The Day Altadena Said 'No'

Controversy about campus plans isn’t new at Westmont. Just seven years after its founding in 1937, the college sought a new location as the six-acre Los Angeles campus had quickly become overcrowded. The trustees looked for property with land and existing buildings; construction wasn’t an option in 1944 due to wartime shortages.

One site in Altadena, a former golf course with 115 acres and a large club house, seemed ideal. But Los Angeles County had allocated $150,000 to buy the land for a park, and Altadena citizens were raising $25,000 of the $175,000 cost. Nevertheless, Westmont offered $200,000 for the property and bought it unconditionally. The college needed a zoning change to operate in a residential area, but the trustees didn’t think that would be a problem.

The first newspaper story about Westmont’s plans hinted at the storm to come. “The Altadena Golf Club property, subject of a long-heated controversy, won’t be turned into a county park after all … 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…” (Aug. 25, 1944).

The articles grew more negative. The chair of a citizens association said that Westmont could always get another campus, but Altadenans couldn’t find another golf course. He questioned the college’s financial health and ability to maintain the property. A neighbor wrote, “The people who live in Altadena moved there and built 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 thousands of people.”

While voicing concern about college plans to expand to 1,000 students and the resulting increase in traffic and noise, a letter to the editor mentioned an issue that may have fueled opposition. “Another factor is the college being interdenominational means that all classes, races and creeds can come here to school.” In the 1940s, the golf course was in a white-only neighborhood.

The Altadena Citizens Association soon announced its opposition to the zoning change. Other local organizations joined them. One article described Westmont as a “struggling” young college with no endowment. In an editorial, “Do Not Create Blighted Areas,” the writer claimed that increasing traffic in an area drove out “substantial citizens” and removed the pride of ownership.

When the planning commission held a public hearing on the zoning change in January 1945, 900 people attended. It was the greatest mass meeting in Altadena history. After hours of testimony, the commission polled the audience: 700 people said no. The commissioners then voted 8 to 1 against Westmont. The college applied for a zoning change just for the club house and surrounding area, which was also denied. An appeal to the board of supervisors met with a third defeat in May.

The Westmont community was stunned. The property had seemed like such a gift. But it soon became clear that God had other — and much better — plans. To be continued.

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