At Our Leisure at the Sierra Madre Villa hotel, Pasadena, ca. 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

By the late 19th century, the foothill areas of the western San Gabriel Valley developed a reputation as a desirable place for tourists, especially those who could afford to flee the chilling cold of winters in eastern and midwestern states, to enjoy a respite in the temperate climate of our region.

The first of the major hotels to spring up in this vicinity was the Sierra Madre Villa, established by William Cogswell and his son-in-law, William Rhoades, in 1873, during the peak of greater Los Angeles’ first development boom.

Cogswell was a well-known artist from New York, whose 1864 portrait of President Lincoln in in the White House art collection and who painted portraits of many prominent figures from other politicians to titans of industry to Hawaiian royalty.  The fine blog “East of Allen” has this post aout him and other posts about the Villa that are well worth checking out.  Cogswell bought a little under 500 acres in 1873 east of what became, the same year, the settlement of Pasadena.

SV Sierra Madra Villa Los Angeles Cal 2008.385.1.1
This detail from a circa 1890 stereoscopic photograph by E. W. Pierce of Sierra Madre Villa in the Homestead’s collection shows a two-story home built by owner William Cogswell and the large hotel built by him and managed by son-in-law, William Rhoades.  The location is in today’s northeast Pasadena near Eaton Canyon.

Rhoades was listed as “lessee” of the hostelry in images taken by Carleton Watkins, including one in the Homestead’s collection labeled “Cogswell’s Sierra Madre Villa” and ran the day-to-day operations of the resort by leasing it from his father-in-law.  Former Los Angeles newspaper publisher, booster and author Benjamin C. Truman said this about the Villa in an 1883 travel guide:

Ir is upon one of the beautiful slopes of the San Gabriel [Mountains] that the most delightful summer and winter mountain retreat in the State is situated . . .

Truman went on to quote extensively from recollections of James M. Bassett, the publisher of the Los Angeles Herald, who visited the recently opened facility in September 1874 and stated:

We doubt if on the continent there is a more delightful view than that which may be obtained from the Sierra Madre Villa . . .

Bassett estimated that Cogswell expended up to $75,000, a princely sum (as they used to say) for his estate, including the Villa.  Noting that it could house up to sixty guests, Bassett lauded the artistic arrangements of the facility in great detail, from its airy verandas to its beautifully furnished public spaces to the prettily decorated en suite rooms.

Thousands of oranges and lemon trees, as well as vineyards, dotted the landscape on the estate and the gardens near the Villa were lush and well-tended.  An extensive apiary (bee-keeping facility) also was kept. Waxing lyrical about the source of water for the estate in Eaton Canyon in the mountains above, Bassett concluded by observing:

The Sierra Madre Villa is a glorious retreat from the busy scene of life.

Truman concluded his description by noting that “the hotel is strictly first class” with gas and hot and cold water offered and the hotel offered carriages to take guests to and from the resort from the train station at San Gabriel.

Another 1883 book, by Edwin Brownson Everett praised the Villa as “a charming Eden” noting that “the air is spicy, the views are beautiful, and everything delightful”; that is, with the exception of “the dust and the occasional roughness of the roads.”  Everett and his party only visited for a few hours, but were clearly taken, as many were, with the beauty of Sierra Madre Villa.

More about the resort and its history will be offered in future posts!

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