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Ten Ways to Explore 100 Years of The Huntington

Learn what the past says about its collectors on "Artbound" Monomania L.A.

Most Angelenos know it as “The Huntington Library” – or even simply as “The Huntington" – but you get a more in-depth insight into what "The H" really offers by reading its full name.

“The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.”

And it’s true that the highlights of this historic property are at once literary, artistic and horticultural.

But there’s so much more to behold when visiting this legendary institution, which started celebrating its centennial in September 2019. What began as a working ranch, with orange groves and avocado trees, blossomed into the estate of railroad magnate (and Pacific Electric Railway creator) Henry E. Huntington and his second wife (not to mention his aunt by marriage) Arabella.  After they deeded it for educational use, it’s become a bona fide destination for both scholars and the general public.

It’s hard to imagine “popping into” the Huntington, located in the City of San Marino (formerly the "San Marino Ranch"), for just a gentle stroll or a lunchtime visit. You could spend all day there, every day, for a week.

And because the seasons are always changing — and therefore what's in bloom is ever-evolving — you’ll have a different experience every month out of the year, if not even more frequently than that.

The Huntington can be daunting for the casual visitor. But it’s a welcome challenge for those who are up for it — those who can devote some serious attention to it.

Much like Los Angeles itself.

For both the uninitiated and the well-traveled regular, here are the ten best ways to explore the wonders of The Huntington, inside and out, in its 100th year.

1. Huntington Art Gallery

Although some consider the library as the primary offering of The Huntington, start your journey at the European art gallery — housed in the Beaux-Arts-style residence of the Huntingtons, who were avid art collectors. First opened as a British art gallery in 1928 (a year after Mr. Huntington’s death), it’s perhaps most renowned as the home of “Pinkie” by Thomas Lawrence (acquired 1927) and “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough (acquired 1921, currently off display during conservation efforts). Another highlight is the 18-foot-high David Healey Memorial Window from the Unitarian Chapel, Heywood, Lancashire (now demolished) — a series of ten leaded art glass panels from 1898 that depicts Truth, Faith, Love, Courage, Generosity, Charity, Justice, Mercy and Humility. You’ll find it encompassing two levels of a stairwell.

But aside from its paintings, vases, sculptures and other art pieces, this 55,000-square-foot villa is where you can see how luxuriously the Huntingtons lived in the Gilded Age. Primarily designed in 1909 by Myron Hunt (of the Ambassador Hotel and Rose Bowl), the exterior evokes at once a late 19th-century Italian or Spanish Renaissance country house and a French palace, while the interior reflects Mrs. Huntington’s fascination with the style of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Surviving the transformation into a gallery is the mansion’s double staircase, drawing room, breakfast room, dining room and library — the latter of which once showcased the largest book collection in the country, though Huntington only started collecting at age 60.

David Healey Memorial Window | Sandi Hemmerlein
David Healey Memorial Window | Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art

It wasn't until 1984 that The Huntington was able to boast of an American art collection. But now, thanks to a major gift from the foundation of deceased Pasadena arts patron Virginia Steele Scott, The Huntington has one of the largest presentations of American art in the entire state (at least, from the colonial period to the mid-20th century).

While you can find paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries, the highlight — especially perhaps for Pasadenans — is the Greene & Greene exhibition, whose items include furnishings, decorative arts (like stained glass), lighting fixtures, and even intact architectural elements. Marvel at the reassembled stairway from Pasadena’s Dr. Arthur A. Libby house, circa 1905 (demolished in 1968), and the casement windows from Long Beach’s Adelaide Tichenor house (extant), circa 1904.

3. The Huntington Library

One of the world's most renowned independent research facilities of its kind, The Huntington Library has collected more than 11 million manuscripts and other items dating back to the 11th century — from Shakespeare to Thoreau and even Benjamin Franklin and Jack London. Entire holdings from such libraries as the William Bixby Library, Bridgewater House Library, Elihu Dwight Church Library and the Ninth Duke of Devonshire’s collection have been acquired — but most of it, unfortunately, is reserved only for eligible researchers (or “readers”). But for non-scholars, there’s a large exhibition hall in the library building, where a portion of the vast collection is put on display in various themed exhibits. Note how, in 1923, several windows in the 1919-built building were bricked off and plastered over to keep sunlight exposure from damaging the rare books and manuscripts. 

The Huntington Library | Sandi Hemmerlein
The Huntington Library | Sandi Hemmerlein

Be sure to find the Dibner Hall of the History of Science, which occupies an entire wing of the library building and helps make The Huntington one of the world’s most important destinations for students of the history of science. First opened in 2008 — and largely based on the Burndy Library collection of historian Bern Dibner — the hall covers astronomy, medicine, electricity, light, engineering, Darwinian evolution and other scientific disciplines of the Western Hemisphere. One of its most unique collections is of nearly 400 light bulbs, some hand-blown, originally amassed by Dr. Samuel Hibben of the Westinghouse Electric Company in the 1920s. About half of them are on display, ranging from the 1890s to the 1960s. Other intriguing objects include antique telescopes, anatomical models, early X-ray images, sundials, a camera obscura, an interactive display of Kircher’s mirror trick and a replica of a microscope pioneered by 17th-century optician and microscope maker John Marshall.

4. The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science

The Huntington’s Conservatory becomes a hotspot when its specimen of the oddball “corpse flower” (Amorphophallus titanum) decides to bloom on rare occasions, the first one in August 1999 and the most recent one being July 2019. But there are plenty more reasons to delve into this 16,000-square-foot domed greenhouse. A portion of one of the country’s largest orchid collections is housed there (including the “Darwin Orchid,” Angraecum sesquipedale), as well as plants that thrive in rainforest, cloud forest and bog habitats. It makes for a damp visit (up to 95% humidity) — but this is the only way that some Southern Californians will ever encounter such water-loving and even carnivorous plants, including Venus flytraps and pitcher plants.

Corpse flower | Sandi Hemmerlein
Corpse flower | Sandi Hemmerlein

Since it first opened in 2005, the Conservatory has educated the public about plant biodiversity and ecosystems. Under that steel and glass ceiling, you’ll find a great place to take the entire family — if not only for the novelty of the smell of rotting meat (see: corpse flower) and meat-eating plants, but also for the “plant petting zoo” in the Plant Lab and a tree that’ll show them where chocolate comes from! Be sure to stop at the Hummingbird Gazebo outside the entrance, facing the Children’s Garden, to observe a flurry of activity among Anna's hummingbirds, Allen’s hummingbirds and more.

5. Desert Garden

Among the Huntington’s 120 acres of botanical gardens — featuring more than a dozen botanically-themed areas — a highlight is the Desert Garden on a sunny, south-facing slope of the estate’s grounds. The 10-acre garden was first established 1907 and now includes more than 2,000 species of cacti, succulents and other arid-adapted or desert plants — making it one of the world’s oldest and largest such assemblages. Two dozen families of desert plants are represented in the Desert Garden, including some rare specimens that are no longer found in the wild. Not all of them are natives because many were initially collected by superintendent William Hertrich on trips to the deserts of the American Southwest and Mexico (as well as from local nurseries, private residences and public parks) — all brought in by rail, of course. The garden now also includes species from Africa, the Canary Islands and beyond.

Of the world’s 300 species of aloes, you’ll find 200 of them here — most from southern Africa. Look for the photogenic cluster of 500 golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii), many weighing several hundred pounds, as they were planted from seed prior to 1915. Some specimens of Yucca filifera grow to 60 feet tall, but the real giant of the desert-themed garden is the 20-ton Cereus xanthocarpus, a tree-like columnar cactus that was already mature when it was planted in 1905. Find it flowering in late summer and fruiting in September/October. Fans of terrestrial bromeliads will enjoy the inclusion of two rare species from Chile (Puya alpestris “Sapphire Tower” and P. chilensisSheep-eating plant”), both of which usually bloom in April/early May. 

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6. Japanese Garden

The historic Japanese Garden has been a major presence at The Huntington since 1912, although it didn’t officially open to the public until 1928. It’s located on nine acres of what once was a rugged gorge — which turned out to be the perfect landscape setting for faux bois trellises, koi ponds and the distinctive Moon Bridge (completed circa 1912) through a traditional “stroll garden.” Built by Japan-born master carpenter and shipbuilder Toichiro Kawai, the bridge’s high arch evokes the image of the moon when reflected in the pond below. One of our country’s best examples of early 20th-century Japanese architecture can be found in the restored Japanese House, comprised of several Japanese woods. Elements of it were created in Japan and then shipped to Pasadena to be used in George Turner Marsh’s (later failed) commercial garden around 1904. Mr. Huntington acquired it in 1911 when Western fascination with Asian culture had become widespread.

Moon bridge | Carren Jao
Moon bridge | Carren Jao

Tucked away among the pink cloud cherry blossom trees, you’ll find a later addition to the Japanese Garden — a 1960s-era Urasenke teahouse, called Seifu-an (the “Arbor of Pure Breeze”). It was built in Kyoto and resided at the Pasadena Buddhist Temple until recently when it was donated to The Huntington, sent back to Japan for restoration and reassembled in San Marino. While it doesn’t actually serve refreshments, it’s an excellent place to view demonstrations of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. While you’re there, don’t miss the bonsai collection, added in 1968, which now numbers in the hundreds.

7. Chinese Garden

You’ll find one of the largest classical-style Chinese gardens outside China at the northwest corner of The Huntington. The “Garden of Flowing Fragrance” has been introduced to visitors in phases — the first being dedicated in 2008 after nearly a decade of planning, and the second debuting in 2014. The grand opening of the final phase of the Chinese Garden — featuring such new elements as an exhibition complex and a larger café with outdoor seating — will be one of the keystone events in the Centennial Celebration, scheduled for May 2020.

With the San Gabriel Mountains as a backdrop, enjoy the scents of the trees and flowers (not the least of which are the world-class camellias), which shift and evolve as one season gives way to another. Read the lines of poetry inscribed among the multiple pavilions, which are connected by bridges and decorated with carvings. Around the perimeter of the manmade lakes (the "Pond of Reflected Greenery" and "Lake of Reflected Fragrance"), you’ll find prized limestone rocks — known as “scholar’s rocks” — sourced from Lake Tai, which borders China’s capital of classical gardens, Suzhou.

8. Orbit Pavilion

A completely different kind of pavilion is located on the Celebration Lawn by the 1919 Café and Celebration Garden — the Orbit Pavilion, an outdoor installation that provides an innovative "soundscape" experience within a 30-foot-wide aluminum nautilus shell. It first arrived with great fanfare in October 2016 and was only supposed to run through February 2017 — but it’s proven so popular, it’s still on view three years later.

It was designed as a way to convey the unseen and the unheard — specifically, the movement of satellites as they pass overhead. Representing the International Space Station and 19 other satellites whose missions are to observe, study and monitor atmosphere, weather, climate, pollution and even land use. The brainchild of JPL’s Dan Goods and David Delgado — visual strategists who collaborated with composer Shane Myrbeck and architect Jason Klimoski of StudioKCA — it seems particularly fitting considering how Mr. Huntington was partially inspired to create The Huntington 100 years ago by Caltech’s co-founder, George Ellery Hale.

Orbit Pavilion | Sandi Hemmerlein
Orbit Pavilion | Sandi Hemmerlein

9. Mausoleum

Overlooking the gardens from a knoll above the orange groves — a spot that Mr. Huntington loved — you’ll find the mausoleum where both Henry and Arabella Huntington are buried. It’s a Greek-style temple, with a circular peristyle and dome constructed of limestone marble from Colorado’s Yule Creek Valley. Completed in 1929, it was designed by architect John Russell Pope, who went on to employ a similar approach to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In the inner colonnade, mounted onto the masonry of freestanding pillars, are marble bas-relief panels by sculptor John Gregory, representing how each of the four seasons relates to the four stages of life. The sculptures were painstakingly cleaned in a 2012 restoration.

10. Centennial special offerings

While at The Huntington, start your centennial adventure in the Mapel Orientation Gallery, where you can grab some guides and maps as takeaways and brush up on The Huntington’s 100-year timeline. Next, in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery (housed in the Huntingtons’ circa 1911 garage), you’ll find The Huntington’s centennial exhibition, "Nineteen Nineteen” — featuring objects that were made, published, edited, exhibited or acquired 100 years ago, just months following the end of World War I and in the thick of the Spanish flu pandemic. The year 1919 marked the passage of women’s suffrage and Prohibition — just two of the complexities unpacked by both the exhibition, on view until January 20, 2020, and its companion book “Nineteen Nineteen” (Huntington Library Press/Angel City Press, available at The Huntington Store), written by Huntington curators James Glisson and Jennifer Watts.

Howard Chandler Christy (1873–1952), The Spirit of America—Join, 1919. Lithograph, Boston: Forbes for the American Red Cross | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
Howard Chandler Christy (1873–1952), The Spirit of America—Join, 1919. Lithograph, Boston: Forbes for the American Red Cross | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

The Huntington’s Centennial is also being commemorated by a special variety of rose, “Huntington's 100th.” The fragrant yellow and pink rose hybrid is on display both in the Rose Garden (created in 1908) and in a dedicated garden just north of the American Art Gallery. And 2020 will kick off with a Rose Parade float, “Cultivating Curiosity,” that will depict several iconic elements in The Huntington’s collections — the Pavilion of the Three Friends, the tempietto from the Rose Garden, and of course a corpse flower

Top Image: Celebration garden | Sandi Hemmerlein 

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