At 100, Huntington Library Embraces the Next Age

huntington library
All photos courtesy Huntington Library
Workers pose in front of the Huntington residence under construction in 1911. Henry and Arabella Huntington (pictured in inset photos) bequeathed their expansive property and collections 100 years ago, creating what is now the Huntington Library. The institution begins its centennial celebration today.

The dream that Henry and Arabella Huntington began to fulfill 100 years ago with the stroke of a pen has endured and adapted to the ebbs and flows of society, nature’s wrath and the passage of time.
Now the embodiment of that dream, the Huntington Library, bears a new formal name — the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, with “Museum” taking the place of “Collections.” The change, unveiled last Thursday during the kickoff of the institution’s centennial celebration, is meant to reflect the Huntington’s evolving attitude as it sails into the future.
“With the word ‘museum,’ we underscore our mission as a collections-based institution that not only collects art but interprets, displays, researches and conserves it, interacting with our varied audiences and showcasing our collections’ relevance to the public,” Huntington President Karen Lawrence said last week.
As the Huntington Library kicks off its yearlong centennial celebration today, one could almost call this the dawn of phase two of the storied Southern California institution, which has enchanted generations of scholars, enthusiasts and artists with its comprehensive literary and written collections, myriad botanical gardens and dynamic art displays that fill 207 acres in tiny, picturesque San Marino.
Addressing guests at the event, Lawrence detailed how a decade’s worth of correspondence from astronomer George Ellery Hale — a founder of Caltech and the Mount Wilson Observatory — “politely badgered” Henry Huntington to share his vast and growing collection with the world and to see it for the cultural significance it carried.
“As I look out at you — the leaders of Southern California’s and, particularly, L.A.’s cultural, academic and civic institutions — Huntington’s prescience is demonstrably in evidence,” Lawrence said. “Although these two men couldn’t possibly foresee what was produced during those hundred years, it’s a testament to their legacy and Arabella’s that the Huntington annually attracts 1,700 visiting scholars in addition to over 750,000 visitors from around the world.”
Randy Shulman, vice president for advancement and external relations at the Huntington, explained prior to the kickoff that the institution’s focus will be building on a century of success.
“I think the most important message for our centennial year is to look at ourselves as one of the foremost cultural institutions in Los Angeles, and then look forward to the next 100 years to search for ways to amplify the Huntington’s image in ways to reach even deeper into many different parts of the community through the variety of audiences we work with,” he said. “In the 21st century, the Huntington will have ever much focus on being a physical place in Los Angeles for people to come here.”
The institution will be celebrating its 100th birthday in style. The “Nineteen Nineteen” exhibition slated to open this month will highlight items tied in some way to the Huntington’s birth year. Another exhibit will showcase contemporary items acquired since the end of the last century but not yet shown publicly. A Shakespearean theater troupe will perform the “bad quarto” of “Hamlet,” an exceedingly rare copy of which remains in the Huntington’s possession. L.A. college students will have a chance to win free memberships. On Jan. 1, the Huntington will have its own float in Pasadena’s famed Rose Parade.
“The energy here is incredible,” Shulman said of the centennial celebration. “People are busy with the excitement of being able to show how the Huntington will be even more relevant. At the same time, we’re also saying what we have learned from this and how to get bigger, stronger and better to work with a bigger world.”
Part of that preparation and transformation for “the next hundred years,” Shulman and others in leadership positions at the Huntington said, will be expanding the ways in which people worldwide can remotely access all that the institution has to offer.
“Not everyone needs to come here to be affected by us,” Shulman said. “Of course, we don’t anticipate the Huntington ever becoming a place where people wouldn’t want to come visit — that’s not the point — but we can find novel ways to engage them, when they can’t come here or they’re far away. Many of those ways of reaching people at a distance are very cost effective and offer enormous value for the effort spent producing them. There are ways to leverage what we’re doing for a regional audience and make it more valuable for a broader audience.”

Visitors at the Huntington Library in 1930 view “The Blue Boy,” the seminal portrait by Thomas Gainsborough famously acquired by Henry Huntington in 1920 in what was then the highest sum paid for artwork.
Photos courtesy Huntington Library
Visitors at the Huntington Library in 1930 view “The Blue Boy,” the seminal portrait by Thomas Gainsborough famously acquired by Henry Huntington in 1920 in what was then the highest sum paid for artwork.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Henry E. Huntington, the railroad magnate behind the Pacific Electric Railway, bought what was then called the San Marino Ranch in 1903 from the prominent pioneer family of James De Barth Shorb, who had received the property from Benjamin Wilson after wedding the landowner and politician’s daughter Maria. Huntington would co-found the city of San Marino in 1913; like the ranch, the city was named in tribute to the enclave republic within Italy.
In the coming years, Huntington and wife Arabella would begin to fill out their fine art collections. They hired William Hertrich as their head gardener; his first projects were the Palm Garden and the lily ponds. The Desert Garden was completed in 1907, and the Rose Garden followed a year later. The Japanese Garden was added in 1912 and Hertrich began what would become the Camellia Garden that year as well.
Among the Huntingtons’ other notable early acquisitions were a two-volume Gutenberg Bible, the manuscripts for Benjamin Franklin’s memoirs, Shakespeare’s first quartos of “Hamlet” and the Ellesmere manuscript of “The Canterbury Tales.”
What was to that point a private collection changed in 1919: The Huntingtons turned it into a collections-based institution that would bring multiple facets of art, literary and botanical history to one location, where visitors could benefit from all of it. The Huntingtons signed this legal document on Aug. 30, 1919.
Much of the 1920s was spent preparing the institution for the public. Manuscripts and artwork — the famed portraits “The Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” among them — continued to be acquired, and the facilities that would house them were built. Alas, neither Henry nor Arabella Huntington would see the institution’s gates open to the public: She died in 1924 and he in 1927. When the Huntington opened in 1928, more than 50,000 would visit in the first five months.
The Huntington was not impervious to the Great Depression of the 1930s, with expenditures limited to upkeep throughout the gardens and other avenues for much of the economic crisis’ duration. Nevertheless, the art gallery did see an expansion and two new initiatives began: research on the development of Southern California and artwork conservation efforts.
World War II also reached the Huntington in indirect ways. Rare items were shipped away for safekeeping in the event of aerial bombing. More than 40,000 plants were grown for use in military camouflage.
Most tragically, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to intern Japanese-Americans in camps included a swath of gardeners and groundskeepers at the Huntington. Locals in 1958 signaled an appreciation for Japanese culture and contributions to the area by funding the restoration of the Japanese Garden and house, which had gone into decline because of the internments.

This 1914 photograph shows the Japanese Garden approximately two years after it was established at the Huntington residence.
This 1914 photograph shows the Japanese Garden approximately two years after it was established at the Huntington residence.

Trustees began developing a new master plan in 1964 that would address the need for large garden spaces to accommodate Southern California’s postwar population boom. Hertrich, the man behind institution’s botanical gardens, died in 1966. New botanical additions in this era included the Australian Garden (1964), Zen Garden (1968) and the herb and subtropical gardens (1976).
With the opening of the R. Stanton Avery Conservation Center in 1981, the Huntington now had a dedicated wing for document and artifact restoration. The Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art opened in 1984, bringing with it one of the nation’s largest collection of American art. A significant wing was added in 2016.
After plugging its very first computer into the Research Libraries Information Network in 1986, the Huntington joined the internet a decade later with the website at huntington.org.
The institution has survived significant perils in the past few decades, including the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, which fortunately did not damage the art collections; an elevator shaft fire in 1985 that claimed a 1777 portrait, “Mrs. Edwin Lascelles”; and November 2011 windstorms that downed hundreds of trees, some predating Henry Huntington’s acquisition of the grounds.
Among other achievements, the 1990s saw California’s first blooming of the foul-smelling “corpse flower” — it attracted 80,000 visitors in 1999 — and the dawn of what would become the largest classical-style Chinese garden outside of China. (The final phase of that garden is slated for completion next spring.)

A photograph of the south porch of the Shorb House was taken in 1888, more than a decade before Henry and Arabella Huntington would acquire the vast property and transform it into what is the Huntington Library.
A photograph of the south porch of the Shorb House was taken in 1888, more than a decade before Henry and Arabella Huntington would acquire the vast property and transform it into what is the Huntington Library.

The Huntington embarked on two partnerships with USC in the 2000s, creating the Early Modern Studies Institute and the Institute on California and the West. The 90,000-square-foot Munger Research Center was opened in 2004. The Huntington Art Gallery showcased renovations in 2008.
On the botanical end, the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science opened in 2005. A collection of 5,000 orchids was gifted in 2010, and a collection of 1,500 cycads was donated along with an endowment in 2014. The Japanese Garden was again renovated in 2012, and this year a 320-year-old magistrate house from Marugame, Japan, was donated for placement in that garden. It is currently being reassembled there.
These are only some of the notable moments of the Huntington’s history listed in a timeline provided to the news media.

MOVING FORWARD

Those involved with the Huntington can remember when they were first entranced by the institution, so it’s no surprise that the institution is focused now on how to bring its magic to a global audience.
“I came here as a 4-year-old,” Shulman said. “I started working here as a 12-year old. It’s almost 40 years since my initial fascination. When you visited the Huntington, you visited a beautiful place with gorgeous galleries, libraries and gardens. Over the last 40 years, that has tremendously widened into a much more sophisticated and diverse programmatic organization which now engages people daily.”
Christina Nielsen, director of the art collections, pointed out that Henry Huntington predicted California would become a cultural mecca, a “beacon for cultural progress” in America’s Wild West. Arabella Huntington’s affinity for collecting art served to advance that notion.
“I’ve been in museums for 20 years, and the Huntington is really a unique place,” Nielsen said. “Arabella, she was a fantastic art collector prior to her marriage to Henry, and in their home they put together a fantastic collection. They saw art as a really vital part of culture and learning.”
Illustrating how the institution can open any number of doors for young people, Nielsen noted that Kehinde Wiley, the painter from South Central Los Angeles who was commissioned to create Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, visited the Huntington as a boy.
“He looked at ‘The Blue Boy’ and thought ‘When I grow up I’m going to be a painter and put people who look like me in my paintings,’” added Nielsen, who said the Huntington is a major cog in L.A.’s reputation as an art mecca. She asked rhetorically, “How do we continue to celebrate this historic art that we take care of for future generations? How do we unlock curiosity, excitement and creativity? We will also continue, in addition to the permanent collection, think about exhibitions — both large- and smaller-scale — to rethink older artworks and sometimes about them in conversation with the art of today.”
When hired a year ago as director of the library, Sandra Brooke indicated it was hard to oversell the significance of her job.

William Hertrich, shown here with a foxtail agave in the Huntington’s famed Desert Garden in 1910, was instrumental in planning and developing the institution’s myriad intricately themed botanical gardens through to his death in 1966.
William Hertrich, shown here with a foxtail agave in the Huntington’s famed Desert Garden in 1910, was instrumental in planning and developing the institution’s myriad intricately themed botanical gardens through to his death in 1966.

“When you work in libraries — particularly special collection libraries — you always feel like you’re coming into this wonderful river,” she said. “You always feel like you’re stepping into something with a wonderful history and you’re responsible for taking care of it before handing it on.”
The “Nineteen Nineteen” exhibition, which will be unveiled later this month, will “examine the institution and its founding through the prism of a single tumultuous year,” utilizing more than 250 objects from the Huntington’s collections, including rare books, posters, letters, photographs, diaries, paintings, sculpture and ephemera, according to the announcement of the show.
Brooke noted that 1919 — arriving right after World War I, just ahead of the creation of the League of Nations and amid the worldwide flu pandemic that killed 50 million — was “kind of an incredible year in American and world history.”
“The library will tell the story,” she said. “It shows you what the institution can do.”
This forthcoming exhibit, Nielsen said, is “very much what’s at the center of the Venn diagram” that is the Huntington.
“When you put it all together — the library, the art and the gardens — we’re more than the sum of our parts,” she said. “We can actually do things that I don’t think any other institution can.”
Major digitization will pave the way for the Huntington’s future, thanks to two major gifts for the endeavor. Ironically, using this to increase access and availability of artifacts serves a preservation purpose as well.
“This is when we can put things out on the web for everyone to use. We have something like that now, but we’ve never had quite the firepower to get our treasures out there,” Brooke said. “We’re really excited. No, we’re not going to be able to digitize everything. The library has 11 million items. We have a lot of books, but we have a lot of things that aren’t books. It’s going to be a lot more than we’ve had and more representative. When we look at what we want to digitize, we want to get things that are used a lot that have a broad interest. For preservation reasons, if we can get a thing in a digital version, a lot of research can be done with it without a lot of physical handling of the object.”
Echoing Shulman, Nielsen emphasized that this won’t detract from the reward of visiting the grounds themselves.
“Someone in Paris or China or Timbuktu can really zoom in and look at the brush strokes,” she said. “It’s a mechanism to see the works in ways that we can’t with the naked eye. But, unlike in a library, works of art are by definition meant to be seen and there is a spiritual quality to being physically in an environment with or in front of a work of art. Things will always be on the walls and viewing works of art is, in many ways, a social activity. In a world that is very, very virtual, being in spaces with people in museums is also something people are seeking out.”

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