story and photos by Kayte Deioma
At the edge of the affluent community of San Marino, bordering on Pasadena sits the grand estate of Henry E. Huntington, a railroad and utilities magnate who bought the property in 1903 and used it as a base for developing the San Gabriel Valley. Huntington and his second wife, Arabella, filled the mansion they built on the grounds in 1911 with a world-class collection of British and French art.
There wasn’t enough room in the house to bring Huntington’s extensive book collection from New York, so he built a separate library building to house the thousands of first editions, historic documents and volumes on the American West. It took multiple railroad cars to bring the collected works to California when the building was finished in 1921. Meanwhile, out on the ranch, a landscape gardener by the name of William Hertrich was busy turning farmland into a showcase of diverse botanical specimens from the local deserts and around the world. Following Huntington’s instructions, the non-profit trust that he formed opened the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens to the public in 1928, a year after his death.
Many who visit the Huntington spend all of their time in the Gardens, which is easy to do on a lovely Southern California day. However, if you’re visiting during the winter rains or want to escape the summer heat, there is plenty to do indoors to keep the whole family occupied.
The Huntington Library
The Huntington Library is not your ordinary lending library. The collection contains over 5 million books, manuscripts, photographs and other works related to American and British history, literature and art. Most of these are hidden away in the Munger Research Center, available only to visitingscholars and researchers by special arrangement. For the rest of us, the Library Galleries display some of the most famous pieces along with rotating exhibits.
One of the best known volumes on display is an original illuminated Gutenberg Bible from around 1455. This is one of the earliest works printed with movable type. Johann Gutenberg is thought to have printed about 180 copies of the Latin bible in his workshop in Mainz, Germany, 45 on vellum and 135 on paper. The Huntington has one of only 12 surviving copies printed on vellum. Only one of the two volume set is on display.
Another highlight of the exhibit is the 15th century Ellsmere manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which Huntington purchased from the 4th Earl of Ellsmere. A double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Bird’s of America and early editions of Shakespeare’s works are other rare finds. In the 19th Century British and American Literature section, there are personal letters from Charlotte Bronte, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Harriet Beecher Stowe. American history documents include papers related to Abraham Lincoln and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The History of the American West is laid out in personal letters, articles, books and photos.
The Art Collections
In the West Wing of the Library, one of the most renowned pieces in the Huntington’s collection, Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th century Madonna and Child, is displayed among Renaissance paintings and French decorative arts and furnishings.
The Huntington Gallery is historically housed in the Huntington’s 1911 Georgian mansion. However, the mansion is undergoing renovations until summer of 2008, so the French and British art normally on view in the rooms of the main house are temporarily on display in the Erburu Gallery. This includes an impressive group of elegant full-length Grand Manner portraits by Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds and Lawrence. Two favorites, Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Lawrence’s Pinkie, which traditionally hung side by side in the mansion, occupy different rooms in the Erburu Galley.
The Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery is a wing that was added to the Virginia Steel Scott Gallery in 2005, so you don’t have to go outside to continue to the Scott Gallery. Here you will find paintings by American artists such as Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper and sculptures by Frederick Remington.
There are several rooms in the Scott Gallery dedicated to the Arts and Crafts Movement in architecture and furnishings. Highlights include three Frank Lloyd Wright chairs and a room devoted to the furniture, textiles and other designs of William Morris and his followers. The largest gallery showcases the work of local architects Henry and Charles Greene who built the Gamble House and many other notable Pasadena properties. There are two fully furnished dining areas with tables, chairs, sideboards, cupboards and leaded glass lamps.
The Boone Gallery, located in the remodeled multi-car garage, hosts temporary exhibits.
The Botanical Gardens
You can don your rain gear and explore the 120 acres divided into 12 themed gardens or you can escape into the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science which opened in 2005. Designed to appeal to middle school students, the glass-enclosed science lab allows kids and adults to zoom in on plants and bugs with magnifying video cameras that show the image on large LCD screens. You can test the sugar content of different plant nectars, see how helicopter and parachute seeds are carried by the wind, discover up close why burrs get caught in your socks, measure the nutrient levels in plant water and generally touch and smell different kinds of plants. If you’ve been through the Art Galleries, you can look for the plants that were in some of the paintings. The popular carnivorous bug-eating plant lab occupies one whole end of the Conservatory. Behind the glass-domed building is the Teaching Greenhouse with more hands-on discovery activities for kids and families.
The Rose Garden Tea Room and Café
English Tea is served Tuesday through Sunday in the Rose Garden Tea Room. Your English tea consists of a pot of tea, a basket of mini scones and a buffet of bite-size tea sandwiches and mini pastries. The Rose Garden Café on the back of the Tea Room serves deli sandwiches, grill items, snacks and beverages. During the summer you need an advance reservation for the Tea Room, but on a weekday in winter, you can probably walk in or get a reservation on site. No reservations are needed at the Café.
The Huntington has a first class gift shop and book store where you could probably spend another hour browsing through the books on art and history related to the Huntington collections and other typical museum gift shop items. The store stays open an additional half hour after the Library, Galleries and Gardens close, so you have a chance to stop on your way out.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Road (main entrance at Orlando Road at Allen Avenue)
San Marino, CA 91108
Phone: (626) 405-2100