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Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (Garden Edition) – San Marino

The Indoor/Outdoor Museum Experience

Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (Garden Edition) – San Marino

Last Visit: March/April 2019

With the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino (just south of Pasadena) celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, I thought it would be a good time for Travels With Mai Tai Tom to revisit what I consider one of the greatest museums not only in California, but the world.   It helps that we’re Huntington members, because that way we have photos of nearly the entire complex from our numerous visits.


There are a lot of things I appreciate more as an adult than I did as a kid.  They include Mozart, a good bottle of bourbon (well, I didn’t drink bourbon as a kid) 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).


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, and his wife Arabella (Huntington’s second wife, who was well known in both Europe and New York).  At one time, she was described as “the richest woman in the world,” and her story is an interesting one.


Huntington was quite renowned during his life, so much so that 40 miles south of San Marino the town of Pacific Beach was renamed to Huntington Beach.  The Huntington Beach Company …now the Huntington Company … was the major developer of the city and is still a major land-owner in Huntington Beach.

When Henry Huntington purchased what was then the San Marino Ranch in 1903 ($225,000), 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, who was introduced to Huntington by George Patton Sr.), worked together to mold that ranch into a botanical garden featuring rare and exotic plants.  Huntington actually created the small city of San Marino to protect his investment.  Hertrich loved purchasing rare and exotic plants and interestingly his biggest competitor in the area was oil tycoon Edward Doheny, who Tracy and I learned about a couple of years ago when we toured Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills (photos from our day at Greystone below).


In 1919, Henry and Arabella signed an indenture which transferred their San Marino estate with its collections of art and books, to a non-profit educational trust. (In a 1927 Atlantic Monthly article, Huntington was described as the “greatest collector of books the world has ever known.”)

It was opened to the public in 1928.  Neither Henry (who died in 1927) nor Arabella (who passed away in 1924) were around to witness the opening.  Today, the Huntington attracts 750,000 visitors a year. The botanical gardens cover 207 acres (120 landscaped) that include 14,000 different varieties of plants and flowers. 

This installment will include all the gardens, while the next post will cover the art galleries and Library.  (The photos are an accumulation of ones we’ve taken over the past few years, but about 90 – 95% of them are from March and April 2019.)

A new visitor center was opened in 2013, and as you stroll down the olive-lined allée (the California Garden) toward the entrance you pass by beautiful drought-tolerant flowers and foliage where you can pause for a moment in one of the “Hedge Rooms,” complete with tables and benches.  (Resting might be something you need to do after enjoying a day of walking miles around the expansive property.)


The first garden you see upon entering is the Celebration Garden.  The rectangular pool of recirculated water is surrounded by such plants as Spanish lavender, kangaroo paw, California poppies and more.


As you gaze out at the nearby foliage, you’ll see this will be quite a colorful experience.

Listen carefully and you might hear some strange sounds emitting from the area near the end of the Celebration Garden.  On your left is a shell-shaped structure, which is NASA’s Orbit Pavilion. Step inside to hear the sounds made by the International Space Station and 19 Earth Science satellites.  Installed at the Huntington in 2016, this traveling exhibit was only supposed to be here for a short time, but it is now extended until September 2, 2019.


Walking back toward and past the Celebration Garden, on the right stands the library with its fascinating, historical and educational collection, which we will visit in the next installment.

A little further on the left stands what was once Henry and Arabella’s Beaux-Arts mansion.  It now houses The Huntington Art Gallery of European Art (including the famous Gainsborough paintings, Pinkie and Blue Boy).  We’ll go there in the next post also.


Near the gallery are sculptures of Bacchus and Neptune.  I assumed Bacchus turns Neptune’s water into wine.


A small pathway takes you into the Camellia Garden.  The 80 types of Huntington camellias have their big bloom in January and February; but a few stuck around for our March and April visits this year.  It’s no surprise that camellias flourish here … they were Hertrich’s “passion.” He served as Superintendent of the gardens from 1903 to 1948.


Speaking of sculptures, as we walked along we came upon the North Vista (which I have always called the Sculpture Garden).

Not surprisingly, there are a multitude of 18th-century statues lining the long, rectangular grassy area, where I was once admonished by authorities for throwing a frisbee as a youth.


I guess they frown on potential statue decapitation.


The 17th-century Baroque Fountain has an unusual story.  Huntington purchased it in 1915.  From the Huntington website, “It was shipped from New York in 48 boxes that filled an entire railway car.  Oddly enough, the fountain arrived without assembly instructions and with a few extra pieces.  It eventually was installed five years after the 1916 completion of the main house.” That story reminded me of the bookshelf I once purchased from IKEA.

We wandered into the Shakespeare Garden, where my favorites, the delphiniums, had only recently been planted.  By mid-May, they’ll look something like this. 


I was disappointed, but Tracy said, “You’re making much ado about nothing.  As you like it, we’ll come back in May.”

Snapdragon … Pop!

We admired the Crabapple trees and the Chinese Snowballs (no throwing, however).


An American flag towers over the Shakespeare Garden, although the Bard died four years before the Pilgrims arrived.  Similar to the pilgrims, the flagpole arrived in Redondo Beach by ship from the Pacific Northwest in 1909.  Made from a single trunk of a Douglas fir, upon landing, it wove its way thought the streets of Los Angeles on top of two horse-drawn wagons.


We entered the adjacent Rose Garden (no sign of Lynn Anderson), and before admiring the roses, which were beginning to bloom, we took a quick look at a Tabebula “Apricot” tree (which is a trumpet tree … trumpet trees don’t have fruit) that I want in our front yard.  I asked whether we could just transplant this tree, and the docent double-checked whether I was really a member.

Sparkle and Shine roses greet you upon entering the Rose Garden, created in 2008.  How much did Henry and Arabella like roses? 


This post first appeared on Great Maple Pasadena, please read the originial post: here

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Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (Garden Edition) – San Marino


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