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Huntington Gardens: The Acquisition of Nature

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Mergers and Acquisitions
In the spring of 1892, the amiable and highly competitive railroad executive Henry E. Huntington was in the process of a life-changing move. After spending his first forty-two years in the Northeast, primarily New York City, he was on his meandering way to San Francisco to help his uncle, tycoon Collis Huntington, expand the Southern Pacific Railroads. On his first night in California he spent the evening in the fine Victorian home of Sue and J.D. Shorb. Nestled in the San Gabriel Valley, the mountains in the distance, the house sat on a vista that overlooked a 600+ acre working ranch, filled with scraggly orange trees and grape vineyards. The place was called San Marino, after Shorb's boyhood home in Maryland, but before that it had been called Lake Vineyard and before that Huerta de Cuati.

Whatever its name, Henry never forgot the place.

Eleven years later, Shorb died, leaving his widow Sue in massive debt. Sue's younger sister Ruth and her husband, Los Angeles attorney George S. Patton, came to the ranch with their children, including George Jr., the future WWII general. Patton the elder assumed responsibility of the floundering ranch even after it was sold at public auction to the Farmers and Merchants Bank.

At this point firmly established with his wife and four children in San Francisco, Henry Huntington was richer than ever thanks to the partial fortune he inherited at his uncle Collis' death in 1900 (Collis' widow would inherit the rest). He saw a chance to purchase the property he had coveted for so many years. In 1903 he bought up San Marino and several surrounding properties, making him the owner of 800+ acres of run-down California real estate.

Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia

Henry was soon to acquire something else of great value. In 1913, after scandalously divorcing his first wife, Henry married his Uncle Collis' widow Arabella, and in doing so kept one of the great American fortunes intact. It seems an attachment had formed long before, and her influence on what followed cannot be understated. For Arabella was one of the foremost collectors of the Gilded Age, and for a time the world's richest woman.

Arabella "Belle" Huntington was a fascinating figure. She was born poor, in around 1850, most probably in Virginia, though her tombstone claims Alabama. The daughter of a boardinghouse keeper, Belle was a massively intelligent beauty with naturally refined tastes. It was in her mother's faded Richmond boardinghouse that she met the robust, unhappily married Collis in 1868. She became his mistress, following him to New York and eventually giving birth to a child, Archer, who is presumed to have been his. In 1884, ten months after the death of his wife, Collis and Belle were married. She quickly began to collect artwork and houses, including a mansion on 5th Avenue that is now Tiffany and Company. After Collis' death she always wore imposing widow's weeds, and seems to have slowly exerted complete control of second husband Henry, cultivating his mania for collecting and directing the course of his life. One acquaintance recalled that whenever the heat of Southern California was too oppressive she would announce, "We're leaving for New York immediately."

Without a beat, Henry, who hated to leave his beloved San Marino, would instruct his valet, "Pack my things -- let's go."

Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The Shorbs' Victorian home was torn down to make way for the Huntington's Beaux-Arts Mediterranean mansion in its place. With an eye toward the future, Henry instructed architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey to build a home centered around his and Arabella's various collections. While Arabella tended to the interiors, working with the legendary art dealer Lord Duveen to amass the greatest collection of 18th century British portraiture stateside, along with an impressive amount of French Rococco furniture and tapestries, Henry focused on the lovely, temperate land that had drawn him to SoCal in the first place.

Henry kept George Patton Sr. on in various capacities, and in 1904 it was Patton who introduced Henry to 26-year-old William Hertrich, the man who would transform the old citrus ranch into one of the premier botanical gardens in the United States. Born in Germany, Hertrich was trained as a landscape gardener. After being hired he quickly installed a nursery and irrigation system and set about experimenting with many different imported species of plants to see what grew best in the mild California climate. Soon, he was superintendent of the entire estate.

Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Henry was no slouch either, finding a competitive outlet in the rarefied and often underhanded world of specimen collecting. When he wasn't sponsoring Hertrich's botanical expeditions to South America and Mexico, he was covertly pocketing whatever interested him -- including horse chestnuts, seeds of mountain laurels and dahlia bulbs. While on a tour of Europe he sent Hertrich seeds from melons he ate in France and Spain. Most importantly, after enjoying an avocado downtown at the A-list Jonathan Club, Henry brought the pit to Hertrich. That seed resulted in the first commercial avocado growth in California. Huntington was also passionate about tree preservation and sponsored many of the first modern experiments in tree surgery.

Of course, Arabella had some demands on the land as well. Although there was an abundant Pasadena famers' market, she preferred that the estate be self-sustaining, so six small greenhouses were erected to grow a huge variety of vegetables including tomatoes, okras and squash. To supply fruit, vineyards were planted to grow tangerines, kumquats, plums, walnuts, cherries, and more. Since her eyesight was failing, huge bouquets of flowers were needed in the mansion. Hertrich planted private gardens for Arabella adjacent to the mansion (the site of the present herb garden). In 1915 alone, cut flowers sent into the home from these gardens included 1,850 orchids, 3,900 pink and white glasshouse roses, and 2,900 outdoor roses.

As long as Arabella's needs were fully met, Henry and Hertrich were free to create an agro-menagerie unheard of in Southern California. In keeping with the times and no doubt inspired by Monet's Giverny, lily ponds spreading across four acres were completed in 1904. Always inventive, Hertrich installed heated lining in the pond beds to extend the lily's blooming season. Next came the rose garden and the palm garden. The durable tropical palm was a favorite of Huntington, and via his railway stations he ushered their spread across Southern California.

In 1907, Henry and Hertrich sat under a sycamore tree worrying over the gravelly, desolate eastern side of the property. Hertrich, who had grown cactus on his windowsill in Germany, suggested to Henry that a desert garden might be the solution. Henry initially refused, having met with some nasty prickly pear in his days surveying the rails. But in 1908 he relented and allowed Hertrich to plant a trial desert garden on a sunny, south facing slope.


Hertrich acquired specimens from all over the southwest, including a large load of Arizona cactus, and tons of volcanic rock which he carefully arranged around the garden. Some cacti were incompatible with the climate, but agaves, yuccas, and aloes did very well. Though it was never Henry's favorite, the desert garden soon became famous among plant collectors and Henry's rich industrialist friends. After that Hertrich had free reign, and today the 12-acre garden, with over 5,000 exotic species, is considered one of the finest in the world. The modern visitor can see some of Hertrich's oldest acquisitions on the recently renovated "Heritage Walk."

The early 20th century saw a mania for all things "oriental." In 1912, Hertrich created an "oriental" garden in a previously unattractive canyon, which featured a mishmash of the many different cultural planting traditions of Asia. Huntington purchased a traditional Japanese home which he had reconstructed on-site, and over the years the garden took on more Japanese characteristics -- including the exquisite Moon Bridge, so called because the bridge makes a full moon-shaped shadow in the pond below. Ironically, most of the plants were Chinese natives. This cultural fuzziness was remedied in 2008 when the lovely Chinese Garden was opened adjacent to the Japanese Garden.

By the time of Henry's death in 1927 (Arabella had died three years earlier), he and the untiring Hertrich had developed over half of the estate's available acreage. The gardens installed included the prized camellia grove, whose exquisite classical statues reminds one of the formal gardens of France, and a collection of ancient cycads, began in 1910, which is one of the finest in the world. The Huntington was opened to the public in 1928 and Hertrich stayed on as foreman and superintendent until 1948, then working in an advisory capacity until his own death in 1966.

Arabella and Henry are in San Marino for eternity, in a grand neoclassical temple, surrounded by tall trees no doubt planted with William Hertrich's own hands.

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