by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) was a dominant figure in greater Los Angeles during the first three decades of the 20th century. Born in Oneonta, New York, Huntington became the protege of his powerful uncle, Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900), one of the Big Four (or you can double that to “The Octopus”), the quartet of Gold Rush California hardware merchants whose Central Pacific Railroad built the western half of the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869 and whose Southern Pacific, became one of the preeminent railroad firms in America.
Henry spent his early years working as a clerk in his hometown, as well as in the state capital at Albany and in New York. He then went to work for his uncle in a sawmill in West Virginia and in railroad construction, before joining the Kentucky Central Railroad while based in Cincinnati. While living in that latter city, he began spending his extra time and growing disposable income on collecting rare books and manuscripts, which bloomed into a full-blown passion.
After Collis Huntington took over the presidency of the Southern Pacific Company, the holding company for the two railroads, in 1890, he called for Henry to join him at company headquarters in San Francisco. On the overland trip west, Henry, rather than take a direct line from Cincinatti to San Francisco, chose to take the leisurely and longer southern route which brought him into greater Los Angeles. A stay at James de Barth Shorb’s San Marino Ranch in the San Gabriel Valley captivated Huntington as it has done for so many midwesterners and easterners and in 1898, he acquired the Los Angeles Railway streetcar system in the city as part of the Southern Pacific empire.
From 1892 to 1900, Huntington served as assistant to his uncle and assumed the vice-presidency of the firm by the time Collis died at the end of the 19th century. In the aftermath, however, E.H. Harriman, the powerful controlling interest in the Union Pacific empire forced a sale of the Southern Pacific to him and his company. With his inheritance of a third of Collis Huntington’s estate, including stock in the Southern Pacific, Henry had ample resources to move to Los Angeles and devote a decade to building America’s largest interurban rapid transit system in terms of track mileage.
He took the Los Angeles Railway and other lines he purchased and consolidated all these into the Pacific Electric Railway, which had lines spreading throughout greater Los Angeles by the time this merging was done in 1911. The greater part of his wealth, however, came through real estate through his Huntington Land and Improvement Company and many other firms with interests and projects in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley and throughout the region.
In 1910, at age 60, and with his personal wealth skyrocketing from about $1 million to some $55 million, Huntington retired from daily business life, though he maintained ownership of the Los Angeles Railway and real estate interests. His dramatic growth in wealth allowed him to devote more time and resources to expanding his book and manuscripts collection and he became one of the foremost collectors in this area in the country.
Huntington, who was married to Mary Alice Prentiss and had four children with her, left his family behind in San Francisco when he moved to Los Angeles in 1902. Within a few years, he divorced Mary Alice, having, soon after settling in this area, acquiring the San Marino Ranch he’d admired so much a decade before. A substantial home was built on the site of Shorb’s residence, completed in 1911.
With his first marriage ended, Huntington then married his aunt—that is, the widow of his late uncle Collis, Arabella. Probably born Catherine Yarrington in Richmond, Virginia in 1850 (though she later claimed to be from Alabama), she was known as Arabella or Belle when her mother ran a boardinghouse at Richmond a decade later.
In 1870, Mrs. Yarrington, who self-reported assets of $100 ten years before, suddenly reported $15,000 in real estate in her household in New York (neighbors included the president of the New York Gas Light Company and William Furniss, whose real estate was self-declared at $150,000), which included her daughter “Bell De Mersion” and four other children, as well as a three-month old grandson “John De Mersion” and 45-year old John De Mersion, whose occupation was given as “Stock Holder in Banking.” This appears to be John Archer Worsham, who was listed in the 1870 census, however, at Richmond as a “banker.” Worsham had a wife and family in the former capital of the Confederacy and died in Richmond in 1878.
Worsham’s death two years earlier seems to be reflected in the fact that, in the 1880 census, Belle D. Worsham was listed as a widower who was “keeping house” as head of a household that included her mother, son listed as “Arthur”, and five servants. The home on West 54th Street and 5th Avenue in New York was later sold by her to John D. Rockefeller, the oil baron, and is now the site of the Museum of Modern Art. Her son, Archer, was said by some to have been fathered by Collis P. Huntington and that he was born in Texas to avoid direct implications to the railroad tycoon. Huntington’s wife, Elizabeth, died in October 1883 and, less than a year later, in July 1884, he married Arabella Worsham in her fine home and adopted her son.
Collis and Arabella built a mansion on the corner of 5th Avenue and West 57th Street, with the other corner holders including Cornelius Vanderbilt, William C. Whitney (Whitney’s son married Vanderbilt’s daughter and she founded the Whitney Museum of American Art), and Mary Mason Jones, the aunt of famed author Edith Wharton. In time, Arabella became well-known as a collector of pictorial art, fine furnishings, tapestries and other material.
When she married her nephew, Henry, decades later, the two, advised by such notables as famed art dealer Joseph Duveen, combined their resources, tastes and ambitions to build a collection of art, books and manuscripts that was unparalleled in the country.
They were among the paramount participants in a major wave of American art collectors who were benefited from the nation’s skyrocketing economic growth and were making their mark in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, acquiring treasures previously located in Europe and carrying them across the Atlantic to the United States. Millions were spent to bolster the collection and, in 1919, the Huntington Library, Art Gallery (now Art Collections) and Botanical Gardens was established as a non-profit foundation.
Arabella Huntington died in 1924 and was followed not quite three years later by Henry, who died in May 1927 in Philadelphia after a surgery. Very quickly, plans were carried out, with some of the $2 million left to the Huntington institution to remodel the 1911 residence so that it could be opened to the public. The grand opening occurred on 27 January 1928 and the occasion was marked as the most important cultural event to take place in greater Los Angeles.
Today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a pair of press photos, dated 25 February 1928, showing the “Arabella D. Huntingon Memorial,” which took four rooms at the west end of the library Huntington built in 1920 and reconfigured them into two larger spaces, denoted as the French Room and Italian Renaissance Room.
In the French Room, there were reputedly $31 million worth of furniture, tapestries, bronze sculptures and other treasures, with the walls covered in fine damask and the long space lighted with ornate crystal chandeliers. The Italian Renaissance Room featured a wealth of Italian and northern European paintings from the Renaissance period that had hung in Arabella’s New York mansion. Huntington had the red velvet that covered the walls of that house reinstalled in the new space.
To cover the cost of the massive expenditure in honor of his late wife, Huntington reportedly subdivided part of his San Marino estate and sold other properties. In 2007, however, as the Huntington completed a $40 million or more renovation of the house, the Arabella D. Huntington Memorial was closed, the collection moved to the residence, and the library space is now the Dibner Hall of the History of Science.