Huntington Gem in Southern California Is Perfect Spot for Cultural Aficionados to Visit
By David A. F. Sweet
As our plane landed at LAX, the American Airlines stewardess commandeered the intercom and uttered an exclamation rarely heard by soon-to-embark passengers.
“Go Bears!” she said.
My son and I watched in person last Sunday night near the top of $5 billion SoFi Stadium as the erstwhile Monsters of the Midway were crushed by the Los Angeles Rams, 34-14. A day earlier, I enjoyed a far more enjoyable experience at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
On a hot Southern California morning amid the region’s typical cloudless blue sky (blue, at least, when the smog has scattered), early arrivals such as myself could sit quietly by the coffee shop and figure out what indoor or outdoor gem to visit first before the gates opened. Examining a map helped me make the most efficient use of the 207 acres in San Marino, opened to the public more than a century ago. Maybe start with a look at one of the few remaining Gutenberg Bibles in the library, head over to the portrait gallery featuring European works and then drop by the American art gallery before wandering about the rose garden?
Though that was my plan, it was somewhat curtailed as parts of the library and art halls were shuttered, I assume due to the Delta variant. Still, the 130 acres of gardens were wide open, and there was plenty to see inside the elegant buildings.
The Library Exhibition Hall came first. From the outdoors, with soaring pillars fronted by a spectacular fountain, it’s an awe-inspiring site. Indoors, the limited open space captivated. An exhibit explained how conflict is a constant of human interaction. The photograph of the 12 pall bearers of President Abraham Lincoln – the representative of conflict during America’s bloody war against itself — really captured my eye. Why? I had never heard of them amid the Lincoln information I have devoured. They carried his casket from the Capitol Rotunda to the hearse that would take him to the train depot and then back to Springfield, reversing the route he had traveled to Washington amid assassination concerns in 1861. As one would expect, the dozen men looked utterly serious.
The exterior of the Huntington Art Gallery – the former Beaux Arts home of Henry Huntington and his wife, Arabella (who in a somewhat incestuous twist was also his uncle’s widow) – was even more impressive than the library. “He had a lot of doors,” said one youngster said as he wandered about vast building.
Though only one room was open inside the Thornton Portrait Gallery, that’s all that was needed. It featured European masterpieces such as Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, an oil on canvas painted by Joshua Reynolds in the 18th century, engaging because it’s more dramatic than most portraits. Right in the center on the far wall is The Blue Boy, whose gaze towers above you. Aside from the black hat he is holding and the brown shoes he is wearing, his outfit is as blue as can be (and even the shoes are topped with blue bows).
Most of the American gallery that was open appealed little to me, as the focus is on textiles, boxes and painted furniture from America’s early days. But then one arrives in brightly lit spaces featuring Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of a dour George Washington (one of 75 replicas) and an original by Charles Peale Polk where the Founding Father looks serene.
For the anthophile, traversing the 130 acres of gardens featuring flowers from across the world can occupy most of a day. I stuck with the bountiful rose garden, where roses of all colors stood tall. Two large trees with benches nearby allowed those who had forgotten to apply sunblock to enjoy the view in the shade.
No cultural aficionado should miss the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens during a visit to Los Angeles. It can even take the sting out of another Bear pratfall.
David A. F. Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich, the story about the most controversial finish in sports history. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.