Exploring The Huntington Library | San Marino, California
Exploring The Huntington Library | Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Growing up, I spent a good chunk of my childhood in Pasadena. My mother grew up there and my grandparents lived in the same house until I was early into my teenage years. Despite this, I had never visited The Huntington Library, which is located in nearby San Marino (and only about 2.5 miles from where my grandparents lived!). So I was excited to have a free weekend with Julie to head up to explore the library and Pasadena.
From Orange County, the drive to the Huntington Library is about an hour, without traffic, and just a short distance off the 210 freeway. As with any trip to Los Angeles County, you can almost always expect to encounter some traffic during your travels, so be prepared! The library is located at the end of Allen Avenue in a beautiful and affluent San Marino neighborhood.
Henry E. Huntington, a prominent businessman from New York, purchased 500 acres in the Pasadena area where his mansion, the San Marino Ranch was built. A lover of books and the arts, Huntington along with his second wife Arabella, created their library to house some of the most prominent and rare books of the era. In 1919, the library was signed over to San Marino in a nonprofit education trust that would eventually become the Huntington Library. First opened to the public in 1928, the Huntington regularly amasses over half a million visitors each year.
In summer, the Library is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. which is actually a relatively short time frame (it opens at 12 the rest of the year) when you consider how much time can be spent walking the grounds. For some reason, I was under the impression that the Huntington was a relatively small place, but the grounds actually cover 120 acres, and there is quite a bit to see. Admission during the week is $25.00 for adults and $29.00 on weekends. Parking is complimentary. A safe bet is to plan on spending at least 4 hours of your day at the Huntington. Julie and I arrived at 11:00 a.m. and stayed until just before closing time. Additional discounts and membership opportunities are also available through the Library directly.
Once you have your ticket purchased, you will receive a sticker that needs to be worn for the duration of your visit as it helps the docents know that you’ve paid! We decided to spend some time walking the grounds before our reservation for afternoon tea at 12:15 p.m. Passing the main library on our right, we headed for the Rose Garden which is home to over 3,000 plants and of course, scores of roses!
Just ahead, lies the Japanese Garden, one of the most popular and well known of the Huntington Gardens. The detail here is immaculate and features a wooden bridge across a koi pond alongside the well manicured garden.
A traditional Japanese five room home is perched atop a small hill overlooking the gardens below. You can view the interior of the house as you stand outside since the walls have been removed. I was especially excited to see the two samurai swords displayed :). The house itself was built in Japan and sent to Pasadena in 1904 where it was then acquired by Henry Huntington in 1911. Other highlights include a bamboo forest, small waterfall, bonsai collection, and Zen garden.
Visiting the Japanese Gardens at the Huntington made Julie and I excited to visit Japan in the future!
If you’re feeling fancy, reservations can be made (and are required) for afternoon tea at the Rose Garden Tea Room. While they advise that you book your reservation at least two weeks in advance, we were fortunate enough to secure a spot just two days prior. The room itself is fairly small and dated, and there is an additional back room with more seats.
For tea, you will pay an additional $37.00 per person which includes access to their buffet of finger sandwiches, assorted cheeses, fruit, desserts, scones (with clotted cream and jam!) and unlimited tea. We weren’t a big fan of the food and probably would skip doing this again, though the tea and scones were delicious. Additional items such as champagne, wine and cocktails are available at a separate cost. This is one of those activities where you go once for the experience. They offer a variety of flavored hot tea options, as well as iced tea which we started with before switching to English Breakfast. Our server, though very busy, was good and returned to our table as much as she could. Perhaps the best part of all was the air conditioning was on full blast which was a welcome treat on such a hot day!
Tip: If you have the option, opt for one of the front tables closest to the door as they provide the best views of the Rose Garden.
Subtropical Garden & Lily Ponds
Directly across from the European Art Building is the Subtropical Garden which we made our way to after tea. The area was much less crowded than the Japanese Garden so this was a welcome, and cooler (thanks to some bigger trees), change of pace.
The Lily Ponds were the first garden created on the grounds in 1904. Here you will find more koi fish, turtles, bullfrogs, and a special treat for us, a mother mallard and her two babies.
Another immaculate and popular garden, the Chinese garden is one of the largest of its style outside of China. Known as the “Gardens of Flowing Fragrance” for the different smells it lends throughout the year, you’ll find more beautiful architecture and plants here. If you’re hungry, the gardens also play host to the Chinese Garden Tea House, which was especially popular on this hot summer day.
If you’re interested in seeing where Henry and Arabella Huntington are buried, you’ll find it here just past the Children’s Garden, at the Mausoleum. You can’t walk through the mausoleum itself, but it does make for some nice photos.
European Art Collection
Burned out on the heat (and sunburnt, whoops!) we made our way indoors to explore some of the library’s historic art. Originally the home of the Huntingtons during their lifetime, the building now houses a number of fantastic pieces. While I am by no means an art enthusiast, I do primarily enjoy European art and landscapes, of which you will find plenty here. The most well known piece in the collection is “Blue Boy” created by Thomas Gainsborough in 1770. Julie though, was far more excited to see the painting of the Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Joshua Reynolds!
American Art Gallery
The American Art gallery mainly focuses on 19th and 20th century artists. We particularly enjoyed the landscape paintings and those of George Washington. Other areas of focus are on the arts and crafts including furniture from New York, Philadelphia, and New England.
The last stop for us on the afternoon was the main library. During our visit, the library was running an exhibit, the “Geographies of Wonder – Origin Stories of America’s National Parks, 1872-1933” which was definitely a stroke of luck given our love for the parks. It is especially fascinating to read about and see how our wonderful national parks were fought for in the earliest days, to preserve their natural beauty.
In total, the library is host to 420,000 rare books and 7 million manuscripts, a staggering figure. It’s amazing to see books that date back several hundred years including works from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Henry David Thoreau, a Gutenberg Bible, and much more. From there, you’ll find an exhibit featuring important science and medical history which is both incredible and fascinating to view.
Final Thoughts on the Huntington Library
We were impressed by overall scope of the Huntington Library and all that it encompasses. I fully went in expecting to spend just an hour or two there but we ended up staying for just over five hours. I also thought it was pretty cool that there are a number of inspirations that stem from King Louis XIV and Versailles that were replicated at the Huntington. We would likely skip doing the tea room since for the price, we weren’t all that impressed. Aside from that, we highly recommend a visit to the Huntington Library, just remember to pack your sunscreen!