CLAREMONT, CA — When I mention this town’s name to people living in neighbouring Los Angeles, the common response is, “It’s famous for the Claremont Colleges.” But discreet Claremont, established in 1907 and home to 35,000, is also a sophisticated gem of a destination alive with a vibrant arts and culture scene and a haven for food lovers.
Located about 50km east of Los Angeles, it’s not near the beach but nestled in a romantic woodsy village at the foothills of the great San Gabriel Mountains. It’s here that late 19th-century settlers had the vision to create the feel of an East Coast college town and so, planted groves of American elm trees that are more common in the eastern part of the U.S. And the towering eucalyptus trees we see today along College Ave. were healthy young plantings back then.
Indeed, modelled after the University of Oxford in the U.K. (the oldest university in the English-speaking world), Claremont’s prestigious consortium of five private undergraduate colleges and two graduate schools are clustered in two square kilometres of space: Pomona College is its oldest, established in 1887, followed by Claremont Graduate University (1925), Scripps College for women (1926), Claremont McKenna College (1946), Harvey Mudd College (1955), Pitzer College (1963), and Keck Graduate Institute (1997).
Above: Claremont is home to the state's botanic garden and its p;arks are filled with lots of East Coast trees.
It’s no wonder Claremont holds dear its nickname “City of trees and PhDs.”
When I learned about the 2020 opening of California’s newest museum, the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College — the alma mater of renowned artists, including James Turrell and Helen Pashgian, pioneers of the Light and Space movement — it was a call for me to re-discover Claremont, not far from where I reside. During a three-day getaway I explored cool and unexpected layers of this college town.
Underneath the canopy of an urban forest, the town’s history is preserved in its walkable neighbourhoods filled with arts and crafts, eclectic revival and Victorian architecture.
At the top of College Ave., the 86-acre California Botanic Garden, established in 1927, is another Claremont legacy. I got lost in nature walking winding trails through the world’s largest collection of native California flora, that includes plants not found anywhere else on the planet.
Back in The Village, as downtown Claremont is known, Yale Ave. is Claremont’s Main St. Everything a community needs is here with the added charm of a bygone time. Add to that an impressive collection of restaurants, a chocolatier, a cheese shop, artisan jewellers, the Laemmle arthouse movie theatre and a violin maker.
Above: Claremont's historic rail station is on the national registry and its art scene in vibrant.
There are more unexpected finds inside and outside the village: the Folk Music Center and Museum owned by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ben Harper, the Alf Museum of Paleontology (the only accredited museum in the U.S. located on a high school campus) and the landmark Packing House, a relic of Claremont’s early citrus industry when its sweet bounty was distributed to consumers across the U.S., Europe (including Queen Victoria) and Japan. Its rejuvenation has transformed it into a lively community gathering spot with more restaurants, wine tastings, 50 art galleries and artisanal boutiques.
Another treasure of Claremont is the 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival train station listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (under the name Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, which, along with the Pacific Land Improvement Company, founded Claremont).
“You must see the station from the railroad side,” a local urged me. “It’s even more beautiful!”
The depot remains a train stop today with Metrolink that connects to Los Angeles Union Station, but its interior was transformed into the Claremont Museum of Art showcasing works by local artists.
Above: Claremont's streets are lined with homes that look more East Coast.
I finally made my way to “the Benton,” nickname for the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, a block east of Bardot restaurant.
The Benton’s low-profile modernist design appears smaller than its 33,331 square feet of space that includes outdoor courtyards.
Constructed with recycled and locally sourced cast-in-place concrete, red clay tiles, red cedar, bronze and glass, it is home to a collection of over 15,000 objects.
Free and open to the public, the Benton’s permanent collections range from Indigenous art to Renaissance panel paintings to a new generation of cutting-edge artists.
“The Benton is a teaching museum,” said Caroline Eastburn, communications assistant at the museum (and Pomona College alumna), as she led me through the exhibits.
The museum’s massive collections cultivate students’ visual literacy as they examine art inspired by human experience throughout the world.
And I could only imagine the thrill of students in 1930 when Jose Clemente Orozco — one of the three great Mexican muralists of the 20th century (Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros were the other two) — was commissioned to paint a fresco inside Frary Dining Hall at Pomona College. He lived in a student dormitory until he completed “Prometheus,” his first mural in the U.S. that became one of his six major works.
At sunset, I visited “Dividing the Light,” James Turrell’s 2007 Skyspace installation on the Pomona College campus — the only Turrell Skyspace in Southern California open to the public. The quiet square space has a square reflecting pond in the centre, and a square “cut-out” in the canopy that frames the sky above. As the sun set and the sky darkened, the ceiling’s white canvas gently changed colours in a soothing light show. Light shows take place at sunset and dawn.
In the 21st century, Claremont might be ready for a nickname tweak: “City of the arts, trees, and PhDs.”
JUST THE FACTS
• Learn more about Claremont: https://discoverclaremont.com
• Benton Museum of Art: https://www.pomona.edu/museum
• James Turrell Skyspace: https://www.pomona.edu/museum/collections/james-turrell-skyspace
• California Botanic Garden: https://www.calbg.org
• A ccommodation: DoubleTree by Hilton, https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/ontcldt-doubletree-claremont