In 1913, railroad magnate Henry Huntington and his new wife Arabella moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, having purchased 500 acres of land in what was called the San Marino Ranch. Arabella didn’t like life in Southern California, and persuaded her husband – the nephew of her second husband Collis Huntington – to create a European-style garden for her to admire from their home. A mere six years later, the couple opened the Huntington Library and Gardens, along with the majority of their art collection valued at more than $50 million at the time, to the public. Today, a century plus later, the Huntington, as it is called, remains one of the premier cultural icons of the region, and is my personal favorite garden in Los Angeles.
Henry Huntington contributed much to the landscape of Los Angeles, from the Huntington Hotel – now the Langham – to funding Huntington Hospital in Pasadena to developing the now-defunct Los Angeles streetcar system. But for me, and for many Angelenos, the Library and Gardens is at the pinnacle of things bearing the tycoon’s name.
Roses at the Huntington
A visit to the Huntington can be divided into two sections: indoor and outdoor. (Obviously, as of this writing, Covid-19 has caused the closure of all indoor spaces.) Visitors do themselves a huge disservice to skip either portion. The art collections consist largely of European art, highlighted by Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy. There are, however, some notable American pieces that have been donated – the Huntingtons themselves really only collected European art – like a Campbell’s Soup painting by Andy Warhol. But the highlight of the indoor spaces is the Library itself.
The home of Henry and Arabella Huntington. It’s a bit small, but cozy.
I’ve been to some amazing libraries in my travels. Only a year and a half ago I visited both the British Library’s treasures room and the Wren Library in Cambridge. (Aside: wow to both. Must-sees for anyone interested in history, books, science, or religion.) The Huntington Library can stand shoulder to shoulder with any collection in the world. Among its treasures are one of eleven vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer, the manuscripts of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Isaac Newton’s personal copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with notes in his own hand, and so much more! It is world-class in all senses of the word.
Our cultural senses sated by art and books, we can now head to what, in light of the indoor spaces, almost feels like an afterthought, but is actually the main reason most come to the Huntington: the gardens. Henry and Arabella Huntington laid out gardens mainly in the European style. There was, of course, a rose garden. Likewise there was an English-style herb garden. (The Huntington’s incredible tea house sits between these, though afternoon tea there is expensive and doesn’t include admission to the Huntington to begin with. It is, however, all you can eat of little sandwiches, pastries, tea, and scones.) Arabella wanted wide lawns lined with sculptures, so those are present, as are lily ponds lined with bamboo forests.
The cactus garden
Since opening to the public, the Huntington has also added a world-class cactus and succulent garden (if the succulent greenhouse is open, make sure to visit), children’s garden, Australian garden, and – more recently – renovated Japanese and Chinese gardens that are, for me, the highlights. The Japanese garden is built into a small ravine with steep sides lined with camellia and cherry trees, the ever-present bridge at the bottom over koi ponds. Two different alcoves highlight the art of the Bonsai tree, while a tea house highlights the traditional art of tea-making (not during Covid times, of course).
The Japanese garden
The Huntington’s Chinese garden is its newest, and seemingly largest, garden, sprawling, still unfinished as of this writing, and highlighting the large Chinese population living in this part of Los Angeles. Huge stones sit alongside intricately carved windows, plants and flowers alongside water features. Entering evokes a sense of calm, even though the Chinese characters carved on many of the stones are a mystery to me. One could easily walk through this area alone for an hour or more; I haven’t seen its equal since visiting Vancouver a couple years ago.
A pot-shaped gate in the Chinese garden with my favorite rock.
During Covid, reservations for the Huntington must be made in advance, even for members. You’ll need to wear a mask – though you should anyway in these times – and have your temperature checked before entering. In addition, many of the pathways are currently marked as one-way to help keep social distancing, which actually ends up creating amazing loops for visitors to walk.
Los Angeles is home to many botanical gardens, but the Huntington, with its gardens, art collections, and Library, is – in my humble opinion – the best. Be sure to visit!
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