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Arts & Entertainment

The Huntington unveils big changes, but not too big

New entrance at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
New entrance at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Tim Street-Porter/The Huntington

For years, I’d feared the worst. Behind that intrusive belt of chain link and green canvas fence, with all the hidden noise of power digging machines, smashing jackhammers and growling tractors going on behind it, and heaps of dirt piled high, I dreaded that something terrible was going on in the dark, hidden heart of our dear old Huntington.

We were promised a new visitor center, a new store, a new cafe and restaurant. I imagined the Disney-fied worst: Henry Huntington’s Roller Coaster Red Car Ride; Pinky’s Pinkberry Parlor. The Blue Boy Fashion Center. Maybe even a giant Rem Koolhaas-LACMA style amoeba of purple reinforced concrete sprawling all over the lawns between the library and the old gallery.

My fears were groundless. The $68 million (not much more than the Getty paid for its new Manet) 52,000 square foot Education and Visitor Center addition is in perfect harmony with the early 20th Century original library and art gallery, perhaps more so than some previous increments, such as the nearby and blankly imposing Munger Research Center. 

The addition is named after outgoing Huntington chief Steven S. Koblik, who engineered much of the funding and planning for the facility. He’s got something to be proud of in his retirement: a new garden-centered segment of new facilities that founder, pioneer transit tycoon Henry Huntington, would probably have enthused over.

(The Huntington Store at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo: Tim Porter-Street/The Huntington)

With its mighty $400 million endowment and the muscular fundraising power that enticed squillionaire Charlie Munger to donate hugely to this project (not to mention that research center), the venerable Huntington institution could have easily erected something expensively and grandiloquently modern.  

But its directorate and patrons seem to understand an important fact about the place: Most visitors don’t go there to be dazzled. We go there to be enthralled, even comforted by the century-old institution’s enduring and deeply reassuring ambiance that we are privileged to inhabit during our visits to its galleries of great art, its acreage of exquisite gardens and Arcadian vistas.

The Huntington possesses what designer Sheryl Barton, who co-created the new landscaping with the Huntington’s Jim Folsom, spoke of at the opening press conference as “the choreography of experience.”

That experience includes the new California-Mediterranean groves and gardens and the low-lying new structure that includes an expanded store, new classrooms, courts, cafes and an auditorium. With its simple, Tuscan-columned loggias and red-tiled roofs (and, oh, yes, even that showy glass dome on the Rose Hills Foundation Garden Court), it all effortlessly blends into the traditional whole.

Although the Huntington doesn’t seem to be planning on a new influx of visitors, it’s hard to see this new, more user-friendly front office isn’t going to attract more people to its San Marino location than the current 600,000 per year.

Particularly considering how regional museum attendance in general has boomed over recent decades. Will this abate the quiet private experience many of us Huntington fans have shared and treasured over the years?

(The Huntington will be installing this Alexander Calder sculpture, the  Jerusalem Stabile, this spring. Here, it's seen at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Calder Foundation; gift of the Philip & Muriel Berman Foundation to the Calder Foundation. Copyright © 2015 Calder Foundation /Artists Rights Society (ARS) Used with permission of The Huntington)

Probably. But there will also be important new things to see — like  Alexander Calder’s 12-by-20-foot Jerusalem Stabile, which beckons you into the new addition, and two powerful, newly acquired murals by the great 20th Century California artists Millard Sheets and Doyle Lane. Plus a new and glorious vista from the cafe’s terrace over to the original old Huntington villa — now gallery — where all this began, over a century ago.