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Inside Southern California's glorious Huntington Library and gardens

Chuck Barney, The Mercury News on

Published in Travel News

So it seems that railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington and his wife, Arabella, were basically hoarders. And I mean that in the best sense of the word.

Way back in the day -- during the so-called Gilded Age -- the couple habitually collected rare books, glorious pieces of fine art and distinctive botanical specimens. They could not be stopped. They filled whole train cars with this stuff and transported it to their sprawling ranch in San Marino, Calif., about 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

As Henry and Arabella neared the end of their lives, rather than unloading their wares in the world's largest garage sale, they turned their estate into a collections-based research and educational institution for the public's benefit. Lucky for us.

Now, 100 years later, the acquisitions continue and the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is a cultural wonderland that spans 207 beautifully landscaped acres.

I've been attending an annual conference in nearby Pasadena for nearly 20 years and had always heard great things about The Huntington. But I had never bothered to explore its abundant offerings until last winter. My bad.

As a newbie, however, where does one start? After all, there are 16 themed gardens to explore, thousands of amazing works of art to ogle and an entire library packed with rare books and manuscripts. "Overwhelming" is an understatement.


At the suggestion of a fellow visitor, I wound up in the Mapel Orientation Gallery, where I learned all about the Huntingtons and their property via a brisk 10-minute film (I love a good backstory). And it was here that I met Lisa Davis, an ultra-enthusiastic docent.

"(Huntington) was a very modest man -- not like Trump," she informed me. "Even though he was richer than Trump."

Lisa, a native of Vienna and former college instructor, has volunteered at The Huntington for 23 years and she, apparently, is one of its biggest cheerleaders. During our chat session, she regaled me with stories of the European and American art housed on the property, and of the marvelous gems that can be found in the library -- including an extremely rare, complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum.

"Not even the Vatican has one," she blurted. "I love it!"


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