by Kristen Dow
photography by Laura Ambriz
Cottony fog, followed by an unexpected rain shower, drenches the paved streets of La Verne and San Dimas. Oil rises to the surface, creating the unpleasant smell of a musty, old attic, and slick roads demand cautious, slow driving.
Plugging along in an assembly line-like fashion, cars wait on San Dimas Canyon Road, one-by-one turning into Holy Name of Mary School’s overly crowded parking lot. Parents, some already frantically late for work, drop their blue and white uniformed youngsters off for another day of “reading, writing and arithmetic.”
Approximately one hour later, down the street, Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop awakens from a night of childless slumber. Nestled on the southwest corner of Bonita and Damien Avenues close to the La Verne and San Dimas border, the quaint, independently owned children’s store is constantly bombarded with customers.
A frequent stop for teachers, parents and children alike, Mrs. Nelson’s gives children the opportunity to enter new and fascinating worlds through the magic of imagination.
Judy Nelson, owner of the establishment, purchased the vacant lot that was to become her store in 1988. Nelson started her original business in 1985 at a 1,700-square-foot store in Covina, and when she wanted to expand, she and her husband Byron Nelson began searching for land. In 1990, the Covina store closed its doors, and the 6,000-square-foot La Verne location opened for business.
A couple of blocks away from Mrs. Nelson’s is the intersection between Bonita Avenue and San Dimas Canyon Road. San Dimas Canyon Road serves as the breaking point between La Verne — the town known for world-famous oranges and the University of La Verne — and San Dimas, the city which harbors an “old west” feeling complete with a plethora of antique stores on Bonita’s Frontier Village.
One obvious difference between the San Dimas and La Verne sections of San Dimas Canyon Road is the residential life. Personalized single family homes line the streets within the La Verne border. Built in the 1970s, most have been owned for many years by the same families, and the originality of each house reflects the residents who dwell inside. Dotting the San Dimas side of the street, however, is a multitude of apartment complexes. Only farther within the border do houses finally appear.
Darrel Florentine, salesman for Century 21 Citrus Realty in San Dimas, explains that there is virtually no difference on the border in housing costs between San Dimas and La Verne. Only when reaching the heart of La Verne, near the University, do housing prices begin to rise. He notes, though, that houses on the La Verne side of the street may be slightly more expensive because they are newer than San Dimas homes by approximately 10 years. For example, one 1,440 square-foot, three bedroom, one and three-fourths bath La Verne home on Bellgrove Street had an asking price of $172,500 in mid-October 1997. Florentine says that the majority of potential house buyers do not take into consideration whether they will be living in San Dimas or La Verne, “It’s like Covina, West Covina. There’s not much of a difference.”
Differences between the two cities do exist. San Dimas residents are served by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, while the city of La Verne funds its own police force. The County of Los Angeles Fire Department answers calls for San Dimas; La Verne supports its own fire department. However, the two cities share the same school district: Bonita Unified.
Whether hunting for homes or apartments, prospective residents find that San Dimas Canyon Road provides a variety of housing choices.
With reasonable rent varying from $675 to $875 per month for two and three bedroom apartments, many ULV students make their homes within the quiet walls of the San Dimas Canyon Apartments. With a large variety of leafy plants and trees, the shady apartment complex provides students with a spacious alternative to residential hall life.
Donna La Moore, resident manager of the apartment complex, says approximately 20 percent of the residents are college students, the majority of whom attend ULV. The remaining tenants consist of families, retired people and married couples.
La Moore and her husband Richard never have objections to renting to college students. “Most of the time we have a lot of success,” La Moore says. “The girls usually are pretty cool. Some-times there is too much noise with the guys. But there are a few groups of guys right now who never give us a bit of a problem.”
For entertainment, the residents of the San Dimas Canyon Apartments need look no farther than their own backyards – literally. Tucked into the corner of a deserted, ghost town-like shopping center on the corner of Bonita Avenue and San Dimas Canyon Road in San Dimas rests the ever-present Canyon Theatre. The single screen movie theater and a few other businesses are the only surviving establishments in the otherwise abandoned Canyon Road Center.
As one enters the theater, the enticing smell of freshly popped, buttered popcorn wafts into her nose. Red carpet with once colorful, now faded, designs is worn from years of being tread upon. Posters for “007 Tomorrow Never Dies” and “An American Werewolf in Paris” are displayed on the wall. Multi-colored lights reminiscent of the `70s dangle from the ceiling.
Featuring only one film at a time, the 500-seat movie theater has prices that cannot be beaten. Before 6 p.m., admission is $3 for everyone. After 6 p.m., the price jumps to $5 for general admission; for children and seniors, the price remains at $3.
Theater Manager Jamie Gibson explains that the theater has been there since 1965 or `66, and Gene Harvey has owned it for approximately 20 of those years. “He owned it twice,” Gibson explains. “He sold it, then reacquired it when they [the new owners] couldn’t pay the bills.”
In addition to the Canyon Theatre, Harvey owns and operates three more theaters, two in the Pasadena area and one in San Fernando Valley. He and the rest of the staff divide their time among the four theaters.
“San Dimas has always ended up being a home base office,”says Gibson with a grin, “since Mr. Harvey lives in Claremont.” Gibson notes that the Canyon Theatre is in competition with multiplex theaters such as Edwards Cinema on Foothill Boulevard in La Verne. The Canyon Theatre cannot run films for more than three weeks for financial reasons, and that makes it difficult to compete with larger movie theaters that can afford to run films for up to 20 weeks.
Because the theater can only show one film at a time, choosing which film to run can sometimes be a difficult decision. “Film selection is basically determined on a negotiation basis,” Gibson says. “We go with the film that will bring in the most business for the theater.” The number of people who frequent the theater varies greatly according to the featured film, whether it is a weekday or weekend, and what time the film is showing. “We could have 500 people here because that’s how many seats we have,” Gibson says, “or we could have three.”
Gibson deems the establishment a “family kind of theater.” He claims many patrons feel comfortable with the theater because they know the employees and vice-versa. “People feel safe dropping their kids off here,” Gibson says. “Parents have a tendency to be not as willing to leave their kids at a multiplex.” This factor is the biggest draw for the Canyon Theatre. It is seen as a safe-haven for children. “This theater does its best business with family movies, PG, Disney,” Gibson explains.
Sometimes, movie studios do not agree with the Canyon Theatre’s prices, he says. This is a problem when it comes to negotiation for certain films. The theater looks for films which would do the best business. However, sometimes studios will not rent the films to the Canyon because their prices are much lower than those of larger area movie theaters. “They [movie studios] want us to be charging $6 and $6.50,” Gibson says.
Directly across the street from the Canyon Theater stands an abundance of single-family homes. As one turns east down Gladstone Street and travels for a few blocks, an unusual sight will appear. Nestled into a shady corner, is the Bethany Wedding Chapel. Built approximately 25 years ago, the quaint brick-red and white building hosts up to 85 guests for wedding services. Owned and operated by Miriam Fiscus and her second husband, Duane Loomis, Bethany Wedding Chapel was originally built as a church by Fiscus’ first husband, who was a reverend. It was only after Rev. Fiscus died that the chapel was used exclusively for wedding ceremonies. “Two to three weddings a week is what we average,” says Loomis with a grin. “Sometimes more, sometimes less.” Reservation of the chapel costs $295 for two hours. Couples must provide their own minister for the ceremony.
Loomis and Fiscus dwell in the house adjacent to the chapel. Surrounded by pink and white flowers and an abundance of foliage, the house and chapel exude a New England-like country charm in the midst of a suburban neighborhood. “There are no dull moments around here. We’ve always got something going on,” Fiscus chuckles.
Inside the chapel, one is charmed by the white lace window curtains, silk floral arrangements and old fashioned oil lamps that adorn the walls. Outside, there is a white swing on which brides may pose for photographs, and a brick path lined with flowers. After wedding ceremonies, the steeple bell is rung in honor of the newly married couple. “I sort of designed it. We [she and Rev. Fiscus] worked together on it,” Fiscus says wistfully of the chapel’s construction.
Continuing east down Gladstone Street, an ominous grey stone building towers into view. Those not familiar with the area may deem it a Catholic church for its mission revival style architecture. However, it is in fact the F. E. Weymouth Filtration Plant, one of five filtration plants within the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Red brick steps lead up to the aquatic sanctuary, which receives the majority of its water from the Colorado River via the Metropolitan’s 242-mile aqueduct. Additional water flows in from Northern California rivers, streaming down the 444-mile California Aqueduct.
“There are 500 people on this site, divided into three main groups with 100 people each,” says Kay Randals, field office administrator for the Weymouth plant. “The others are spread around throughout the different departments.”
While walking around the grounds, Randals explains that the area surrounding the building was recently re-landscaped because the plants and trees had become so overgrown that they covered some of the building’s Spanish-style arches and Native American-influenced designs.
Built in 1940, La Verne’s plant is the only Metropolitan Water District building that features this unique style of architecture. Randals notes the Aztec zigzag design for water is consistent throughout the building. In the massive domed-ceiling foyer, there are light and dark green tiles that zigzag around the floor and walls. Outside, the design repeats, etched into the stone walls, protecting the precious liquid that flows within.
Presently under construction is a new water quality lab that is located across the street from the Weymouth plant. Randals says that although the new building is very modern, the architects will “try to tie the outside to us” by including similar archways in the design and keep the mission theme predominate.
Sometimes, in an area of town, one may find a treasure that seems out of place. In this border area of San Dimas and La Verne, there are several unexpected delights: a corner bookstore, a hidden movie theater, a tiny chapel, a towering water-filtering temple. It only takes patience to hunt for these unique treasures that, once discovered, are not soon forgotten.