‘Such a shame’: Julia Child’s family home, now owned by Caltrans, is vacant, deteriorating in Pasadena
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The massive, brown-shingled craftsman-style home sits unnoticed on the defunct 710 Freeway route in Pasadena, one of dozens of homes owned by Caltrans that are historically significant because of their unique architecture.
But the vacant and deteriorating 1911 home at 1199 S. Pasadena Ave. piques the interest of preservationists because of the person who lived there.
Legendary chef Julia Child, a Pasadena native, grew up in the boxy home, sleeping on its wraparound porches, putting on plays in the attic with her siblings and roller skating down the Arbor Street hill, according to historical records, biographies and a half-dozen interviews.
“This has always been known as the Julia Child house,” said Claire Bogaard, board member of Pasadena Heritage, a group working to preserve the Caltrans homes, during a recent walk around the premises.
It is one of three homes Child’s father, John McWilliams Jr., provided for his growing family in Pasadena during the early 1900s. It is also the most architecturally interesting, built by G. Lawrence Stimson, who also designed the Wrigley Mansion on Orange Grove Boulevard.
Child’s family home vacant
The Julia Child family home has been vacant for 35 years and was boarded up to keep out vagrants, neighbors said. Caltrans bought it and other nearby houses to make way for a long-planned 710 Freeway expansion, which is now unlikely to be built. The project’s funding agency, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, voted unanimously on May 25 to not build a planned tunnel .
Caltrans is moving slowly to sell some of the homes it owns. The agency hasn’t released any of the historical houses for sale.
Child’s home is showing its age. Its second-story is sagging, losing a battle with gravity. Though undoubtedly eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it has not yet been listed, Bogaard said.
“We are working on it,” Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, said. “We would like to get it listed, both the house and that whole strip down South Pasadena Avenue.”
Many people are unaware that the affable TV chef with the high-pitched warble — whose TV cooking shows and classic book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” brought sophisticated cooking to American families in an age of TV dinners and boxed macaroni and cheese — spent her formative years in Pasadena.
“I think she should be more celebrated because she deserves it,” Mossman said. “Perhaps most people don’t connect her as the French chef with her roots in the city.”
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Those early childhood roots in the Crown City were fleeting and at times, hard to nail down. But through city records and interviews, some of her early life is known.
Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born Aug. 15, 1912, and lived for about two years at 225 State St., just around the corner. Her father sold the smaller home in 1914 and brought the family to a white, stone house at 625 Magnolia Ave. in the Madison Heights section, near her grandparents. City records show McWilliams and Carolyn W. McWilliams lived there in 1916 and 1917 and maybe later on as well.
Although the dates are not clear, McWilliams moved the family to what was then 1207 S. Pasadena Ave. It didn’t switch to its current street address until the 1960s, when the lot was subdivided and a home built on the south side of the 1-acre lot took on the original 1207 address, according to city records kept at the Pasadena History Museum archives.
According to Pasadena Heritage records, Child’s home was built in 1911 for a man named Simonds, who sold it to McWilliams. Bogaard remembers the home has a grand staircase with large sitting rooms on the first floor. The upstairs windows have been replaced, its porches closed in.
Renown architect Stimson also built the house two doors down on Columbia Street, current owner Jennifer Madden said. She and her husband have restored, complete with a large yard overlooking the McWilliams house.
“Look at the how the back of the house is collapsing. Caltrans is not taking care of it,” Madden said from an overlook in her backyard. “Look at the condition of the roof and the windows. It is such a shame.”
Sleeping outdoors, smoking cigars
While it’s not clear exactly how many years the McWilliams’ eldest daughter spent at either home, other biographers estimate she lived in Pasadena until she was 18 and attended Polytechnic School from fourth through ninth grades. The most-trusted biography, “Appetite for Life: The biography of Julia Child” by Noel Riley Fitch, published in 1997, devotes several pages to her life in the large South Pasadena Avenue home.
Fitch describes the house as the “long, wooden home at 1207 South Pasadena Avenue,” complete with overhanging roof lines and sleeping porches in the back on the second floor, architectural elements still visible today. “Her strongest memories were of sleeping on the outside porch,” Fitch wrote.
At the home, Child, known as a young girl as Jukes or JuJu, would run down to the Arroyo Seco where trout swam beneath the newly built Colorado Street Bridge. She had fond memories of the vegetable wagon bringing litchi nuts and the Pasadena Grocery selling rock cod for $0.15 per pound.
In a laundry room behind the garage, which is still there today, Child would wash her dog, an Airedale she named Eric the Red. In a separate playhouse on the property, she raised white rats and called it “McHall’s Rodent Farm,” Fitch wrote.
On a flight down to the Arroyo, Jukes would climb the oak tree of a neighbor and smoke her father’s cigars, according to her biography.
Was Child’s early zest for life influenced by Pasadena’s resources? Fitch said Child took chances, moved to Europe where she met her husband and later took up cooking, even though she had little experience in the kitchen, because she was fearless and free-spirited.
But Pasadena’s mix of urbane living and open spaces may have helped.
“This was the perfect place for her to have those adventures. The arroyo was wild. The streets were good for kids on roller skates,” Mossman said. “But I think she was an amazing person who had the will, the spirit and the creativity to make a remarkable life and it all started here. I think Pasadena is proud of our heroic daughters.”
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