One of the most unique things about Pacific Asia Museum is the historic Chinese-style mansion we’re housed in. But what many people don’t know is how this striking building came to be in the heart of Pasadena. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, today we’re sharing the story of Grace Nicholson, the fascinating entrepreneur whose Treasure House gives us a home today.
Grace Nicholson was born on December 31, 1877 in Philadelphia. With a modest inheritance, she moved to California in 1901 and set up a small curio shop on Raymond Avenue in Pasadena. Her interest in Southwestern Indian handiwork began with two of her early customers who had been involved in archaeological excavations in Arizona. Through them, she spent the few hundred dollars she had remaining on Indian basket collections. Over time she became increasingly interested in Native American art and culture and would frequently buy directly from the weavers on reservations.
Grace Nicholson became highly respected for her research on and knowledge of Native American culture and was elected to the American Anthropological Association in 1904. Her interest in art and culture grew, and she soon discovered Asian art. She began to incorporate Asian objects into her curio store, and by 1916 Grace had turned her full attention towards Asian art.
Selling Asian artifacts proved to be a profitable business and by the early 1920’s Grace had outgrown the shop on Raymond Avenue. In 1924 Grace hired the architectural firm Marston, Van Pelt and Maybury to design a building in the Chinese-style on Los Robles Avenue. Her illustrations were incorporated into a design which carefully followed the Imperial Palace Courtyard style, used in the construction of major buildings in Beijing. Grace made sure every detail was correct and had the roof tiles, stone and marble carvings, and bronze and copper work imported directly from China or faithfully executed by Pasadena-area craftsmen, following plans and photographs of authentic Chinese examples.
Grace opened the first half of the building on March 11, 1925, and construction of the rectangular, open courtyard was completed in 1929. The first floor consisted of galleries in which she displayed and sold American Indian and Asian art objects, as well as the work of noted local, national and international living artists. The second floor housed more galleries, an auditorium for exhibition, education and lectures, as well as Grace’s private apartment. Today, museum staff offices are spread throughout her former living space, where fireplaces and other architectural elements serve as reminders of the building’s history.
Grace Nicholson gave the building to the City of Pasadena in 1943 for art and cultural purposes, with the stipulation that she would retain her private rooms until her death. Although Grace passed away in 1948, the building was occupied by the Pasadena Art Institute, which in 1954 changed its name to the Pasadena Art Museum and remained until 1970, when it moved to new location at Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevards and became the Norton Simon Museum. This part of our building’s history was recently explored in our exhibition 46 N. Los Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time.
Pasadena’s Pacificulture Foundation moved into the building in 1971. In 1987 the Foundation bought the structure once known as “The Grace Nicholson Treasure House of Oriental Art,” and subsequently became Pacific Asia Museum.
The Grace Nicholson Building is itself one of the great treasures of the museum, being an important and extraordinary example of Chinese architecture in the United States. It has been designated a Cultural Heritage Landmark by the cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles. In 1976 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1989 was declared a Historical Landmark by the State of California. But it also serves to remind us of a fascinating and strong female entrepreneur, who defied convention in the early 1900s and built not only a thriving business, but also a beautiful home that continues to bring Asian art and culture to Pasadena to this day. ~CM