A Railroad Magnate’s Legacy Lives on in Southern California
photographs courtesy of the Huntington Library
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens includes three art galleries and a library of rare books and manuscripts, art and research materials. These buildings are surrounded by more than a dozen distinct gardens, including the Japanese, Rose, Camellia, Jungle, Australian and Desert gardens.
The Huntington was once the home of Henry Huntington, an influential Southern California railroad owner and avid book and art collector. The original gardens were developed mostly by William Hertrich, his grounds superintendent, beginning in 1904. Hertrich and Huntington brought unusual plants from the world over to the estate, which once served as a working ranch. New gardens have been developed continually since Huntington’s death in 1927. A visit to this unique museum offers inspiration of the artistic, intellectual and, of course, horticultural kind.
Who Was Henry Huntington?
Henry Edwards Huntington (1850–1927) played a major role in the growth of Southern California. A railroad magnate, he developed railways that linked mountain, ranchland and coastal communities for trade and tourism. Upon his retirement at age 60, Huntington began to focus on his love of books and his newfound interest in art. His personal book collection makes the basis for the world-renown Huntington Library. The Huntington Art Museums display the art Henry and his second wife, Arabella—his uncle’s widow and one of the most important art collectors of her day—amassed. After the Huntingtons’ deaths, their home and ranch opened so the collections could be enjoyed by the public and accessed by scholars, as they themselves had planned.
Chinese & Japanese Gardens
One of the oldest gardens at the Huntington and one of the newest represent Asian design style. The Japanese Garden, created in 1912, and the Chinese Garden, opened in 2007, are supremely peaceful places to visit. They also match up well with the Huntington as a whole, because they follow a tradition of symbolism and expressiveness—much like the literary and artistic works in Henry Huntington’s collections.
Liu Fang Yuan is the official name of the Chinese Garden; it means the Garden of Flowering Fragrance. It comprises artfully arranged natural-looking scenes as well as important traditional Chinese design elements—hardscape and furnishings that facilitate contemplation; water and rocks placed in careful balance; plants that represent certain seasons and personal attributes; and poetic names and inscriptions inspired by Chinese literature.
The Japanese Garden recently underwent an extensive year-long renovation, during which it was closed to visitors. It reopened to the public in April 2012 with full restorations to its historic structures plus a new tea garden, waterfall and pathways. The garden includes many features central to Japanese garden style, including a raked gravel garden, a bonsai court with over 70 trees, a bamboo forest and plants such as spring-flowering fruit trees, wisteria, camellias, azaleas and many evergreen trees.
The Shakespeare Garden is a tribute to the Huntington Library’s collection of early editions of William Shakespeare’s writings. Designed to resemble a rustic English country scene, it includes dozens of plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s works, accompanied by plaques engraved with relevant quotations.
The Desert Garden
One Sunday afternoon in 1907, Henry Huntington and his young superintendent, William Hertrich, sat overlooking a barren slope of poor, gravelly soil. Hertrich suggested planting the area with desert plants.
“I soon realized the error I had made in mentioning the term ‘cactus garden’ to Mr. Huntington,” Hertrich later recalled. “His first reaction was one of amazement. As a railroad official, he had frequently passed through the American deserts…[and] he had had a bitter personal encounter with a very spiny variety of opuntia while watching a grading crew along the Southern Pacific line.”
Happily, Huntington was persuaded to agree, in part because of his competitive nature—other local estate owners were building cactus collections of their own. Today the Desert Garden includes more than 50,000 succulent plants and enjoys an international reputation. The Desert Garden proves how beautiful the colorful, textural plants of Earth’s driest corners can be.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Rd.
San Marino CA 91108
Visit the garden’s website for open hours, admission fees and more info.