If Collis Huntington Had Carried Out His Palisades Plan . . .1919 Exhibition at the Huntington

George R. Watson, “Portrait of Henry E. Huntington on Loggia of San Marino Residence,” April 1919, printed in 1927.


Circling The News Contributor

Photos: Courtesy The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens

It’s interesting to imagine what the Huntington Palisades would be today if Collis Huntington’s plan to establish a private estate on the bluffs above Santa Monica Canyon had not been cut short by his death in 1900.

Huntington, who had parlayed his railroad holdings into domination of the Southern Pacific railroad network, envisioned a great seaport at the mouth of Potrero Canyon. He built a wharf extending 4,720 feet out into the ocean, but eventually lost out to San Pedro. With his death and a deteriorating housing economy, his heirs sold the entire 226 acres in 1926 to Robert C. Gillis.

It fell to his nephew and protégé Henry Huntington to build an estate and art collection that has become world-renowned.

The extraordinary institution Henry and his wife Arabella founded in August 1919 helped to fulfill Henry’s vision of a future in which “the Pacific Coast will one day be the center of culture extending around the world.”

Now 100 years later, the Huntington Library is examining the institution’s founding and founders through the lens of a single cataclysmic year (1919) in an exhibition that extends through January 20.

Jaan Kenbrovin, James Brockman and Nat Vincent and John William Kellette, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” 1919. Sheet music cover featuring June Caprice.

Co-curators James Glisson and Jennifer Watts have shaped the exhibition by relying on the millions of documents, objects, paintings and photographs in the collection to characterize the events of 1919 and the years following.

The year and the actions of the founders are organized around five themes: Fight, Return, Maps, Move and Build. An additional section, Portraits, highlights personalities and lesser known institutional history and memory.

Fight is anchored by the scale of the catastrophe of World War I followed by the short-lived Weimar Constitution formed after the German surrender. Amid war, revolution and unrest, the third wave of an influenza pandemic peaked in the winter of 1918-19, killing millions around the world.

Charles H. Sykes, “At Last, in the Suffragist,” June 21, 1919. National Women’s Party, Washington D.C.

Return finds Americans exhausted and disillusioned after the war, seeking a return to order and a place of safety and contentment. Popular song lyrics offered an escape and the promised comfort of a new different home. Childrens’ books focused on fantasy and myths, recalling a faraway world where justice was meted out by gods.

Perhaps the Maps section provides the most comprehensible understanding of the world and the growth of Southern California.

Maps were key to the war and after the war, particularly in dividing up the remnants of the German, Austrian, Hungarian and Russian empires.

Another map on display illustrates in lively color the mineral rights claims following the discovery in 1919 of the silver-bearing lode in Esmeralda County, Nevada.

Mapping Los Angeles guided Henry Huntington in laying miles of track in every direction as he anticipated how towns and suburbs would fill in his transit grid. Early in the 20th century he had bought up thousands of acres of land, which eventually rose in value as he provided water, power and trolleys.

An impressive 37-ft. hand-drawn linen map on display shows in careful execution land ownership and infrastructure details along every inch of the Pacific Electric line from Pasadena to Los Angeles.

As the war splintered the existing world order, post-war advances in the automobile and the airplane were every bit as disruptive to everyday life. America was on the move.

In 1919, the number of registered cars in Los Angeles County rose to 109,435, the highest in the country. Angelinos were as keen then as they are today to get behind the wheel, despite barely existent infrastructure.

Aviation technology soared, with distances extended achieved by lighter aircraft. The first transatlantic airship flight crossing took place in July of 1919.

There was movement on the ground as well. Huntington’s regional transportation system stretched across a thousand steel miles. The Pacific Electric took people to the periphery of the city—to Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange County, while the Los Angeles Railway ferried commuters to downtown from nearby neighborhoods.

Henry Huntington was a visionary with a big reach who found contentment in family, nature and books—the keystone of what was to become his legacy: the Huntington Library and Botanical Garden.

In 1907, he hired Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey to design his 60,000-sq.-ft. Beaux Arts mansion on his San Marino ranch. A committed agriculturist, Huntington had transformed his 600-acre property into a self-sustaining farm while simultaneously expanding the orchards, native oaks and scores of exotic specimens.

Portrait of an unidentified woman in Pasadena, California, during influenza epidemic, 1919.

Huntington’s grand scale plans for the gardens were miraculously implemented by his “number one” employee—William Hertrich, who as a 26-year-old in 1904 became ranch superintendent. He was a knowledgeable botanist, competent and above all a wizard, who could anticipate Huntington’s imaginative ideas.

He built a boiler system that pumped heated water to the gardens, forcing winter blooms. He responded to his boss’s need for weekly progress reports when he was away with a detailed ledger and photographs.

What we have come to expect when we visit the Huntington is a vast encyclopedic display of trees and plants from the seven continents of the world, a library full of literary and historical gems, and a house decorated with fine furnishings, Grand Master portraiture and exquisite porcelains.

There is much to see, and the 1919 exhibition recalls the turbulence of the war and the social upheaval that followed, leavened by the unrelenting spirit of forward movement and optimism Henry Huntington fostered.

For more information, visit huntington.org.


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2 Responses to If Collis Huntington Had Carried Out His Palisades Plan . . .1919 Exhibition at the Huntington

  1. Gordon Gerson says:

    “Maps were key to the war and after the war, particularly in dividing up the remnants of the German, Austrian, Hungarian and Russian empires.”

    Division of the centuries-old Ottoman (Turkish) Empire is a significant omission. The Middle East was carved up, mainly by Britain and France, in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. Many of today’s sectarian problems there are traceable to this.

  2. Julie Dresner says:

    Fascinating history tying the Palisades to the Huntington Library and Gardens.
    I must admit I haven’t been there yet but your article has encouraged me to
    make sure I go visit

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