The Indoor/Outdoor Museum Experience
Last visit…November 29, 2015…Three updates below since I first wrote this initial report in 2012 focus on other aspects of the Huntington and a famous stinky flower…
There are a lot of things I appreciate more as an adult than I did as a kid. They include naps, Mozart, a good bottle of bourbon and an excellent museum located virtually in my own backyard. As a youngster, the gorgeous gardens at the Huntington Library were just a pretty cool place to play an extended version of hide and seek from my parents (who I think were happy not to find me at times).
I’m always perplexed when people recommending sights to a tourist visiting Los Angeles will start with venues such as the Venice Beach boardwalk and Santa Monica Pier while excluding the Huntington. If you like strange people who haven’t showered since the Bush administration (the first Bush), extreme weightlifters with bodies that bulge in places that shouldn’t bulge, getting your nipples pierced or buying crappy trinkets, the Venice Beach Boardwalk can be entertaining. Other people highly recommend a journey to the Santa Monica Pier, because I guess you just can’t get enough Ferris Wheels, Skee Ball and Whac-A-Mole in your life.
If it’s the ocean you like, there are many other more desirable Southern California venues (in my opinion) that afford better views without all the kitsch. But I digress.
What is often left off the list of Los Angeles-area attractions by many Angelenos is the Huntington Library, located a mere 45 minutes east of Venice Beach and 35 minutes east of Santa Monica (in traffic you can double that). Of course, you don’t have aging hippies with their 80s Walkman radios rollerblading here, and there isn’t a Whac-A-Mole to be found, but here is why I find the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens one of the most fascinating places not only in the Los Angeles area but in the world.
According to its website, The Huntington was founded in 1919 by Henry E. Huntington, a businessman “who built a financial empire that included railroad companies, utilities, and real estate holdings in Southern California.”
He had a “special interest in books, art, and gardens. During his lifetime, he amassed the core of one of the finest research libraries in the world, established a splendid art collection, and created an array of botanical gardens with plants from a geographic range spanning the globe.”
Huntington bought about 1,000 acres of land from George S. Patton Sr., the father of the famed United States Army general, and he developed the town of San Marino, located just south of Pasadena. Although Huntington did not visit Europe until he was 63, (14 years before his death), he was able to amass “far and away the greatest group of 18th-century British portraits ever assembled by any one man” before his death in 1927. The collection, worth $50 million, went on display in 1928 in his former residence, one year after his death.
On a sunny Sunday (almost redundant for this part of the world) morning, Tracy and I decided to visit the Huntington. One of the reasons was to witness the “Return Of An Icon,” otherwise known as the historic Japanese Garden. Fortunately for us, The Huntington Library is located only about seven minutes from our house, and we arrived there right when it opened at 10:30 a.m. It cost $20 apiece (more on that later) for admittance, and in we went. Since we were early, we headed toward the Japanese Garden before the crowds arrived.
We first came upon a goose, who would have nothing to do with us or anyone else attempting to capture a photo. “Hey, I’m getting a tan,” he quacked, so off we went. Next, we passed the North Vista Camellia Garden (too late for camellias), that also has some beautiful sculptures.
When Henry Huntington purchased the San Marino Ranch in 1903, it was a working ranch with citrus groves, nut and fruit orchards, alfalfa crops, a small herd of cows, and poultry. Huntington and his superintendent, William Hertrich, worked together to mold that ranch into a botanical garden of rare and exotic plants. Today, the botanical gardens cover 207 acres (120 landscaped) that include 14,000 different varieties of plants and flowers.
These gardens had recently gone through a $6.8 million renovation in 2012.
The 9-acre garden celebrated its 100th birthday in 2012. I must say that even I appreciated this area when I was a kid.
…and looked at some Viewing Stones, an ancient Japanese art form.
The three and a half acre rose garden has about 4,000 individual plants and one very tired gardener. I was told the bees are friendly.
Nearby was a cook’s paradise, the Herb Garden. A relatively new garden here (started in the 1970s), it contains herbs you know and herbs you’ve never heard of before. The garden is arranged according to the uses made of the herbs from medicines to cooking to soaps. I refrained from singing Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.
We wandered into more flower power as we headed for a place I have never visited at the Huntington Library.
Our next stop was the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, which includes works from the 1690s to the 1950s. You can pick up a free audio guide at the entrance to the gallery. We gazed at the portrait of George Washington painted in 1797 by Gilbert Stuart, and Edward Hopper’s famous painting of the Long Point Light in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Long Leg (which I always thought was the leg lamp from Christmas Story).
This gallery had everything from the sublime (a dining room table and chairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) to boxes of Brillo created by none other than Andy Warhol (I often wonder how he got even 15 minutes of fame).
By this time, Tracy and I decided we would become members, and we are looking forward to exploring more of this gallery.
On the way to the Conservatory (Professor Plum with a knife), there were more photogenic shots that we could not pass up.
I was hot enough without sweating in a humid tropical forest, so we exited, and soon we saw a bunch of kids running amok, but it was ok because we had entered the Children’s Garden. This is a place where children (geared for kids 2-7) can get a hands-on experience about the elements and the earth. It’s also a great place for parents to take a load off while their kids get tired running around.
The gallery is quite impressive and also includes a free audio guide.
There is also a place to eat (Freshwater Pavilion, located in the Chinese garden) and enjoy the surroundings.
The Chinese Garden Tea House is also open weekends, Monday holidays, and Free Days from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Tracy and I had already spent nearly three hours at the Huntington, exceeding our usual “Museum Two-Hour Limit,” but we still needed to see one more site before we left; the Mausoleum where we could find the tomb of Henry Huntington and one of his wives (the last one…Arabella). We asked a museum employee where it was located, and he said, “Did you see that sign that said ‘Do Not Enter’?” We had.
“Well,” he added, “that’s the way to the Mausoleum.” Being scofflaws at heart, Tracy and I followed his advice, and after passing rows of orange trees, we turned left and there in front of us was The Mini Jefferson Memorial…or so it seemed.
And there was a reason it looked so familiar, the guy who designed this also designed the Jefferson Memorial. This is from the Huntington Library website: “Constructed of Colorado Yule marble, the mausoleum of Henry and Arabella Huntington overlooks the gardens from a knoll in the middle of the orange groves. It was a spot that Mr. Huntington loved. Mr. Huntington selected John Russell Pope, one of America’s most distinguished architects, to design the mausoleum in the form of a Greek temple. Pope believed the classic circular peristyle (or double colonnade) and dome were well suited to the nature of the Huntington grounds because it presented a perfect front from every angle, and was a combination of two perfect forms, the circle, and sphere. Pope later used a similar design in the construction of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.”
Of course, since it is called the Huntington Library, and although Tracy and I had visited this in recent years, we made a quick walk through because (1), there is some cool stuff and (2), it was getting damned hot outside so this afforded a few minutes of respite from the heat.
The library of the Huntington Library is one of the largest research libraries in the United States. There are rare books, manuscripts, prints and photographs that bring history to life. In addition to temporary exhibits, some of the permanent displays in the library include Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America and a lot of early editions of Shakespeare’s works.
Now on our 4th hour of touring the Huntington (nearly a museum record for us), Tracy and I decided to actually become members of the Huntington Library, and without even a background check, they let us join for a Family Membership that cost $120 (minus the $40 we had spent on today’s tickets). Now we can go back for a year for free to see some of the areas we missed, go back to our favorite spots and take a closer look at the art galleries.
So with due respect to those who prefer tattoo artists to renowned artists, I submit that if you are venturing to the Los Angeles vicinity, it would be difficult to top a visit to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, assuming, of course, you are not addicted to Whac-A-Mole.
FIRST UPDATE: August 2013: On our initial visit last April, we missed out seeing the Desert Garden and the Lily Ponds. We came back today, and after bypassing the long line to get in by going in the “Sorry Peons, We Are Members” line, we headed down to the Lily Ponds.
It was blistering hot at 10:40, so we knew this would be a short visit today.
We saw a cool Dragon Fly and a friendly Turtle. According to the Huntington Library website, “The pond water, which is circulated and recycled, is home to turtles, bullfrogs, Japanese koi, aquatic plants, and an occasional mallard family.”
There were, indeed, some coy Koi to be found, a Mallard (I think) not to mention another turtle who was trying to beat the heat.
Then it was on to the Desert Garden…
…which was undoubtedly an appropriate setting with the soaring temperature.
The Huntington Desert Garden is one of the largest and oldest assemblages of cacti and other succulents in the world and is nearly 100 years old.
By now Tracy and I felt 100 years old, too…
SECOND UPDATE: August 2014: Any flower called a Corpse I gad to see…and smell. So when the Huntington Library announced that a famed Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum…commonly known as a “Corpse Flower”), a flowering plant that is native to Sumatra, was about to bloom, we had to go. So did hundreds of other people on a late Sunday, summer afternoon.
When the first one of these bloomed at the Huntington in 1999, more than 75,000 people showed up, since this was only the 11th time one had bloomed in the United States. This year’s Corpse Flower was the Huntington’s fourth in the past 15 years.
The curator of the Huntington Library, Dylan Hannon, said, “It peaks at night. When it smells its strongest is at night when it’s in its female stage for basically one or two nights.” Sadly by the time we got there, it didn’t stink anymore, but it was still quite an event.
We took some photos, and a Huntington employee would take people’s cameras (like mine) and take a photo into its center. According to the Huntington website: “The plant’s towering inflorescence reached a height of 5 ft. 6 inches before it opened and released its foul-smelling odor, a signal to attract pollinating insects.”
THIRD UPDATE: November 2015: Even in winter, the Huntington is a beautiful place to visit. As you can see, it was a gorgeous Southern California morning as we entered through the relatively new entrance to the Huntington.
Love that bridge!
Before leaving the garden areas, we came upon some lovely succulents.
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Road
San Marino, CA 91108
Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – 12 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday – 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Cost: (Adults) Weekdays – $15 • Weekends: $20
(Seniors 65+) Weekdays – $12 • Weekends: $15
(Kids 12 – 18) Weekdays – $10 • Weekends: $20
(Kids 5 – 11) Weekdays – $6 • Weekends: $6
(Kids under 5) Free
Really Cool Huntington Library Members – Free