Happy Centennial, The Huntington

hundred years ago, Henry and Arabella Huntington signed a trust agreement that left the buildings and grounds of their San Marino estate, plus their remarkable collections, to the public.

They were both extremely wealthy when they married in 1913, and both were serious collectors. Arabella had been married to Henry’s uncle, Collis Huntington, one of the Big Four of Western railroading who founded the Central Pacific Railroad (later called the Southern Pacific), part of the first transcontinental railroad.

After Collis died in 1900, Henry spent several years courting Arabella. It may have appeared scandalous, but Henry and Arabella were actually closer in age than she to her former husband—and Henry seemed genuinely smitten with her.

He collected rare books, while she was fond of European paintings, jewelry and antiques—and soon enough he became interested in the fine arts, also. He became especially enamored of 18th century British portraiture, and today people travel from all over the world to see two romantic full-length portraits, Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy,” hung in the British gallery of the mansion. A few of the exquisite Medieval and Renaissance paintings she owned, including Rogier van der Weyden’s “Virgin and Child,” are on display elsewhere in the same building.

Since Henry and Arabella’s time, the library and art collection have expanded by leaps and bounds, and in recent decades the museum has begun to collect and exhibit American art, as well. They started collecting American art only in 1979, with a gift of 50 paintings from the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation. Five years later the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art was created, with a major expansion in 2009. The library is in its own building and has exhibition galleries for the public and research facilities for scholars.

Of course, many visitors also come to see the gardens with different blooms at different times of the year. They are themed, including the Japanese garden, the rose garden, the camellia garden, the desert garden, and the newest one, still under expansion, the Chinese garden.

Celebrating 100 years, the Huntington is presenting several new exhibitions and programs—and a name change. Formerly, it was known as the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

“Our art collections are more than a group of cataloged objects; they are carefully curated, interpreted and exhibited,” says Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence during a recent presentation to announce their centennial year.

“An added benefit to this change is that we become more discoverable, particularly in online searches. This is important as we work to widen our audiences and accessibility.” 

Christina Nielsen, director of the art museum, adds later in an email, “Simply put, the word ‘museum’ more accurately describes our mission in today’s vernacular. It conveys that this place, which does hold some 42,000 art objects in its collection, is not just a repository.”

The pivotal exhibition will be “Nineteen Nineteen” (September 21 to February 20) in the Boone Gallery, an exhibition looking back to the landmark year when the Huntingtons signed the document creating what is now popularly known as The Huntington.

Using 275 objects from their own collection, curators James Glisson and Jennifer Watts tells a story about what else happened that year—a lot, as it turns out. Europe was trying to recover from a World War, American soldiers returned, women fought for the right to vote, the flu pandemic struck down millions, violent attacks were inflicted upon African Americans, and high inflation fueled labor unrest. Glisson calls it “an inflection point for world history.” 

In theory, they had millions of objects to choose from—the library alone has 11 million objects. However, Glisson says, “The show’s based on a constraint, and that is, everything had to be made copyrighted, altered, exhibited, acquired, the list of verbs can go on, in the year 1919.”

It took three years to narrow down that checklist, and as they did they formed five key themes to organize the material around—“Fight,” “Return.” “Map,” “Move” and “Build.” 

The opening section “Fight,” for example, features the expected—a look at the devastation of World War I. However, some of the objects may be unexpected, such as a sketch by John Singer Sargent of soldiers suffering a mustard gas attack. The struggle for women’s suffrage is shown through a photo of National Woman’s Party members burning “President Wilson’s Meaningless Words on Democracy,” at a time when women were denied the right to vote. The exhibition uses the breadth of Huntington’s holdings, including photographs, handbill and posters, books and documents, objects and art.

“Maps” has maps, of course, but as Watts says, maps also tell a story. There will be a map of the city of Los Angeles in 1919, done by Laura L. Whitlock, L.A. County’s official cartographer. At that time, Watts says, our electric train system was the most extensive in the world, and the centerpiece of this section will be a 37-foot long, hand-drawn map to be displayed flat in a showcase. Done by the Pacific Electric, it details sections of the electric train system in 1919 and the parcels of land around it.

“It goes from Old Town Pasadena all the way to the edge of downtown, to Soto Street,” says the curator. “That map is really incredible. It not only shows transportation networks but real estate domains…additions and redactions over time.”

The story of Henry Huntington, who invested heavily in that network, is pulled in here, as in a number of other places. “It makes the interesting point that Huntington is selling off and investing in a lot of lots of adjacent to the streetcar lines,” Glisson says. “He’s kind of a quintessential Californian because he’s really making his money in real estate.”

The “Build” section focuses on the Huntington’s, and the institution they founded. For years Henry had kept his library in New York, but in 1919 he started building one on the San Marino estate. When it was finished in 1921, he shipped his books here. The Chicago Tribune heralded the event with the lines, “One of the largest and most extensive private libraries in the world is being built at San Marino…and when this is completed it also will be conveyed to the public.”

For the centennial, the library offers an exhibition in two parts, “What Now:  Collection for the Library in the 21st Century” (Part I: October 19, 2019, to February 17, 2020; Part II: May 1 to August 24, 2020). It will show more than 100 acquisitions representing areas in which the library has grown.

With 750,000 visitors a year, the Huntington is one of the most popular destinations in Southern California.

“Today we take a moment…to think about our future,” says Lawrence during a centennial presentation, “and the future and the ideas that will propel us all for the next 100 years. For an institution turning 100, a centennial is a moment to be like Janus, looking back and forward at the same time. Today we’re celebrating how far we’ve come, and reflect on where we want to go.”