An Intriguing Neighbor: Josephine Van Rossem
by Jennifer Trotoux
As the Gamble House staff prepares for the upcoming Greene & Greene Home Tour, “At Home in Little Switzerland,” we are reacquainted with the fascinating character of Josephine Van Rossem. Her name is constantly on our lips as we speak of the Park Place tract (which we now know as the Arroyo Terrace neighborhood), and with good reason, as she commissioned three of the eleven houses by Greene & Greene that mark the neighborhood, a significant percentage.
Josephine Van Rossem lived in Park Place for more than ten years, and her name is associated with four houses in the neighborhood. Three of these are houses that she commissioned from Greene & Greene, placing her among the firm’s most loyal clients. Two of the three are extant, at 400 Arroyo Terrace and 210 N. Grand Ave.; the third was at 223 N. Orange Grove. The house most closely associated with her life in the neighborhood, however, is 371 Arroyo Terrace, a house not by Greene & Greene which lies on the downhill slope at Scott Place, now hidden behind a wall of oleander hedges.
Josephine Van Rossem was born in Canada in 1867 to English and Irish parents. Her husband, Adriaan C. Van Rossem, hailed from a Rotterdam family heavily involved in international shipping and business. Married in 1891 and living in Chicago, the pair had two sons, Adriaan J. and Walter, early in their marriage. Her husband’s health soon deteriorated, and the family’s travel to a health-seeking village in Switzerland failed them; he died in the summer of 1894. At the young age of 27, Josephine was left alone with two children under the age of two.
Perhaps as a way to cope with this major turning point in her life, Josephine and her two boys moved to Pasadena in 1895. Presumably, she must have inherited some money after her husband’s death, and it seems to follow that this was the capital she employed for her real estate ventures to come over the next ten years. She purchased a large, downhill-sloping property overlooking the Arroyo Seco at 371 Arroyo View Terrace and commissioned (from an unknown architect or builder) a one and one-half story house with a simple, rectangular form covered by a large, gabled roof. Although she had very few neighbors, she was rarely alone in Pasadena in those early years, as her two brothers John and Joseph Williams lived with the family, and her mother Anne E. Williams emigrated as well, joining them in 1902.
Their home was located on the edge of the Park Place tract, which was subdivided on the site of the old Reservoir Park in 1886. About fifteen years passed before the lots in Park Place, bought and sold many times over by speculators, began to be populated with houses. A neighborhood began to take shape after the turn of the century.
Charles and Alice (White) Greene would soon become neighbors to the Van Rossem and Williams household, as Charles and Alice were among the first to build a house in Park Place. They selected a prime lot overlooking the Arroyo Seco, which was split with Alice’s sisters, and built their house in 1901. A house for the White sisters followed in 1903. That same year, in May, their neighbor Josephine commissioned Greene & Greene to build a house for her as an investment property (known as the Van Rossem 1 house, and sold soon after to James Neil) across the street from her own home. She soon commissioned a second, larger Park Place home, also as an investment, a block away on N. Grand Ave. in June of 1904 (the Van Rossem 2 house).
The Park Place neighborhood was the perfect vantage point for the Van Rossems to participate in much of what turn-of-the-century Pasadena had to offer
Perhaps after the success of these two ventures, and seeing so many of her neighbors living comfortably in Greene & Greene houses, Josephine commissioned her own home from the firm in 1905 at 250 N. Orange Grove. As far as we know, however, she lived there very briefly. In 1910 the family was living less than a block away at 441 W. Walnut Street, and by 1912, the buyer of her house at 371 Arroyo Terrace had run into financial trouble and the house had reverted to her ownership. She held the property for another two years, and lived in it again for a portion of that time.
There was clearly something about these building projects that drove Josephine Van Rossem. It was probably not unusual for a Pasadenan with some funds available to see more and more people arriving to live there, plenty of land to build on, and a talented and sympathetic architect living across the street, and realize that building houses was a good investment. We know of four houses that she constructed; another source notes a fifth house near the neighborhood that she owned and may have had built; and she apparently had additional land investments, some with photographer E. F. Kohler, that we know less about.
At the same time, though, at this point we do not really understand whether these were speculative houses that she intended to build and sell, or rental properties that she intended to hold (as most observers have assumed, given their proximity to her own home). When a person could easily construct a decent house for $2000, why spend twice that for a house of superior craftsmanship and style just to rent it out? We can see that she must have placed great value on a higher level of design, but we don’t know much more than that.
Josephine was an artist and a photographer. She worked for fifteen years at the Eugene F. Kohler photo studio on Colorado Blvd. in the central business district, and was apparently Kohler’s partner in the business. Images of the studio’s interior show an eclectic array of props and furnishings, presumably used for portrait photography: oriental rugs, draperies, spindle screens, banquettes with patterned pillows, foot-high classical statuary, and a mountain lion pelt rug. Kohler closed his studio and had moved on to other work by 1915. The number of professional photographers listed in Pasadena had doubled since the turn of the century. Josephine was not a lone woman in the field, as we see a few women with their own studios listed in the city directories.
Josephine’s brothers John and Joseph Williams also worked as photographers, and her younger son Walter became a commercial photographer as well. His photographs of entertainment, leisure and society subjects appeared frequently in the Los Angeles Times. Her elder son Adriaan attended Throop Polytechnic (later Caltech) and became an important ornithologist based at UCLA. While still a student of 19, he had amassed a significant collection of 1200 bird specimens. His passion for birds was said to have been fostered by his childhood spent venturing out into the Arroyo Seco, which was right outside the family’s door.
The Park Place neighborhood was the perfect vantage point for the Van Rossems to participate in much of what turn-of-the-century Pasadena had to offer, situated between the busy commercial district of Pasadena and the wild and scenic Arroyo Seco. Josephine Van Rossem’s photographs show an adventuresome family with chickens and a horse at their Arroyo-side home and their excursions to Strain’s Camp at Mount Wilson, Lucky Baldwin’s ranch (toured by horse and cart), and Charles Lummis’s home. She photographed sycamore trees by mountain trails and landscapes and industrial scenes in Newhall.
In 1914, her children grown, Josephine departed from the Park Place neighborhood and its environs where they had lived in and owned a good number of houses in their twenty years in Pasadena. Her new home was in Lamanda Park on the east side of Pasadena, which was probably somewhat rural in that era, as evidenced by the lack of a conventional street address on the property.
The closing of Kohler’s studio must have been a professional turning point for Josephine, and also coincided with her move to a more remote part of Pasadena. The lights go dark on this story for about twelve years, for we don’t know where she was or what she was doing during the 1920s. In 1931, though, she pops up again on a ship’s passenger manifest crossing Lake Huron from Canada back into the United States. She stated for the manifest that she had been in Canada for two years and was heading back to Pasadena to live permanently, naming the Summit Ave. home of her sister-in-law as her destination. She’d had a change of profession and now identified herself as a costume designer—if only we knew more about that period in her life!
Returning to Pasadena, however, Josephine made another career change, entering her private library period. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s she was the proprietor of a lending library in various locations, including Catalina Ave. just north of Colorado Blvd. and later on Mission St. in San Marino (where it was known as Bookends). Her later years were spent living in Altadena, yet another location on the edge of the urban area.
Josephine Van Rossem lived to the age of 92, passing away in 1960. When we consider the dramatic expansion and changes that she saw in Pasadena and Southern California over such a dynamic period, it’s clear from her level of activity—working, building, investing, raising her sons, enjoying her surroundings—that she was well equipped to meet the challenges of her time.