Saying Farewell To Altadena's 'House Of The 10,000 Lights' Christmas Display
Balian ice cream was a part of people's childhoods, selling their deliciousness to local schools and grocers — and that ice cream money helped support Altadena's Balian House and its spectacular annual Christmas displays.
Once known as "the house of the 10,000 lights," the lights stopped shining in recent years. George Balian passed away in February at 88, after spending more than six decades in the home.
The house was built in 1922. George's father first bought it in the mid-1950s, according to volunteer researcher Eric Mulfinger with the Altadena Historical Society. Accounts differ on whether it was George's parents or George himself who put up the 1,500 lights on their first Christmas in the home, but either way, the whole family made it a tradition and continued putting up huge displays year after year.
They would start hanging lights in mid-September, continuing until everything was set up by early December. In recent years, the lights would stay hung up year-round, before coming to life for the Christmas season.
Local residents like Ken Moreno have the Balian imprinted on their minds (and their retinas thanks to all those lights). Moreno grew up in Monrovia and Arcadia, and his parents would take him to see the lights. Now a Pasadena resident for around 30 years, he made it an adult tradition, creating a Christmas tour for friends who weren't from the L.A. area.
He was always struck by the magnitude of the Balian's display.
"I'm sure that the shuttle astronauts could probably see it from space," Moreno said. "It's just so completely overpowering. When you turn onto the street, it's like you're getting hit with floodlights right in the eyes."
The Balian House had strings of lights that would hang from the roof down to the yard, creating what Moreno described as a circus tent-like effect. There were huge hand-painted plywood dioramas on both sides of the home showing angels, elves, and other symbols of the holidays, alongside plastic nativity figures.
There was an estate sale at the home earlier this year, which included all those iconic Christmas decorations. The house's once festive atmosphere, with hot cocoa being served and packed crowds lining up to take selfies in front, was replaced with people picking through the physical embodiments of their holiday memories.
There were also pieces from inside the house for sale, little seen to the larger public — 6-foot-tall crystal chandeliers, ornate furniture, and more from the house's long life.
"It was very over-the-top," Taylor Rodiger said.
Rodiger works for Earlybird Liquidation, which handled the Balian House's estate sale. A lot of people came just to see inside the local landmark, according to Rodiger. It was a throwback to the days when it used to open on occasion for public ice cream socials to benefit the local chamber of commerce.
Moreno was among the members of the public who toured the mansion during the estate sale. He felt the house seemed smaller on the inside than it had appeared, thanks to its V-shaped construction.
When he looked closer at the Christmas decorations, he realized that the end of the Balian's Christmas display had been a long time coming.
"They were chipped and needing paint, and the signs were kind of falling apart," Moreno said. "I just never noticed it because of all of the glamour and dazzle, but apparently it has fallen into ruin, and now this is time for it to retire permanently."
The signs featuring the Balian name were among the first items to go at the sale, according to Rodiger, along with the Christmas decorations.
"Because so many people remember it as part of their childhood," Rodiger said. "Everyone just wanted to take home a piece of it."
So why shut it down? Rodiger's impression was that the family needed a clean slate.
"The house basically was a time capsule," Rodiger said.
Many of the people who visited shared their feelings of loss with Rodiger, a sorrow for the removal of a community tradition. Rodiger remembers eating that Balian ice cream as a kid himself.
Since the sale, the house's front door has been boarded up.
"It looks pretty sad down there," the Altadena Historical Society's Mulfinger said. "The property is pretty derelict-looking."
"But there will never be anything like being there in person, seeing the lights, standing there with other people, jostling for position to take pictures," Moreno said.
George Balian once told the L.A. Times that the house's workmanship couldn't be duplicated today. But the home may see better days — funds from the sale are being used to restore it.
"I do drive by it fairly regularly, and I see service trucks there — they're working on it, so who knows what will happen in the future, in terms of the decorations?" Rodiger said.
The house is expected to go on the market soon. With the lights all sold off, any new owner would need to purchase their own decorations if they wanted to bring back the tradition. Whether the lights come back or not, Moreno is used to taking all the credit — at least as a joke online.
"A few years ago, I took a picture of myself in front of the mansion and posted it," Moreno said, "and griped about how I loved decorating 'my' house, but it cost a lot and cut into my comic-buying budget. Other posters were in awe, and one asked how much room my collection took up. 'Just the south wing, but both floors.'"