I stretch my neck forward to look up at the sky through the front windshield, and for a second there, I lose all heart in the work I’m about to do. It’s gloomy, and the sun is showing no signs of ever breaking through the thick ceiling of congregated clouds. When I first discussed the shoot with my friend Dani Noire, photographer extraordinaire, I told her I was hoping for some warm, sunny shots. “California, with a Parisian twist,” I remember telling her. Now, that plan feels very unlikely—impossible, even.
But then, as we turn onto Holly Street, something happens. I see the Pasadena City Hall building—tall, imposing and exuding so much grandeur. It looks as though it’s been plucked from the landscape of some far-flung European city. You know, the kind of building you’d expect to see while traipsing around Rome with your camera and an ice cream cone always threatening to melt on your fingertips. (Do you know? I don’t know. I’ve never been to Rome, but I fully intend on exploring it with gelato in hand).
We’ll make it work, I think. With a backdrop this beautiful, how can you not? No, scratch that. I refuse to call the building a “backdrop” because, really, it’s so much more than that. And I wouldn’t be who I am—i.e. a lover of historic buildings—without giving you a bit of a primer on what the building represents and how it came to be.
Back in the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century, as more and more industry jobs cropped up in cities and as people started flocking there, a few things became immediately apparent. The population explosion in manufacturing centers—fueled also by factors like immigration and high birth rates—forced a lot of folks, especially in cities like New York and D.C., to live in tenements that were shapeless and more importantly, unsanitary and unsafe. (Obviously, this bred crime, poverty and violence, among other things).
To combat this problem, the reformers of urban America came up with a solution: beautifying cities. The idea was, improved form equals improved function. In other words, a beautiful, well-maintained city would inspire civic loyalty and strengthen pride. It was sort of an instrument of social control dreamed up by upper and middle class activists. Aside from aesthetically pleasing buildings, the plan also included incorporating civic centers, expansive parks, and wide, open boulevards.
All to say, the Pasadena City Hall is an example of what came out of the City Beautiful Movement. The grand, circular structure—which rises six-stories high and boasts a dome with a lantern topping it off like a wedding cake—was built in the style of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. (The 16th century visionary is still considered one of the most influential architects of the Renaissance period). When it was completed in 1927, the building became an icon in Pasadena.
By the late 20th century, however, the building’s future was in a pitiful state. After a few inspections and studies, it was determined that the structure wouldn’t survive a natural disaster, like, say, an earthquake, if it were ever hit by one. Which is why, for three years, the Pasadena City Hall underwent one of the city’s costliest renovation projects, a complete overhaul which included a herculean task: lifting the structure off its foundation, swapping its base out and resting it on seismic base isolators.
Lifting it off its base? The idea seems crazy to me. As I wait for Dani to park, I drop my head back, scanning the whole of the building’s 206-foot facade—the towering columns, the carved lion heads and garlands. (Some people might recognize the edifice as Pawnee City Hall in Parks and Recreation, or that dome that’s visible through the apartment window in The Big Bang Theory, among other shows and films).
When Dani arrives, we meander into the garden courtyard, which is anchored by an ornate, cast-stone Baroque fountain. “This is like a photographer’s playground,” she says, and I immediately agree. There are already a few people here, decked out in cocktail dresses and graduation caps. There’s a girl striking a pose for what I assume to be her quinceanera shoot, and a few friends photographing each other in cosplay costumes, modeling with so much verve and charisma. I almost want to stop and snap a photo of them. While taking it all in, I almost forget why I’m even here.
Almost. Close to an hour into the shoot, after I awkwardly shimmy into my second outfit at a nearby Starbucks restroom, the first rays of sunshine begin to appear. Aha! Dani and I are giddy with excitement. For the next two hours or so, we shoot around the dreamy landscape, which is now recast in a warm, golden hue. The sun slants through the cloistered arches, drapes over the commanding facade and peeks inside its main entrance. As Dani frames her final shot, the sun slinks away behind the clouds, as if on cue. In vanishing light of the evening, I part ways with Dani and the Pasadena City Hall, which was such a lovely host today. I make a promise to myself to come back some other day. In the meantime, there’s always this photo session to remind me of the place’s beauty.
“Everything about this dress is big and exaggerated, which was so perfect for this shoot and this location! The earrings have this 80’s feel, which I think works with the vibe I’m going for here.”
“I wanted to pick a dress that was either black or white (no prints), because I wanted the building to do most of the talking. When I saw this puff-sleeved LBD, I fell in love! It fits so perfectly.”
“As I mentioned, I tried to keep the prints to a min. White works well with most backdrops, and this dress was no exception. I threw on an organza shirt on top for added drama.”