Friday, August 12, 2011

Bellefontaine Nursery

This is one of those times when I find a picture of something I like and I figure I'll post it, no big deal. Then I find out it's got a story behind it. In this case, 72 years of Pasadena history.

One of my favorite buildings in Pasadena houses the Bellefontaine Nursery at 838 S. Fair Oaks. I can't help but notice the building because it's so much older (circa 1900?) than the new, beige, high-gloss Huntington Hospital complex that stands poised to trample it without so much as a glance over its nondescript shoulder.

Let's hope that doesn't happen. I don't know what lived here prior to 1939, but since then it's been home to the Bellefontaine Nursery, founded and owned by successive generations of the Uchida family since the beginning.

Current partner Alan J. Uchida has written an absorbing history of his family's business, complete with black & white photos. He glosses over the bizarre World War II period during which Japanese Americans, including the Uchidas, were sent to internment camps: "Fortunately, with the help of watchful friends, the Uchida family was able to retain their nursery which was closed from 1942 to 1945." What a gentle, generous way to say what happened to his family.

How must it have felt, that day in 1945, to have shaken the hand of your loyal (Caucasian?) friend and accepted your keys from him or her, then to open the door of the nursery? Did the outer door stick, just a bit? Did the screen door whisper a familiar screech? The sun would have streamed in the east windows, giving even the dust a welcoming gleam. The air would have been stuffy but in it you would sense a hint of your own past presence--your future, too--still there, if barely, needing nothing more than everything you could give.

25 comments:

dive said...

What a strange and stark little building, Petrea. How lovely to discover its history. From the side it looks like a refugee from a nineteenth century frontier town. Hoorah for preserving historic buildings in their original use. May many more generations of the Uchida family continue to care for it.

Margaret said...

Interesting. Not all Japanese American families had such loyal friends. Many of them left internment camps to find their assets stolen, sold, or completed depleted.

Ibarionex said...

Lovely photograph and I very much appreciate the history lesson behind it. Keep it up.

Bellis said...

Yes, Margaret, like the ones that owned the nursery that is now Descanso. though Boddy did say he paid a fair market rate for it.

You've inspired me to pay the Uchidas a visit and buy one or two of their plants. I had no idea about their long history in Pasadena.

Petrea Burchard said...

My photo makes it look stark because I took it after closing, Dive. Before 5pm there are plants and flowers all over the place outside. They bring them in after business hours.

Exactly, Margaret. So many Japanese Americans came home to nothing; everything they had was confiscated or in other ways ruined. In a way, the Uchidas were lucky. Perhaps that's why Mr. Uchida's story takes such a light tone on the subject. His history is well-written and very enjoyable to read.

Thanks, Ibarionex. These stories are my favorite discoveries, the best thing about blogging.

Me too, Bellis. I've never stopped there as it's not in my neighborhood. But they have a great website and it looks like a business worth supporting.

Speedway said...

Even closed, the pretty trees surrounding the building are a sign for the business inside. I love the building. It has a calm character to it. Patient. And its colors are beautiful.

altadenahiker said...

I love the guy who owns the place and have many, many plants to show for it. He's funny, knows everything about anything with roots and leaves, and once gave me some love lies bleeding seeds on the house.

So thank you for the full story.

Petrea Burchard said...

Speedway, you and I often have similar taste in such things. I agree that it's lovely.

Hiker, that's high praise for Bellefontaine, from one who knows.

altadenahiker said...

Not finished yet. High praise to you -- for the poetry of their return.

Petrea Burchard said...

Thanks, Hiker.

Anonymous said...

I've gotten veggie and herb plants from Bellefontaine Nursery several times, but I never really noticed the building. Thanks for letting me know about the the Uchida family history. My best friend from junior high's (Linda Matsuuchi) parents were both interned during WWII. I couldn't believe our country would do such a thing.

Jane Rollins

Ms M said...

The last paragraph of your post could be a start, or part, of a novel....
I'm glad the Uchida family had ethical friends, and the business has survived. That was a horrible time for Japanese American families.

Kate said...

How satisfying it must be to find an interesting image plus a fascinating background story. Thanks for the link, which I avidly read. That period of time with the resulting fears and government action fill me with shame. I had some of my adolescent students read fiction and related it to history...and it did leave an impact.

Petrea Burchard said...

Yeah, it was a shameful time. There was a lot of fear, like there was right after 911. We can look at it in light of current prejudices and do our damnedest not to repeat it.

Bellis said...

Some of the plants have made the place their home, so they're almost fully grown shrubs and trees now, impossible to move. I love that!

Latino Heritage said...

Lovely.
Always almost impossible for me to not share a bit. I am so fascinated with the history of this town. There are oral histories available to read @ our central library and @ the Pasadena Museum of History library. In addition this website gives a great sense of J and J/A sites in Pasadena.
http://japantownatlas.com/map-pasadena.html
Folks that held keys were also Af/Am and Latino. Talking with seniors from Wynona/Cypress offered a complexity to experience that would make one weep.
More local stories are shared via Cherry Blossoms' Camp Stories.

Petrea Burchard said...

Some of Pasadena PIO's Mystery History posts have shown Japanese Americans being literally rounded up at the Rose Bowl to be transported to camps. So yes, it happened, and it happened here. It would be nice if it hadn't but I'm glad it isn't forgotten.

altadenahiker said...

Bellis is right. Something that always struck the back of my mind, but never until now made it to the fore.

I told your story on my tour today.

Shanna said...

I just saw this post today - a bit late, but what a wonderful find. I have driven by this place many times. I'll make a point of stopping in and buying a plant.

Petrea Burchard said...

Thank you, Karin. (A tour of the Huntington gardens led by Karin, the Altadena Hiker. Imagine!)

Shanna, how nice. I'm so honored when something I've posted prompts an action, as long as it's a positive one, of course.

Cafe Pasadena said...

Are bikes allowed on KB's Huntington tour?? I mean, it's a long walk, and I can only imagine all the lil detours KB would take us.

Ditto Roberta deLatinaHeritage!

Take this all from someone who doesn't know Bellefontaine - just never caught the nursery bug.

Petrea Burchard said...

Of course, Roberta. I'm sorry I didn't think of it. The African-American or Latino friend holding the keys is equally possible. Maybe more.

I don't think you can ride your bike on the grounds of the Huntington, Cafe. Then again, are you a service dog?

Trish said...

I'm a bit late to the party---summers are busy for me.

I went to Bellefontaine Nursery with my folks when I was a kid. I am fairly certain they did not know of the history and I certainly did not know about it until I was an adult. I loved it because it was like Balk's in SoPas, personalized service, knowledgeable staff, good product. Plus, they had a Coke machine and I could always DREAM my folks would one day buy me a Coke from it--nope, they never did.

I don't remember the outer door ever being closed except when they were actually closed. Therefore, I don't know if it ever stuck. There were screens, but I don't recall them slamming.

Even on warm days, I remember it having an oasis type feeling---fresh, damp and cool because of all the watering.

What I also remember is my mother going there from SoPas to buy from them because they were friendly and knew their stuff. She would buy basics elsewhere (like steer manure from Fedco, now THAT was a fun ride home in the summer w/out A/C!).

I do remember following around one of the older gentlemen who would tell you "no no no, you need THIS plant!" if you came in to buy something he knew wouldn't work in your yard. He paid attention, he knew people's yards, he knew what would and would not work. He didn't want to just sell you a fuchsia to put in the sun, when he knew it would just die.

I believe my grandparents also got a referral for their gardener from Bellefontaine Nursery also. Nice guy, did great work for them for many, many years. His only fault? He was short and could only trim the oleanders in my grandparents yard so much because he couldn't reach, even with a ladder and an extension to his trimmer. They had to bring someone in every few months to do the big trimming.

My understanding is that the Uchidas have refused to sell out to Huntington, thankfully. I hope they continue to do so for many years to come.

Petrea Burchard said...

I love your stories, Trish. They add shadings and dimension to the picture. Thanks.

Dina said...

A lovely way to tell a sad story in American history.