Tucked into an established neighborhood of gracious homes and mature trees in San Marino is the Huntington Art Galleries, Library and Botanical Gardens.
The Huntington was originally a working citrus ranch, purchased by Henry E. Huntington in 1903. Huntington was the nephew of Collis P. Huntington, one of the Big Four of western railroading. Henry Huntington followed in his uncle’s footsteps and developed the electric railway system for intercity Los Angeles.
Huntington was also a collector of books and had a great interest in horticulture. He established a large library and started a 120-acre botanical garden while his wife, Arabella, collected art and sculptures. In 1919 they bequeathed their 300-acre estate, including their home, the Beaux Arts Mansion, now the Huntington Art Gallery, to a nonprofit educational trust to be shared with the public.
Their vision has been realized. Today the Huntington hosts more than 500,000 visitors each year. Many come for the botanical garden, which features 12 different gardens on 120 acres.
Among the earliest gardens developed by Huntington were the lily ponds, rose garden, palm and desert garden and a nineacre Japanese garden in 1912. At that time, westerners were intrigued with Asian culture. Huntington even commissioned a Japanese craftsman, Toichiro Kawai, to build the authentic Moon Bridge.
Through the years, new gardens have been added, including the colorful Shakespeare garden of annual and perennial blooms in 1959 and the subtropical and Australian garden featuring 100 species of eucalyptus in 1964.
The most ambitious project of recent years is the Chinese Garden of Flowing Fragrance, completed in 2008 after four years of construction.
All of the elements of the seven pavilions and five stone bridges were fabricated of authentic materials in China and shipped to the site, where Chinese architects and craftsmen worked with California builders to create the largest Chinese garden outside of China. Rocks from Lake Tai in China surround the l.5-acre lake, while native plants from China and California mix with the original native oaks to create an enchanting and meditative scene.
You may ask, “But what about all of the water needed to tend these gardens with thousands of species of plants?”
The Huntington answers that question by incorporating new entrance gardens featuring a 6-acre display of sustainable drought-tolerant and native garden designs suitable for today’s climate. In addition, starting in 2013, it removed half of its 18 acres of lawns and replaced them with xeriscaping beds of succulents, palms, lavenders, salvias and natural grasses.
Prominently displayed at the entrance is a large sign explaining the Huntington’s water conservation program, which includes: watering less frequently, automating irrigation to water at night, adding more drought-tolerant plants, reducing lawn area, and substantially reducing manual irrigation. Its ac tions matched its words, as bulldozers removing lawns in front of the European Art Gallery were busy on the day of our visit.
The Children’s Garden, Herb Garden, Camellia Gardens, and Botanical Research Center are among other areas to visit on the expansive grounds.
With so much to see in the four and a half hours that the gardens are open, it’s a good idea to plan for lunch at one of the five dining facilities. For the most memorable meal experience, reminiscent of Old Pasadena graciousness, spend a few extra dollars for a reserved lunch at the Rose Garden Tea Room.
In that nostalgic setting, you can imagine Henry E. and Arabella Huntington strolling the grounds on a warm summer evening, discussing plans for the next garden project, or their latest book or art acquisitions. Through their generosity, 21st century visitors can take a step into an elegant era of the past and be enriched and educated through the legacy provided at the Huntington.
IF YOU GO
The Huntington Art Galleries, Library and Botanical Gardens1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, 626-405-2100
Tickets and hours: $10 to $25. The first Thursday of the month is free, with advance reservations. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day, 10:30 a.m.– 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday. After Labor Day, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 12 p.m.-4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Each entry ticket provides admission into the gardens, library and galleries. Allow three hours to visit the gardens. If possible, visit in spring or fall, as summer weather can be hot. Visit in January and February to see 80 species of camellias. Free parking.
Dining: There are five options within the gardens: the coffee shop (coffee, tea, gelato), the café (utilitarian cafeteria), the Rose Garden Patio (self-serve quick snack), the Chinese Tea House and Rose Garden Tea Room (elegant, requires reservations by calling 626-683-8131).
Online information: http://www.huntington.org