The Huntington Library
By Evan Kuo
A 600-acre ranch worth $240,000 in 1903, a mammoth $7,173,100 adjusted for inflation, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, more commonly known as the Huntington Library, is an award-winning museum located in San Marino, California. It is home to some of the most prestigious works of literature and art, displaying a wide variety of rare items, including one of two known copies of the first published version of Hamlet and the famous painting of Thomas Gainsborough, known as The Blue Boy, purchased for $728,000 in 1921, the most expensive painting at the time. However, if museums or art are not of interest to you, nature lovers are also welcomed to experience the diverse gardens known for their biome themed plants and cultural architecture.
The Huntington Library, formerly known as the San Marino Ranch, was the residence of Henry Edwards Huntington, an American railroad magnate and collector of historical objects, and his wife. He owned the Pacific Electric Railway, the company responsible for developing a large portion of Los Angeles’ metro system and invested heavily in real estate in Southern California. One of the biggest purchases he made was his permanent residence in San Marino, which he lavished with his collection of expensive arts and historical artifacts, along with hand-crafted furniture made in Europe and shipped to the United States. With the San Marino Ranch becoming an extensive library, art, and botanical collections that would continue to grow until his death in 1927, Huntington signed a trust document that turned the private estate into a public institution, allowing the public to use its vast collections for research and learning.
In addition to its enormous library and art collection, the botanical gardens take up 130 acres of the now 207-acre piece of land and contain a wide variety of plants and flowers. These gardens are split into 16 different themes that not only cover a wide variety of ecosystems, but also include culture-oriented designs, such as the Chinese or Japanese gardens, with unique oriental architecture designed to mimic those of ancient China and Japan. Moreover, these gardens act as a mass conservation site, with rare, endangered plants and flowers allowed to grow and repopulate, while active seed banks and tissue culture labs serve as an offsite backup.
With such a large collection of historical books, art, and rare plants, the Huntington Library is a major research and educational centre for people of all ages, spanning from primary school children to professional institutions and universities. There are numerous programs and partnerships with schools designed to educate children about the intricate, delicate ecosystems around the world, and to provide insights into the technology used by scientists during different time periods. The local middle school that I used to attend, Huntington Middle School, which is also named after Henry E. Huntington, provides classes that include occasional field trips to the Huntington Library, utilising its valuable resources for some first-hand observations and learning experiences. Paintings, books, and other rare historical items are rotated frequently to decrease light exposure and are then put in storage or loaned out to universities like the University of Southern California for historical or scientific research.
Acting as a library, museum, botanical garden, and research institute, the Huntington Library is one of California’s greatest jewels. It symbolises both the bright and dark side of the Gilded age in America, where the wealth gap between the rich and poor expanded exponentially. Huntington was able to exploit railroad workers working on unliveable wages to dominate the industry in Los Angeles, becoming one of the richest men in the country, but at the same time, he used this money to give back to the community, purchasing rare arts and books and releasing them for public use and enjoyment. The unique early 20th century architecture and rare historical artifacts dating from centuries before today make the Huntington Library a noteworthy location to visit in the Golden State of California.