Planning Director David Watkins Retires; Receives Oldest Known Panoramic Photo of South Pasadena

This is the oldest known panoramic photograph of South Pasadena, according to local history buffs and the South Pasadena Public Library. A high-resolution, fully-framed and mounted, scanned copy of this 1887 photograph is being given to David Watkins, who is retiring as the city’s director of planning and building. Photo courtesy of So Pas Public Library

City officials are planning on giving the oldest known panoramic photograph of South Pasadena to a retiring top executive as a gift of its appreciation.

David Watkins, retiring after more than 18 years as South Pasadena’s planning and building director, is stepping down Aug. 31, according to city officials.

One of Watkins’ very first actions as the planning & building director was to submit a successful application to the State office of Historic Preservation making the city eligible for historic preservation grants, according to city officials. 

As such, the city decided to present to him at his retirement party a surprise gift of the oldest known panoramic photo of South Pasadena which dates back to 1887, according to library officials.

“It was discovered in 2011 by accident by South Pasadena resident Erin Chase while working at the Huntington Library as an assistant curator of photographs and architecture in the Rare Book Department,” according to a written statement from the South Pasadena Public Library. “Erin Chase contacted the South Pasadena Public Library, which requested a high-resolution scan for its archives.” 

The library in turn has taken that same photo and reproduced a high-resolution copy framed at Mission Framing in So Pas that will be presented to Watkins, according to Steve Fjeldsted, library director.

David Watkins

“Before the unmarked photo mysteriously emerged from a box at the Huntington Library, the earliest panoramic photo of South Pasadena was believed by many to have been the one hanging in an antique frame on the second-floor wall of the South Pasadena Public Library in the hallway by the Community Room,” Fjeldsted said in a written statement. “It was taken in 1893 by T.D. Keith, husband of Nellie Keith, the first City Librarian.”

Local history buff Larry McGrail of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation owns another early panoramic photo of South Pasadena in his collection that’s even older than the Keith photo, according to Fjeldsted. It was commercially taken by Jarvis Studios of Pasadena and he believes it emanates from 1887 or 1888, Fjeldsted said. McGrail is able to date his photograph because in the image the Opera House Building which opened in 1888 is still under construction.

The South Pasadena panoramic photo found at the Huntington Library surpasses the T.D. Keith photo in age by more than five years and McGrail’s Jarvis photo by a year or so, according to the Fjeldsted. In fact, McGrail said he believes The Huntington’s photo is older than his Jarvis photo, because it contains no trace of the Opera House. He calculates that The Huntington photo was taken some time in 1887, at least six months earlier than his Jarvis photo. 

Meanwhile, history is not lost on the retiring Watkins, who joined South Pasadena on March 21, 2000 after having served 14 years for Irvine and 10 years for at Pasadena. Previously, Watkins obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Redlands, a Master’s in Planning from Cal Poly Pomona, and a professional certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Larry McGrail at his and Diana McGrail’s 1893 Victorian home on Glendon Way, pointing out the location of his residence on their historical photograph. Photo by Sally Kilby

Watkins also directed the completion of the city’s first revision of its Zoning Code in 30 years and the approval process for the Mission-Meridian Village, an award-winning transit-oriented mixed-use station near the city’s Gold Line Station.

City officials lined up to applaud Watkins’ service to South Pasadena.

“Our residents owe a debt of gratitude on how the city looks because of you,” City Councilmember Diana Mahmud said in a prepared statement. “I know preservation is as important to you as it is to our residents.”

City Councilmember Bob Joe agreed, adding, “for nearly two decades, David has served our City with integrity, professionalism and commitment to customer service … We wish you all the best in your well-deserved retirement.” 

Councilmember Michael A. Cacciotti continued the appreciation by characterizing Watkins as a “model public servant.” 

“A model public servant [who] always kept a positive attitude, you’re always kind, considerate, and treat everyone with respect,” Cacciotti said.

A farewell reception honoring David Watkins will be held at City Hall on Aug. 30.