Six longtime Pasadena families share their personal, multi-generational chronicles in Pasadena Museum of History’s groundbreaking exhibition, Family Stories: Sharing a Community’s Legacy.
The stories of the Duncan, Gertmenian, Kawai, Lowe, Mejia and Stevenson families help the Museum shed light on the experiences of our African-American, Armenian-American, Chinese-American, Euro-American, Japanese-American, and Latino communities, respectively.
“Despite this area’s long tradition of diversity, much local recorded history has been heavily focused on ‘elite’ elements of local life, with emphasis on topics such as Arroyo culture, Craftsman art and architecture, the ‘Indiana Colony’ and their citrus groves, and the mansions of the very rich,” says Ardis Willwerth, PMH Director of Exhibitions and Programming. “While important, the emphasis on these particular stories leaves out the experiences of many of the city’s residents.”
With Family Stories, the Pasadena Museum of History seeks to correct this historical bias. The multi-generational experiences of the six featured families will be shared and interpreted through photographs, documents, artifacts, and recordings. The exhibition, and related programs, will place an individual family’s story into a larger local, regional, and national context, and will seek to inspire visitors to reflect on their own family’s history and how their own lives and experiences are contributing to the ongoing creation of history and community.
The selection of the six families was the culmination of a year-long process by Family Stories co-curators Brad Macneil and Diane Siegel, in collaboration with advisory groups of community leaders from each of the ethnic groups and the guidance of historian and USC Professor William Deverell. While many other ethnic groups have been and are today represented within the community, these six groups were selected for both their size as well as their historical roots in the area.
Family Stories: Sharing a Community's Legacy reaches across socio-economic, cultural, geographic, and ethnic boundaries with an exhibit that is relevant to the entire demographic of the San Gabriel Valley as well as to visitors from outside the area. The use of families as an interpretive tool allows the Museum to address many aspects of life, from daily activities to special occasions such as births, weddings, and deaths. These common experiences offer an ideal opportunity to explore both commonalities as well as cultural differences. Families are a defining feature of most people’s lives, and as such will help an audience – including the Museum’s youngest visitors - to relate the exhibit’s themes to their own lives. As a slice of regional history, Family Stories will explain the evolution of our present-day communities, providing insight into the development of this richly diverse population. On a personal level, it offers individuals the background and tools to better understand their neighborhoods, their families and themselves.
The Family Stories exhibition is funded, in part, through support from The Paloheimo Foundation, California Council for the Humanities, Ann Peppers Foundation, National Charity League, Mr. & Mrs. Philip V. Swan, Melba Macneil, Joyce McGilvray, Lynn Macneil, Lee Macneil, Lynn & Carl Cooper, Erin & William Kruse, Toshie & Frank Mosher, Mary Lois Nevins, Francisca Neumann, Temo A. Arjani & Co., Catherine Chandler, Jean & Mark McGilvray, Parents at Westridge School.
About the Families
The Duncan family arrived in Pasadena in 1923. Family patriarch, James Alfred Ernest Duncan, was born in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1891. As a British sailor on leave in San Pedro, he met Riverside-born Corabell LaMar and traded seafaring for family life. The couple settled in Pasadena, becoming the first African-American family active in St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, where all 13 of their children were baptized. The second generation went on to become bankers, businessmen, career military men, educators, a pioneering firefighter, and a dancer who broke the television color line. They include PCC Professor and former Altadena councilperson Mabel Duncan; Wilfred (Bill) Duncan, the Pasadena Fire Department’s first African-American fireman; John David Duncan, who worked at the State’s first commercial African-American owned bank and went on to head the Panama Glove Company; and Arthur Duncan, who continues his tap-dancing outreach in the years since he headlined on the Lawrence Welk Show.
Pictured at left: Arthur, Corabell, James and Wilfred Duncan pose outside their Pasadena home, c. 1944.
The Gertmenian Family’s roots in the town of Hadjin in what is now Turkey are shared by many of Pasadena’s early Armenian settlers. Their story is one of cataclysmic relocation and reunion, with the families of two brothers leaving the homeland for America two decades apart and eventually being reunited in Pasadena in the 1920s. Gostantin (G.A.) Gertmenian was the first brother to arrive in America in 1896. From an early start as a peddler to establishing a successful carpet business, G.A.’s relocation of business and family from the east coast to Pasadena in 1918 enabled his brother’s family to get a foothold here. G.A.’s brother Mardiros fled Turkey with his extended family during the Armenian genocide of 1915, eventually settling in Pasadena in 1923. The G.A. Gertmenian family established rug businesses in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and on the east coast. The other branch of the family found success in retail and wholesale groceries and eventually developed a new kind of produce business, when Dennis Gertmenian established Ready-Pak with pre-packaged salad greens.
Pictured at right: The Gertmenian Family.
The Kawai Family’s Pasadena story began in 1902 with the arrival of master carpenter Toichiro Kawai. He had first arrived in the San Francisco area in 1898. Within a few years, Toichiro was working on the moving and reconstruction of the Japanese house from George Marsh’s early Pasadena Japanese Garden to the estate of Henry Huntington, where he also built the moon bridge and temple bell tower. Toichiro was able to purchase property near PCC and build a home before the Alien Land Laws took effect. The onset of World War II interrupted the lives of all the Kawai family, with most of them interned at Gila River Relocation Camp in Arizona. Toichiro’s eight children and many grandchildren have pursued a variety of interests and careers throughout Pasadena and beyond. Leslie Kawai became the first minority member to fill the role of Queen of the Tournament of Roses in 1981.
Kimi Kawai's daughter-in-law, Sharon Sugiyama, founded the charity A3M, Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, which matches Asian bone marrow donors with patients who need that life-giving service.
Pictured at left: Members of the Kawai Family.
The Lowe Family history is rich with entrepreneurial spirit and community service. In 1939, Albert and Ann Lowe opened up the Lowe and Sons Gift Shop on Colorado Boulevard. In subsequent years, they opened other stores on Colorado, Lake Avenue, at the Huntington Hotel, North Los Robles, and in Covina. The family-run operation developed into a very successful and popular enterprise and expanded into one of Southern California’s finest interior design and home furnishing stores and consulting firms. Three generations of family members have carried on the tradition of supporting community organizations including the Pasadena Rotary Club, YMCA, Chamber of Commerce, The Pasadena Playhouse, Board of Education, and local churches and schools. One branch of the family story (Virginia Lowe married to Eugene) traces its fascinating history in California back to the late 1800s.
Pictured at right: Albert, Ann and Eugene Lowe in the family store, c. 1955.
The Mejia Family represents one family’s search for the American dream. The Pasadena story starts with Gregory Mejia and Eusebia Gutierrez, who met and married and then settled in Pasadena in 1918. The first generation struggled with the difficulties of the Great Depression and the State’s 1930s policy of forced deportations of Mexican residents. But their American dream stayed alive as many of Gregory and Eusebia’s children settled in Pasadena. Searching for business opportunity, family members first opened up a successful neighborhood store, the Manor Market, and then a thriving Mexican restaurant chain, Rancheros. Currently, the Mejia family has five living generations in the City of Pasadena. They are involved in numerous occupations and community organizations. Their annual family gathering draws over 100 family members.
Pictured at left: An early portrait of the Mejia Family.
The Stevenson’s (Schultz –Brandenburg’s) long family history in Pasadena starts when John Brandenburg and his family moved from Iowa to Pasadena in 1902. A close bond between a mother, daughter, and granddaughter kept the family strong. Descendents were involved in a variety of occupations in the City, including working as a conductor on the Pacific Electric Cars, a machinist and garage owner, running a French laundry, owners of three successful Pasadena shoe stores (including Peacock Shoes at the famed Maryland Hotel), acting in silent movies, working as a professional singer, and two generations of teaching in Pasadena Schools. Members of the family were very active Community organizations including the Elks Club, Pacific Asia Museum, and the Huntington Library.
Pictured at right: Vivian (Brandenburg) Schultz and Margaret Catherine (Schultz) Stevenson, c. 1933.