From the Field: Norton Simon Museum

On the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena lies one of our favorite museums of art.

01.21.2021

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On the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena lies one of our favorite (albeit lesser known) museums of art. With gracious walls that seemingly bend and curve to their own accord, a skin of earthen tiles made by Edith Heath and an exterior garden sculpture with an incredible breadth (think Rodin, Hepworth, Serra), the Norton Simon Museum deserves our attention. It all began back in 1922 as a nonprofit institution under the name ‘Pasadena Art Institute’. With slow and humble beginnings the institute found its footing thanks to the generosity of its community: first in 1941 when the City of Pasadena received Carmelita Park as a gift under the condition that a permanent museum be erected in the park and again in 1953 when the institution received almost 500 artworks from the estate of Galka E. Scheyer who represented artists such as Kandisky and Klee.

In 1964 the then-called Pasadena Art Museum pushed forward on expanding its programs and making use of the Carmelita Park land set aside ten years prior, commissioning the architectural firm of Ladd & Kelsey to design a new campus. The architects, who met at USC’s School of Architecture before hanging their shingle in Pasadena, were well familiar with the neighborhood: the serpentine Arroyo Seco and the brute San Gabriel Mountains. Ultimately inspired by Hadrian’s Tomb (or Castel Sant’Angelo) in Rome, their museum would borrow this ancient site’s curvilinear and primitive exterior. All that was needed was an imitation stone to clad the building with.

Edith Heath, not one for commissions let alone novelty, initially declined Ladd & Kelsey’s inquiry to produce a 4 inch square imitation stone tile. After being pressed further by the architects, she began to experiment with her signature double glazes. This double glaze method calls for two glazes to be used, one on top of the other, each with their own individual melting temperatures. As they are fired the first glaze bubbles up through the latter resulting in a beautiful texture with a Jurassic quality; onyx over brick red gave these tiles a volcanic sensibility not unlike the museum’s backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. Measuring in at 5 inches wide and 15 inches tall, Edith oversaw the production and installation of 115,000 tiles for this commission. Elaborating on the philosophy of this particular architectural application of her tiles, Edith explained in an oral history in 1995 “My idea was that tile should be designed to ‘fill a space’ as in filling a space with canvas… [I] designed the tile so it would fit the common dimensions that were used in architecture.” It would be hard to overstate Edith’s achievements with this commission. Not only did she receive the Ceramic Tile Institute’s Masters Award and Perpetual Trophy but she became the first non-architect to be awarded the Industrial Arts Medal by the American Institute of Architects; an award specifically created for those individuals making significant contributions to the preservation, depiction, or creation of beauty.

The architects, intent on bridging the gap between the residential corridor of Orange Grove Boulevard and the commercial thoroughfare of Colorado Boulevard, may have subconsciously bridged another gap between the neighborhood’s iconic pieces of architecture and their elements: the shingled Gamble House (1908) by Greene and Greene and the textile-block Millard House (1926) by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s been over 50 years since the museum first opened its doors in 1969 and a lot has changed. In 1975 the Museum formerly changed its name from the Pasadena Art Museum to the Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena. The 90s saw an exterior landscape renovation by Nancy Goslee Power and an interior renovation by the inimitable Frank Gehry. This year, 2021, provides another point of interest on the museum’s timeline: for only the 4th time since 1890 the museum did not serve as the starting point and backdrop for the annual Rose Parade. The photos here were taken in 2020 on a pre-pandemic neighborhood walk and we look forward to taking you inside the museum down the road.