Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 1878 at the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel

                                 Sierra Madre Villa Hotel ca. 1886
                                 By Carleton E. Watkins
                                 Courtesy of the California History Room
                                 California State Library, Sacramento, California

There is nothing like Christmas through a child's eyes.

William Lauren Rhoades grew  up in the 1870's and 80's at the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel.  His dad, William Porter Rhoades, was the proprietor of the Villa and co-owned the Villa along with his father in law, artist William Cogswell.  As an old man, William Lauren recounted the history of the Sierra Madre Villa and wrote about the Christmas of his childhood.   The story includes a donkey named after his mom, a giant Christmas tree, and a gift exchange between the two cultures that lived full time at the Villa -- that of the Rhoades and Cogswell families, who had migrated west from New York, and that of a group of Chinese men, who had originally migrated east to work on the railroads and then staffed the Villa.    .    

I enjoy Rhoades' account and post it every year.   So, without further adieu, let's travel with Mr. Rhoades back to East Pasadena in the late '70's.......    

From The History of the Famous Sierra Madre Villa Hotel by William Lauren Rhoades:

When Christmas time rolled around the real fun began. I will describe a typical Christmas day in the late seventies. The day before Christmas was one of excitement for all were preparing the gifts, some driving into Los Angeles, a thirty mile drive, to get the last few gifts needed and to shop for all the rest and only about two dry goods stores, two book stores and a few other places to purchase but that made it all the more exciting. There was a tree to sit up fully nineteen feet high, that was the height of the ceiling, and a spread of branches in proportion. Then the trimmings, popping the corn and putting on the cornucopias, hanging the glass balls and the angel on the top. That day the Chinese boy, Sam, made mysterious trips to Mother's room with packages coming from the servants and Chinese on the ranch.

Christmas morning was always the opening of an eventful day. I well recall
Christmas of 1878. After breakfast I was taken out to the front of the house and there stood my donkey, which was given me two years before to ride and I named her after my Mother, Jennie, and there she was hitched up to a two wheeled cart made to order with a swell leather seat, the running gear was painted red and the body black, the harness was black with shining brass buckles. The guests all stood round enjoying my delight. I took Mother in at once and we drove off in style and many were the happy days I had with the children at the Villa in that turnout.

Christmas morning the coach that ran to the San Gabriel Southern Pacific Railroad Station daily for the mail and passengers, was ready to take any who might wish to go to the
Episcopal Church in San Gabriel, as was the custom on Sundays. Then the day passed and all were in readiness for the big event in the evening with the Christmas tree.


Rhoades goes on to describe the evening festivities that took place in the hotel parlor with the Rhoades family and hotel guests attending. Christmas carols were sung and the tree was "stripped." There was a gift exchange with Villa's many Chinese workers. Rhoades reports that, to the delight of hotel guests, the workers would enter the parlor with a flourish. Dressed in fine silks, the workers had "their heads freshly shaved with their cues hanging down their backs with red ribbons braided into their hair." They came bearing gifts of sweet lichi nuts, ginger and dainty cakes. In turn, the workers were given a fattened pig for roasting.


The Sierra Madre Villa Hotel was a famous West Coast resort located in the foothills of what is now East Pasadena.   The Hotel is the namesake of Pasadena's Villa Street and Sierra Madre Villa Avenue, which served as the access to the old hotel.   If you're interested to know more, I've a dozen or so posts on the Villa that are categorized under the Labels heading on the right side of this blog.  


Steve Scauzillo said...

Isn't that the place that is a retreat center now run by brothers?

Michael Coppess said...

The Villa ceased hotel operations around the turn of the century and was torn down in the 1920's. You may be thinking of the Passionist Fathers' Retreat up Sunnyslope in Sierra Madre.

Petrea Burchard said...

I've always wished I knew the exact spot. Do you know it?

Thanks, Michael. Happy Christmas.

Michael Coppess said...

Hi Petrea, Here's a long answer to your short question....

The photo above shows the SMV hotel and the Victorian house that was the Rhoads' family home. You can see wheel tracks on the lower left corner of the photo. Those tracks are on the path of present day Sierra Madre Villa Avenue. The location of the hotel was on SMV Avenue just south of present-day Fairview Ave. This is north of Sierra Madre Blvd. There are a couple of remnants of the old SMV. There was a small reservoir that served the hotel and still exists south of Fairview. And there is an old house (the Old House on Old House Rd.)that was to the right of the Victorian and served as staff quarters and possibly the laundry. We live in the Old House.

Petrea Burchard said...

Thanks, Michael. I had no idea! Don't be surprised if you see me snooping around one of these days.

CafePasadena said...

I knew only the basics about the SMV hotel, so I welcome your chapters going into the details.

Irina Netchaev said...

Michael, this is fascinating. I can only imagine the 19 foot tree and the celebration around it. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Ysabelle said...

You had also a Sierra Madre in Pasadena, and in our country we also had a mountain named as Sierra Madre, I'm sure you will enjoy the green nature on the place :D


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Rebecca said...

In 1964 my family bought a flag lot above the house on Old House Rd that was used for the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel staff. On our lot was a carriage house with a carriage in it, a cedar tack room and stalls. All of this was said to have belonged to the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel. I believe my dad gave the carriage to the Arboretum. He then decided to buy a lot on Fairpoint St. to build our home and he sold the Old House Rd. lot. Someone else bought that property, tore everything down and built a house there. The Hotel was on Fairpoint St. where the Hotel reservoir is still located.