“A House That is Literally Filled With Art Treasures”: No Place Like Home with a Photo of the Henry E. Huntington Villa, San Marino, July 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The centennial of the death of the railroad and real estate tycoon and art, books and manuscripts collector, Henry E. Huntington, is not all that far away and it can be safely assumed that there will be plenty of commemoration at the world-famous Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens on his estate in San Marino when 2027 and 2028 arrive. These years will mark his passing as well as the opening of the villa comprising the gallery of art collected by him and his second wife (and aunt, meaning widow of his uncle Collis) Arabella.

The highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this “No Place Like Home” post is a July 1925 snapshot of the imposing 35,000 square-foot mansion (reportedly the largest in the region until television producer Aaron Spelling built his 56,000 square-foot house in Holmby Hills in the 1980s), which was completed in 1910. At that time, Henry was four years removed from a divorce from his first wife, Mary Alice, but, within a few years he married Arabella, who brought her considerable interests in art to the relationship, including his first major purchase of a work of art, a Gainsborough, often called “Lady Ligonier,” in 1911.

Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1925.

With his considerable financial resources, passion for books, manuscripts and, thanks to Arabella, art, Huntington amassed a remarkable and diverse portfolio for his collection, especially from his official retirement from business in 1910 until his death seventeen years later. In 1919, he and Arabella created the trust that established the institution and, five years later, she died at age 74 (leaving an estate valued at nearly $16.5 million).

Henry, who was born the same year, survived her by about three years, but his collecting continued to be aggressive. In fact, there is a quote attributed to him that goes:

A man may quit cigarettes, cocktails, money-making or anything else he likes, except collecting.

During the Roaring Twenties, he acquired fifty book collections, spent huge sums for the period on works of art and expended so much cash that his wealth was almost reduced in half, worrying advisers and friends (and perhaps the three daughters who survived him; his son, Howard, died in 1922) who told him he was not leaving enough of an endowment behind to keep his institution free to the public in perpetuity—sure enough, admission began to be charged in the 1980s.

Times, 11 January 1925.

The year this photo was taking included some very interesting news about Huntington and his empire in the middle of the decade. The New Year’s Day edition of the Los Angeles Times included photos of his massive library as part of S. Fred Hogue’s celebration of the growing intellectual climate in Los Angeles, noting the high rates of literacy, the well-established institutions of higher learning like USC and CalTech, as well as the Southern Branch of the University of California, which was seeking a permanent location, and other encouraging elements.

In fact, regarding the UC site, there were plenty of ideas and proposals throughout greater Los Angeles for possible sites, including Burbank, Chino Hills, Covina, Fullerton, Palos Verdes, Pasadena, San Fernando and Whittier. Huntington made an offer of 200 acres adjacent to his estate and it was claimed that value of the land was a cool $1.5 million. Eventually, of course, the regents for the University selected Westwood for what became known as UCLA.

Times, 11 January 1925.

Later in the year, the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News quoted Maurice Ettinghausen, a London professor literature who had to come to San Marino to conduct his research on early classics, and who was paraphrased as stating that, “three-fourths of the best literature of the world that was written before the 16th century is to be found at the Huntington Library,” which was a large part of why greater Los Angeles was increasingly being viewed as an “educational mecca.”

The paper recorded that a board of trustees for the institution had recently been appointed, though there were a couple of deaths of key members of Huntington’s trusted circle, including Joseph E. Brown, long associated with the Los Angeles Railway, which Huntington acquired in 1898 as his first entry into local business, and who was secretary and treasurer of the non-profit foundation overseeing the institution until he passed away in February, and William E. Dunn, an attorney who was vice-president of the LARY and had a direct involvement in much of Huntington’s work and estate before he died in October.

Monrovia News, 1 May 1925.

That month, George S. Patton, who was married into the family of Benjamin D. Wilson, former owner of the Huntington estate, and who was also intimately connected with the tycoon’s business affairs, took the reins as chair of the trustees. Banker Henry M. Robinson, a powerful figure in the Angel City’s financial realm, became vice-president as Patton moved up and, filling the vacant seat was Dr. Robert A. Millikan of CalTech, who went on to be chair. Coverage in the Pasadena Post of the first included a quote from Huntington that “Southern California would have centered in Pasadena the greatest art center of the world.”

With respect to the collection, there were several notable events that took place in 1925. At the end of April, it was announced that the collection of the famed author Jack London was acquired from his widow, Charmian, who commented

I think I have visited most of the famous manuscript collections of western and southern Europe and America, and Mr. Huntington’s collection is among the best—and will be the very best in the world. It is a treasure that Califor[n]ians have not yet to comprehend.

A short time later, there were reports that Huntington was buying Raphael’s “Giuliano,” recently acquired by the powerful art dealer, Joseph Duveen, for a quarter million dollars, though this proved to be a false report and the painting by the Renaissance genius ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Times, 7 June 1925.

What was not an unfounded rumor, though, was Huntington’s purchase in the summer from Duveen of four paintings from English masters Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, John Constable and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The acquisitions set Huntington back a staggering $1 million—consider, for a moment, that the average yearly salary of an American worker was roughly between $1,500 and $2,000. These prize works were added to the villa, described in one press account as “a house that is literally filled with art treasures.”

There were other significant, if not as dramatic, purchases by the collector during the year. In early October, some forty packing cases of diaries, manuscripts and records relating to the history of the British nobility, were snapped up and shipped from London to San Marino, “so that scholars of the world may continue their researches into Briton history.” While today, it is substantially easier for, say, an English researcher to come all this way to delve into these documents, imagine the trek by ocean liner to the east coast and then train across the country and then back again.

Times, 6 September 1925.

In May, there was a report in the San Pedro Pilot that the widow of a hotel owner, R.B. Haselden, who kept two diaries from 1859 to 1863 as part of his work with a federal surveying expedition along the Pacific Coast, was in negotiations with Library officials about selling these to the institution. While it was unclear if the negotiations were going to be successful, the paper observed that,

The Huntington Library has one of the most extensive collections of historical documents and literature relating to western history of any institution in the country.

Beyond these news items pertaining specifically to the Huntington institution, there were some other interesting developments during 1925 relating to the collector. For example, there were reports that the City of Los Angeles, which had become the owner of water and power sources and distribution in recent decades, was in intensive negotiations with Huntington and his advisers to purchase the Los Angeles Railway for $40 million. This, however, did not come to pass.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 11 October 1925.

Locally, the aging Huntington recognized that it was time to allow more changes in the city, incorporated in 1913, that he largely created, including having a substantial area next to his estate subdivided as Huntington Hill, while the Oak Knoll tract, also next to his domain, was also put up for sale.

The former was announced early in the year by the prominent real estate firm of Edwards and Wildey, which noted that “the palatial Huntington mansion, famous library and gardens have been donated to the State for a permanent park” and buyers could be placed next to it, though the institution remained private.

Pasadena Post, 9 October 1925.

With Oak Knoll, developer Frank Meline, another powerful figure in regional real estate circles, observed that

Wise purchasers of homesites today are recognizing the great advantages to be gained by living close to the world-renowned Huntington Library, Art Gallery and 560-acre park, the recent gift of Mr. Henry E. Huntington, where the world’s finest center of art and literature is being established.

The tract was within easy walking distance of the estate and a quote from Huntington was added: “I think San Marino is one of the finest places in the world to live and will soon become a fine residential city.”

Los Angeles Express, 5 November 1925.

Part of this was the recognition that there had to be some limited commercial development and, when Huntington Hill was established, Edwards and Wildey were given “special permission for store buildings, apartments and flats along Huntington Drive” as this was reported by the Los Angeles Times to be “in response to the demands of a growing community” as well as a recognition of the “hunger for the conveniences which modern progress has made absolutely necessary.”

Other items included Huntington’s $2,000 donation towards the reconstruction of the Mission Santa Barbara, which was shattered by a massive earthquake that year; his honorary admission to the Phi Beta Kappa college scholastic fraternity for “his great service to scholarship through the assembling of his famous library, the finest private collection in the world;” and his being named an honorary vice-president of the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association.

Times, 13 November 1925.

As much praise and honor as Huntington received, it was left to the left-leaning Los Angeles Record to score the tycoon and others of that rarefied class of the richest and most powerful Americans. A columnist professed that “I’m no Communist nor even Socialist, whatever that may be. I’m just a plain every day reporter on a newspaper,” and he questioned how it could not be obvious that

every millionaire and every other rich man owes a debt to society in direct proportion to his wealth, and if doesn’t do his darndest to pay that debt he’s an undesirable citizen. That’s the truth, and you know it . . . when any one tells me that Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller or Henry E. Huntington made his millions himself, I know he’s either ignorant or willfully trying to deceive.

Whatever one makes of this critique, Huntington’s health was failing. On Halloween, he secretly checked into a Philadelphia hospital, telling all but his family and closest friends that he was not going to New York City on business as was announced publicly. His Los Angeles physician accompanied him on the train trip across the country for surgery for an undisclosed ailment.

It took a few weeks for his condition to improve to the extent that he could leave the hospital and travel back to San Marino and it was never revealed what his health complaint was. About a year-and-a-half later, on 23 May 1927, he was back in Philadelphia for another operation and died while undergoing the procedure.

Early the following year, public access to the institution was introduced on a regular basis and, almost a century later, the Huntington, as it’s simply known (like The Smithsonian or The Met, or The Getty) is easily one of the best-known of greater Los Angeles’ cultural institutions. It will certainly be interesting to see what will be offered in commemoration and celebration a few years from now.

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