HISTORY: 1940S Westmont on the Move

As early as December, 1943, Dr. Emerson asked the board of trustees to prayerfully consider a new location for Westmont. His vision for the finest possible Christian college demanded a plant much larger than the six acres of the Los Angeles campus. He noted that colleges generally required a minimum of 60 acres, but considered 100 acres a “more desirable size.” Today Westmont’s campus is 133 acres.

The facilities in Los Angeles were limited and became overcrowded as enrollment increased. The main building, Kerrwood Hall, housed a women’s dormitory, administrative offices, classrooms, an auditorium, a dining room, a kitchen, and a Student Union. Westmont also owned science and library buildings, but they weren’t fireproof. Even with a new dormitory for men, the College lacked adequate housing.

1940s classroom

As Dr. Emerson noted, “There is absolutely no place that offers opportunity for new buildings on our present holdings.” The gradual purchase of property in the neighborhood didn’t seem feasible as real estate prices would rise once the College’s intention became known.

So the trustees began searching for property with both acreage and existing buildings. Buying land and building on it simply wasn’t an option in 1944 with the shortage of labor and materials created by the war.

One site, a former golf course with a large club house in Altadena, seemed ideal. “The campus area, consisting of 115 park-like acres, has for a background the rugged San Gabriel Mountains, while in the foreground lies Pasadena, one of the beautiful cities of the nation.” (Quarterly Bulletin, November, 1944)

When the trustees approached the bank to purchase the property, they learned that Los Angeles County had appropriated $150,000 to obtain the land for a park. Altadena citizens were trying to raise an additional $25,000 to meet the cost of $175,000 set by the County and the bank. Unprepared for the bitter opposition they would encounter, the trustees made an offer of $200,000 which the bank accepted. Westmont bought the land unconditionally even though they needed a zoning change to operate a college in the residential area. They also made plans to purchase three local homes to use as dormitories.

The front-page story in the Pasadena Independent announcing Westmont’s plans hinted at the storm to come. “The Altadena Golf Club property, subject of a long and heated controversy, won’t be turned into a county park after all…

“The Independent yesterday learned on reliable authority that the 115-acre tract in the center of Altadena’s prime residential area has been ‘bought out from under’ the county and soon will become the campus of Westmont College….” (August 25, 1944)

The Pasadena Star News gave more details. Its reporter explained the zoning change Westmont needed and quoted Mr. William Harding, chair of the Altadena Citizens’ Association, an organization that eventually opposed the College.

Two days later, the Independent noted that Westmont’s purchase had been “greeted enthusiastically in both Altadena and Pasadena.” But the Pasadena Post (the morning edition of the Star News) observed, “Altadenans long used to the golf course vs. subdivision debate with virtually every civic group on record favoring the golf course, had not quite accustomed themselves to the new development.”

Even stronger words came from Harding. The Post quoted his remark that Westmont could always get another campus, but Altadenans couldn’t find another golf course. He questioned whether the College could survive financially and adequately maintain the property.

Foster Strong, who lived near the golf course, expressed the views of many Altadenans in a letter to the Star News dated September 7. “The people who live in Altadena moved there and built their homes there because of its atmosphere of being a beautiful, semi-suburban, exclusively residential community. Any action which jeopardizes this atmosphere affects the welfare and investments of several thousand people, and should be scrutinized most searchingly.”

Strong questioned the future of private colleges, especially institutions like Westmont that had no endowment. He also compared Westmont to Pasadena Nazarene College, a small Christian college just a few blocks from the golf course. According to Strong, Pasadena Nazarene had sold much of its land to subdividers to raise money. Even though College officials promised not to subdivide their property, Altadenans feared they would.

The proximity of Pasadena Nazarene didn’t help Westmont. People in Altadena weren’t ready for another small, religious institution in their neighborhood.

Westmont’s desire to expand to 1,000 students also created alarm. Lt. Col. Edwin Mead expressed his concern about the traffic and noise 1,000 students would generate. “I cannot help but wonder how many cars the students will have and how badly they will clutter up the streets.”

Mead’s letter briefly mentioned an issue that may have fueled the sentiment against Westmont. “Another factor is the college being interdenominational means that all classes, races and creeds can come here to school.” In the 1940s, Altadena and Pasadena were strictly segregated. No blacks or other minority groups lived in white neighborhoods. Did racial prejudice enter into the opposition to Westmont?

In September, the Altadena Citizens’ Association announced its opposition to Westmont’s request for a zoning change. Other local organizations joined them. An article in the Star News in October described Westmont as a “struggling” young college with no endowment. In an editorial on October 10, “Do Not Create Blighted Areas,” the Star News argued that increasing traffic in an area drove out “substantial citizens” and removed the pride of ownerships. “It is this which Altadenas seek to guard against, and with justice.”

One group lined up solidly behind Westmont: the local churches. Westmont paid for a full-page ad in the local papers to present its case, and the copy included a letter from eleven pastors who supported the College.

But they were a lone voice. When the County Regional Planning Commission held a public hearing on the zoning change in January, 900 people attended. It was the greatest mass meeting in Altadena’s history. After three and one-half hours of testimony, the Commission asked for a vote: 700 people said no.

The Star News noted, “Altadena spoke its peace.” On January 31, they announced the Commission’s decision in a banner headline: “Westmont Denied Golf Club Rezoning: Planning Commission Votes 8 to 1 Against Altadena Property Use.” An editorial suggested that Altadenans didn’t feel unfriendly to Westmont, “though there may have been grave doubts in many minds as to the need in this community of another relatively small college. The real issue, to which the community arose, was the integrity of zoning restrictions…”

1940s Kerr and Westmont's board

People at Westmont were stunned. Mrs. Kerr recalled, “Our Board members began asking one another, ‘Did we run ahead of the Lord and not ascertain God’s will before we made this purchase?’ Then remembering how much prayer had gone up to the Throne of Grace, we knew that was not so.”

The next step was applying for a zoning change that only affected the club house and surrounding area. The County denied this proposal as well. An appeal to the Board of Supervisors met with a third defeat in May, 1945.

Westmont faced a serious problem. Culter Academy had bought the Los Angeles campus and the College had to move. Where could they go?

Mrs. Kerr remembered the crisis. “We had prayed so earnestly about this location, and now it seemed as if every door was closed, but God had marvelous plans underway unbeknownst to us.” One blessing resulted from the sale of the golf course. Westmont received a total of $438,000 for the property, more than twice its cost.

God also blessed the frantic search for a new campus. In August, 1945, Mrs. Kerr and several others drove to Santa Barbara to see the Arcady Estate on Sycamore Canyon Road. It had much to offer: 143 acres, a large mansion, a 70-acre lemon grove, a pipe organ, and two swimming pools. But the owners wanted $300,000.

The same day they visited the Holland estate, known as Rancho El Tejado. As she drove through the gates, Mrs. Kerr heard the Lord whisper, “This is the place I have chosen for you.” The Hollands were asking only for $125,000 for their Mediterranean-style mansion and 125 acres. The trustees voted to purchase it.

Mrs. Kerr described the property enthusiastically: “This beautiful place…[had] botanical gardens, a fruit orchard, a 15-acre lemon grove, a pine forest, water lily pools, fern dells, truck gardens, building sites galore, two gardeners’ cottages, two four-car garages, and the most beautiful home we had ever seen…. The living room walls were paneled in mahogany, the dining room in oak, the library in walnut, all hand adzed. All bathrooms had marble floors, with gold swan fixtures. There was an electric elevator, a completely equipped kitchen…and a gorgeous crystal chandelier….”

As wonderful as it was, the property lacked dormitory space. So College officials leased a grammar school on Alameda Padre Serra (now part of Brooks Institute) that the Navy had used during the war. It became the women’s dorm. Ruth McCreery, a Christian education professor and dean of women during the 1940s, recalls ordering furniture for this “dormitory” and putting 40 beds in each room. “I wondered what the students and parents would think, but I never heard one word of complaint.”

The College found a men’s dormitory nearby. Neighbors of the Hollands had watched the students who were working around campus. Mrs. Kerr recalled their reaction. “Mr. and Mrs. Klinger came to us voluntarily and offered us their estate at a figure that required only a small down payment with liberal terms on the balance. They stated they had observed our students closely…and because of their high caliber felt they were a real asset to the community….” The Klinger’s home became Catherwood Hall until the Coyote Fire destroyed it in 1964.

1940s campus

About six months later, the College purchased a building and 40 acres on Ashley Road for a women’s dormitory known as Emerson Hall. It too was a beautiful estate with formal gardens, and a much better residence than the grammar school.

But space was still tight. Bob Ross ’48 recalls his first semester in Santa Barbara. “There was no dormitory room for me, so they said, ‘Would you mind terribly…if you…[slept] on one of the open verandas at Catherwood?’ It was covered. I said, ‘No, I’d be delighted.’”

So Westmont ended up in Santa Barbara instead of Altadena. In 1990, the “beautiful, semi-suburban, exclusively residential community” Foster Strong described better fits Montecito than Altadena. And “substantial citizens” have not fled from the community that has been Westmont’s home for 45 years.

Today it is easy to see God’s hand in the Altadena crisis. But the people who lived through it survived on faith. They were convinced of things not seen, and they believed that God would bless the College. What we see today is the result of their prayers and hope. As we face difficult situations we would do well to remember the strong faith and commitment of the Westmont community in the 1940s.