David Wolf, an architectural historian, archivist and urbanist, was found dead at his home in Altadena on Dec. 21, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.
Wolf, who was born in Pasadena, would have turned 55 on New Year’s Day.
According to writer Matt Hormann, Wolf, who authored a well written and beautifully illustrated book on the beginning of Pasadena’s City Beautiful movement titled “My City: The Model to Emulate,” harnessed Pasadena’s past to help create the image of a better future.
“The potential is to have what planning doesn’t have today, which is to get people excited about the future once again, instead of fearing it,” Wolf told Hormann in a 2015 interview that appeared in the Pasadena Weekly. “It’s an opportunity for us to lead once again in the realm of city planning using a simple proven solution.”
That solution is based on the work of George A. Damon. From 1914 to 1917, Damon led the Pasadena City Beautiful movement, which was part of a larger national trend.
The movement was a reform philosophy of architecture and urban planning that flourished during the 1890s and early 1900s. It was a part of the progressive social reform movement in North America under the leadership of the upper-middle class concerned with poor living conditions in all major cities.
The movement, which was originally associated mainly with Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Washington, DC, promoted beauty as a means to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations.
Advocates of the philosophy believed that such beautification could increase the quality of life.
“Much of Pasadena’s model city reputation can be found in the City Beautiful Movement and the work of George Damon, Dean of Engineering,” Wolf wrote in his book. “In creating a more participatory process during the early visioning stages of planning, community aspirations were shared, finances were measured and an ambitious set of proposals were set in motion.”
The movement mixed engineering, architecture and civic improvement to create a hub of novel, egalitarian planning ideas.
It culminated in an exhibit that featured a horticultural hall, city planning studio, and “Pasadena Projects & Problems” space. Visitors were even encouraged to submit photos of “undesirable structures, unkempt vacant lots, billboards, and other blights to the beauty of our city” beneath a sign that read: “We Protest — These Things are Not Beautiful.”
“David Wolf was a wonderful inspiration to those who knew him,” said Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, which strives to preserve the Arroyo Seco, a stream that flows from the San Gabriel Mountains to downtown Los Angeles. “He really captured the spirit of the Arroyo and of Pasadena through his remarkable research and presentations. His vision and his zeal stand as his lasting legacy.”
According to his book, “My City,” Wolf was raised on the edge of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, close to the landmark Colorado Street Bridge.
A graduate of John Muir High School, he was in the first class to be educated under the landmark decision that instituted court-ordered desegregation for the first time west of the Mississippi River.
After graduating from John Muir, Wolf attended UC Berkeley and graduated with a Masters Degree in architecture. Wolf worked in planning, architecture, sculpture and architectural history.
He also taught a host of architects, artists and planners from around the world, developing a unique approach to simplifying the process in design in the emerging digital age.
According to an alert by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Wolf suffered from depression and was last seen about 6 a.m. Nov. 29, near his home on Taos Road in Altadena, where he lived alone. His death is considered a suicide. No foul play is suspected.
“This is shocking and distressing,” said Sue Mossman, executive director of of Pasadena Heritage. “I have been viewing his extraordinary work over the past year and been so taken with his research skills and out-of-the-box thinking about how about the past and present and future could interweave.”
In 2014 and 2016, Wolf gave separate “My City” presentations at the Hale Solar Observatory in Pasadena, attended by City Council members John Kennedy and Andy Wilson, and Mayor Terry Tornek, who became strong backers of the project.
According to Hormann, Kennedy later discussed “My City” with President Barack Obama at a fundraising dinner in 2015, and later sent a copy to the White House.
“David was passionate about Pasadena and its roots in the City Beautiful Movement of nearly 100 years ago,” said Marsha Rood former development administrator for the city. “David wanted to bring Pasadena closer to those roots in planning for its future. Pasadena has lost a great champion.”