VIEWPOINT: It happened on College Avenue

By John Neiuber

Which street in Claremont is the most historic? Is it Indian Hill Boulevard, a path used by the local Native Americans and where the first white settler built a cabin there near 11th Street? The Alvarado family built their adobe at what is now Memorial Park and the founder of Claremont, Henry Austin Palmer, built his home there also. Is it Foothill Boulevard, Route 66, the Mother Road, the stuff of which songs are made, television shows are spawned and over which political battles were fought and won? Let’s consider, however, College Avenue. The buildings, the trees, the events and the people associated with this avenue are the stuff of which a city is made.

The result of a land boom, Claremont was founded along a railway and subdivided into parcels and sold to speculators. Henry Austin Palmer was a principal in the Pacific Land Improvement Company that cleared the land of rocks and shrubs and constructed a land office and the grand Hotel Claremont near the depot. Mr. Palmer was not only responsible for ensuring that the Santa Fe railroad came through the area, but it was his suggestion that gave the town its name. The land boom quickly went bust and Mr. Palmer needed a plan.

Pomona College, founded in 1887 in Pomona at the height of the land boom, made plans to move to northern Pomona in the Piedmont area. Cornerstones were laid for the first building, but then the boom went bust, the funding for the college dried up and, in that financial downturn, Mr. Palmer saw opportunity. Pacific Land Improvement offered the empty Hotel Claremont, now Sumner Hall, and the surrounding acreage to the College in 1889, and a town was saved.

Mr. Palmer became the first president of the Board of Trustees of Pomona College. The college “grew up” just east of the Village along College Avenue. The city saw new life and growth from the establishment of the college and it grew and prospered in its new home.

Given that the college was established in the tradition of New England institutions, College Avenue was among the very first streets to be planted with trees. The trees were planted by none other than Henry A. Palmer and his young assistant, teacher-surveyor Frank Brackett. They planted the eucalyptus trees with wide spaces in between to preserve the view of the mountains. They could be seen walking the avenue with a horse-drawn wagon watering the trees. The trees grew so well that they were featured on the cover of the 1898 yearbook. 

College Avenue from First Street to Sixth Street is a snapshot of the history of Claremont. Some of Claremont’s grandest and historically significant homes occupy the west side of College Avenue. At the corner of First and College is Sumner House, an exquisite example of a Queen Anne Victorian, originally built by Charles Sumner near the original Piedmont site of the college and then later moved to Claremont. Mr. Sumner was a trustee of the college, who had originally favored the Piedmont site and who thought it might be difficult to explain why Pomona College was not in Pomona.

The residential feel of the west side of College is enhanced by the homes found north of Sumner House. The Cook House, at 119 College Ave., was built about 1896 by A.J. Cook, professor of biology and instructor in geology. The New England-style house features a front-facing gambrel roof in the Colonial Dutch Revival-style, yet has some Queen Anne touches in the window design. North of the Cook House is the Baldwin House, at 137 College Ave., a large, complex Victorian. The house was built around 1893 by Cyrus Grandison Baldwin, the first president of Pomona College.

Across Second Street is the Renwick House at 211 College Ave., built about 1900 by Helen Renwick, Claremont philanthropist. It is a large two-story house with both Queen Anne and Colonial Revival features.  Ms. Renwick donated funds for both Renwick Gymnasium and Rembrandt Hall and her home was the center for many cultural and social activities in the community. North of the Renwick House are the small bungalows that were once part of the Claremont Inn, a beautiful craftsman structure that was demolished in 1968. The bungalows housed workers from the Inn.

Across the street is Seaver House that occupies the old Claremont Inn site. It was moved from Holt Boulevard in Pomona in 1979. The Classical Revival house was built by Carleton Seaver. Seaver family members have attended Pomona College, served as trustees and are donors to the college. Just north of the Seaver House is the Pomona College president’s house at 345 College Ave. The home is a classic American Foursquare and has been the home of the presidents since 1900.

North of the President’s House is the Carnegie Library, built in 1908 with funds from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, with the understanding that both students and townspeople would be free to use it. North of the library, at the southwest corner of College and Sixth, is Pearson Hall, the third structure built on campus and the oldest college building still on its original site. Flanking College at Sixth Street is the impressive gate designed by noted architect Myron Hunt.

Along the east side of College, beginning at Sixth Street, is Alexander Hall, built in 1991 on the exact of footprint of Holmes Hall that occupied the site from 1893 to 1990. Just south is the beautiful Marston Quadrangle, designed in 1922, that features Bridges Auditorium on the east end and Thatcher Music Building just south. Thatcher, completed in 1970, is a classic example of mid-century architecture. South of Thatcher is Montgomery Art Center/Pomona College Museum of Art, completed in 1958. Known more for its contributions to the art scene than for the building, the museum hosted a Getty Pacific Standard Time exhibition entitled “It Happened at Pomona,” in 2011to chronicle a series of radical art projects that occurred there from 1969 to 1973.

College Avenue represents the entire history of the city. It is the street where the name “City of Trees” began. The homes and architecture span the decades and eras of city and college life. The people and events shaped the culture of the city and beyond. Architecturally, historically and culturally, it is a street that represents all the facets of the community. Arguably, College Avenue may be the most historic street in Claremont.

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