A Proper Welcome

A Proper Welcome

David Wakely

Henry Huntington not only brought the once great Pacific Electric trolley to California, he also brought culture—in a variety of forms—through the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

The institution, located on Mr. Huntington’s former Myron Hunt–designed estate, includes several art galleries, over 120 acres of colorful gardens, and an almost unparalleled collection of rare books and manuscripts. But until now it never contained a proper entrance. Its former welcome facility encompassed a non-descript walkway leading visitors from the parking lot to a 1980s-era ticketing area that resembled the covered booths at Disneyland. It did not feel like a comfortable place to linger, and it did not match the sophisticated spirit of the place.

A team led by Architectural Resources Group (ARG) has dramatically changed that, creating the $68 million Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center, a spacious complex that welcomes visitors while adding over 100,000 square feet of new facilities, both above and below ground.

The center, which opened on April 4, is split into several buildings. These include a new tree-dotted arrival court, membership building, retail store, coffee shop, education center, lecture hall, multipurpose room, cafe, boardroom, glass domed “Garden Court” for events, and seemingly endless space for collection storage.

Taking advantage of the area’s abundant sunlight, every facility opens up to its own garden courtyard, and to a collection of Mediterranean gardens and groves that shape a linear approach to the Huntington estate itself.

The architectural scheme is a series of unornamented boxes (with the exception of the Garden Court) with classical proportions, trellises, loggia, and concrete columns. The design neither looks ersatz nor overwhelms the existing buildings. “It’s a palette that felt comfortable with the complex but didn’t want to copy it,” said ARG Principal Stephen Farneth.

Despite its huge scale, the complex—with its proliferation of gardens, series of buildings, voluminous underground space, and consistent outdoor loggia—is not overpowering. It works well as both an entry and a new campus.

The new project gives the Huntington unprecedented ways to welcome, fundraise, educate, and engage visitors. It’s not architecturally adventurous, but it provides an essential sense of comfort and a dramatic sense of place. It creates a contemporary variation on the estate’s architecture and landscape, but, as Farneth added, “it feels like it belongs here.”