European conservatories and Italian villas: Small town Sierra Madre is big on charm

Often, when we think of the kinds of landscapes that travel writers and bloggers physically traverse and turn their minds to, we don’t necessarily think of unbustling small towns. But never much of a believer in the bigger-is-better argument, I was drawn to Sierra Madre — an under-the-radar city that’s been sitting quietly at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains since 1881. “Sierra,” after all, means a rugged chain of steep mountains, and as we drive to this Los Angeles suburb, we notice the mountains’ jagged peaks rising and falling like the serrated blade of a saw. 

Though Sierra Madre isn’t as popular as, say, its neighboring city of Pasadena, it has enough character to stand up to it. “This is just so quaint,” I tell Anton as we coast through the town’s well-preserved historic downtown dotted with laid-back cafes, bars and restaurants. Flowers are blooming. The sun laminates buildings, shining full throttle. I try to picture myself living here, and the visual comes easily to me. Afternoons spent in flouncy sundresses. Hours and hours of writing in one of those tucked-away cafes. Friendly baristas who know my milk should be skimmed and my cappuccino decaffeinated. 

As we thread through the residential neighborhood, the image becomes clearer. The town boasts a wide range of historic turn-of-the-century estates, craftsman, Victorian, mid-century modern and Spanish Colonial Revival builds. I see it. I see why Sierra Madre might be a place for creatives to settle down, a place seemingly detached from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, but still somehow connected to it. An even more appealing option now that work-from-home lifestyles are acceptable, if not encouraged.

But aside from its laid-back community, the town has a lot more going for it, too. Its most famous resident, for example, is a 250-ton, 127-year-old flowering Wisteria vine. Called the “Lavender Lady,” the Wisteria vine is arguably one of Sierra Madre’s most popular attractions, though it’s not accessible on a day-to-day basis. Situated on a private property, this Guinness World Records holder is only available for viewing every spring during the Wistaria Festival (yes, spelled with an “a”), which attracts close to 5,000 locals and out-of-towners annually. Though the event was cancelled during the pandemic, typically, it’s a festive time of year. Music blares in the neighborhood, and food trucks and artisan vendors line the streets. Antique cars are even brought in for display. 

Another gem? The Lavender Marketplace & Workshops — a wedding venue that also doubles as a playground for wannabe artists and creatives to try their hand at arts and unique crafts. During casual research, photographs of the place’s gorgeous glass conservatory stopped me in my tracks. It’s what pulled my attention to the town of Sierra Madre, and what made me and Anton hop into our car on a Sunday afternoon to explore. 

It’s close to 2:30 p.m. when we park alongside the property and step out into the driveway. It’s heavily hot — steaming almost, in a vaguely sinister way that threatens to undo any effort you spent taming your hair and drench you in sweat. We walk up to a Victorian house, built in 1890 but in no way showing its age, and past a handful of dressed up guests leaving what seems like a bridal shower. Right away, we hear laughter verging on squeals, chatter and the joyful voices of folks who just spent the day celebrating something truly special. 

Kim Brandstater, owner and artist, greets me at the steps that lead to the conservatory. How wonderful to own a place like this. I tell her as much. What inspired this? “We’ve been here for 24 years,” she says. “We’ve kind of almost redone almost everything in that house and tried to keep it, you know, Victorian-looking. [My husband and I] are both artists and designers.” Six years ago, Kim and her husband Justin bought the property where the conservatory now stands, not knowing what to do with it. Then, while thumbing through Victoria magazine, a photo of a steel-framed glasshouse hogged her attention, much in the same way Kim’s captured mine. 

My eyes keep darting toward it. Lush green foliage cradles the ornate glass-and-iron structure that feels like something out of a storybook. Inside, bucketfuls of filtered light pours in. Shelves display an idiosyncratic mix of objects: rolls of twine, cans of painting brushes, ceramics and even a glass case showcasing Kim’s own jewelry work. Finches cheep-cheep-cheep in their cage, and rustic furniture pieces serve dual purposes as ambience-enhancing decorations. The conservatory is where Kim holds many classes and workshops that she and other artists teach, and oftentimes, it’s where she works on her own craft, too. Just as importantly, it plays host to a slew of elopements, minimonies, microweddings, showers and photoshoots.

Behind the conservatory, there’s a small path that leads to two rental houses, which often serve as Airbnbs for soon-to-be brides, grooms and their parties. Both cottages showcase the rustic, Victorian theme without eclipsing their own personalities. “It’s really special,” she says. “I always tell [my husband], it’s so cool to see all the brides coming out. I’m like, this is like a really big deal. You know, that they’re getting married here.”

If the conservatory — with its 100 glass panels and domed ceiling — reminds you of Europe, well, that’s on purpose. Kim and Justin’s tastes are largely influenced by their years of travel. Look past the conservatory, and you’ll find beautifully orchestrated seating nooks that evoke images of European gardens. White wrought-iron chairs. A tucked-away floor fountain. An outdoor kitchen, seating area and fireplace. Pocket-size encapsulations of French village life greet you everywhere. (And there’s still more underway: Kim is building an artist’s studio on the property.)

Of course, on top of all the beauty here, there’s also a French potager garden. It’s fenced, and a farmhouse-looking sign that reads “Le Jardin” hangs at the entrance. We walk on the gravel ground, weaving through beds of celery, carrots, kale and artichokes so beautiful that they could substitute for a centerpiece of flowers. Everything here is blooming and peaking, generous with its offerings. That citrus tree in the middle is grafted with six different kinds of fruit, Kim tells us. Perhaps one day she’ll plant it into the ground and watch it grow even bigger. 

Visitors who take some of her classes can get a taste of the garden’s bounty. They can, for example, learn to marble their own pair of slip-on or lace-up tennis shoes while sipping on tea and freshly baked lavender white chocolate scones. Or try their hand at Pique Assiette — a style of mosaics — while indulging in lunch whipped up with seasonal fruit and vegetables from the garden. Or even create their own succulent wrought iron chairs (which is exactly what it sounds like: an old chair turned planter turned art) followed by brunch. I mean, where else can you get this sort of experience?

But Kim Brandstater isn’t the only resident to forge a passion project with Europe. In the 1920s, Los Angeles physician Dr. Walter Jarvis Barlow and his wife, Marion Brooks Barlow, brought in architect Wallace Neff to dream up their perfect Italian villa in Sierra Madre. The result? A sprawling, 13-acre property boasting a reflection pool, lush gardens and terraces — a two-thirds scale replica of the Villa Collazzi which sits just outside of Florence. They called it Villa del Sol d’Oro. Though primarily used for weddings and special occasions, the villa has also starred in numerous film productions including Legally Blonde and The Princess Diaries. I’d also be remiss not to mention the Jailhouse Inn, a 1772 police station and jail turned bed-and-breakfast, possibly one of the more bizarre and unique stays in the area. 

All to say: There’s a lot of tucked away, humble beauty here in Sierra Madre. What ties them all together is that sense of aspiration; for more than anything else, these properties embody the ambitions of Sierra Madre’s residents, and the way in which those dreams were transformed into reality. 

LA-based journalist and blogger sharing her deep-seated, honest love for fashion and travel. Check in every week for new stories of exploration and roundups!

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