But the tenth failed in a big way. General market slump combined with a volley of well publicized lawsuits over the authenticity of some articles, meant that many items went for far less then the minimum, the amount that Jim either paid or committed to pay to his suppliers.
Golden Movement Emporium, as the auctions were called (a nod to the original toilets, geddit?) went literally down the drain.

Bruised but unbowed, Jim ultimately discovered Pasadena. Having had some success in the re-vitalization of Santa Maria Main Street, he turned to bigger things. With financing from a well known Hollywood producer he assembled almost four city blocks of commercial property in the heart of Old Town Pasadena. One of the incentives was substantial Federal tax credits. Restoration of a historical property was, to some extent, financed by the federal government through tax credits. Problem was, the restoration had to be carried out just right and, to Jim, everything pre-1950 was Victorian and that was the treatment to be applied to every building, "make it old-looking, but fresh and charming"; Disneyesque. But that did not fly with the Feds or with the Pasadena City fathers who were in cahoots with The Pasadena Heritage, an influential group of passionate conservationists headed by Cheryl Bachman, wife of the mayor of Pasadena, William Bachman.

The nucleus of the project was the Pasadena Marketplace; a single city block of buildings, mostly retail stores in various states of disrepair along Colorado Boulevard. Within the block was a small network of alleys that gave the stores access from the rear. One of the alleys was known as Sting Alley as it was featured prominently in the movie "The Sting". The alleys were unsavory places and the immediate instinct was to clean them up and make them nice with lots of beveled glass fenestration, pretty plant pots, awnings to shade the shoppers and so on. The peeling brick walls, the barred windows and various items affixed to the walls over the past century would be discarded. How else can one emulate Disneyland Main Street? The City planners and The Pasadena Heritage had other ideas. They liked things original and old and authentic. With this huge difference of opinion, planning commission meetings tended to be long, absurd and often adversarial.

My job was never clearly defined and I largely made it up as I went along. There was some research to do, some design; layouts, elevations, detailing, lots of conceptualizing and meeting with potential tenants where we promised just about anything to get them to sign on the dotted line. My relationship with Jim was cordial enough; it was sometime hard to interpret his wishes and we had a number of very loud arguments. But there was another aspect at play; Jim always saw himself as the alpha dog and so did I. Problem was that I was on his turf and he did not much like that idea. For a while I was dating Deedee, who worked as a hostess at the Mount Ararat; an Armenian Restaurant in the basement of our building. It was an upscale place with linen tablecloths and belly dancers for cultural relief. You could see down into the restaurant from the bridges spanning the atrium. Jim often saw us going for lunch and leaving together at the end of the day and it seemed to bother him. So he sent me the following MEMO:

  • From: Jim Mulcahey
    To: Karel Kriz
    Subject: Dating of Tenants at 21456 Colorado Boulevard

    Dating of any tenants or their employees is strictly forbidden. Any violation of this rule will result in immediate dismissal.

    Signed
    Jim Mulcahey

I thought it was a joke and I ignored it. But Jim was serious. Sonofabitch!

The project was in regulatory hell and going nowhere fast. We've managed to complete the restoration of one three-story building, but there were problems. In the center of the building, we'd punched a huge atrium through all three floors and then formed bridges over the void instead of corridors. It was a novel idea that had many serious drawbacks. One of them was the tree. The intent was to have a live tree in the atrium space, rooted in the basement and growing through all three floors. With the building almost finished, dozens of Mexican laborers sweated to plant a huge pepper tree in the atrium. With only a few broken windows, they succeeded and the tree became the pride of our building. Then the tree began to die of some incurable tree distemper, all attempts to glue silk leaves on the atrophied branches failed. One day the arborist showed up with a chain saw and cut the tree down. Jim, who loved that tree, threw a tantrum directed at me and it took some diplomacy to convince him that the tree was indeed, very dead and beyond salvation. So we had a gaping void in the...ahem...void.

Despite this we were set for the final inspection to qualify for the coveted Federal tax credits. It did not go well. The inspection was an unmitigated disaster and our mish mash of architectural styles did not meet the federal standards. The exceptions were my carefully detailed 30's style railings and door moldings that I had designed; there the standard was met and exceeded. Jim was starting to realize that building restoration and architecture required more than a grand but fuzzy vision and a force of personality.

Cheryl's Pasadena Heritage was recognized as a major speed bump, but Jim and Cheryl did not have any meaningful dialog. She was all twin-set churchy and wholesome and Jim would rather date porn stars. I was asked to take Cheryl to lunch to see if my European charm could work some magic. "Take her to lunch, have a chat, go somewhere nice", Jim suggested to me one day.

My lunch date with Cheryl coincided with Halloween. Jim came into the office dressed as Superman that day and spent the morning demonstrating his superhuman capabilities by stretching his arm and a leg at the same time. I wore a business suit and tie. The peace mission with Cheryl kind of demanded that.

  • The lunch is largely uneventful; Cheryl has the upper hand and knows it. No progress is made but no wars are declared either. Afterward, she wants to see our new building. We walk in from the street and over one of the atrium bridges. As we look down into Mount Ararat, the Armenian Restaurant, there's Superman cavorting merrily with a couple of belly dancers who had incorporated lap dancing into their routine. Cheryl stiffens up a bit, but holds her composure. During a break in the music she says with a thin smile: "Jim, you are a disgrace to this community." Superman squints, looks up, and deadpans: "...and you, Cheryl, as the Mayor's wife, should be wearing panties".

A few months later Jim doubled my salary in the morning, had a hissy fit in the afternoon, then fired me on the spot. I was not sorry. The project was going nowhere, perpetually "95% leased", and Jim was hounded out of town a couple of months later as his financing dried up. It took another 10 years before Downtown Pasadena became something close to Jim's vision.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions

karel@bouncingczech.com