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Please grant me your indulgence while I tell a few stories. They all have to do with the year 1919—a big year on many levels—and they speak to my ever-present desire to find connectivity, synchronicity, and order in the chaos among the disparate events that, taken together, make sense to me almost a century after they occurred.
In 1919, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity was confirmed; the 19th Amendment guaranteeing suffrage to women was approved; the Treaty of Versailles was signed, drawing World War I to a close; and a great American story ended with the death of Theodore Roosevelt, at age 60.
That same year, Henry Huntington signed the indenture that transferred his San Marino property and collections to a nonprofit educational trust, founding this institution—a seminal moment in our history. And John Skandera, my father, was born in the rough and murderous Five Points section of New York—definitely a seminal moment in my own history.
My father had little in common with Teddy Roosevelt or Henry Huntington. Roosevelt came from old money. He was a statesman, author, explorer, soldier, naturalist, reformer, and the 26th President of the United States. His family belonged to the “Knickerbocker Elite”—the old, powerful, moneyed families that ran New York society, some of them with patrician roots stretching back to 17th-century Dutch colonists. Roosevelt rejected idleness and believed in service to his country; he considered himself a proponent of the “New Nationalist” variety of Progressivism. He gave America two gifts: first, a sense of international confidence and boldness; and second, our national park system. The Huntington’s current exhibition “Geographies of Wonder” celebrates his achievement.
Henry Huntington was part of the Gilded Age generation of new money. His uncle Collis started out as a peddler and went on to found a railroad empire. Henry was mentored by his uncle, and after Collis’ death in 1900 he inherited a fortune and moved to Los Angeles, population 150,000. Here, he established the Los Angeles Railway, the intraurban Yellow Car line moving people around downtown L.A., and the fabled Red Cars of the Pacific Electric Railway, an interurban line that connected the outlying communities. Henry became a real estate developer by subdividing low-cost real estate. He became involved in the electric business to create a source of power for his railways and for the city of Los Angeles. The Big Creek Hydroelectric Project, known as “the hardest working water in the world,” was initially formed by Huntington’s Pacific Light and Power Company.
All the while, Mr. Huntington was amassing a world-class library, a priceless collection of art, and acres of botanical rarities. He wanted to share these treasures with future generations. “I say money has nothing to do with it,” he stated. “True values can only be expressed in eons of time, by the march of centuries to come and by the uplift of humanity.” What an incredible gift he left us.
Old money, new money; and then there was my father’s family, who had no money. And yet there were invisible connections to both Roosevelt and Huntington. My father’s parents entered the United States through Ellis Island during the peak years of immigration in the early 1900s. Abandoned by his father, and with his mother hospitalized with tuberculosis, my father and his siblings were taken to Happy Valley, an orphanage supported by Edwin Gould, son of railroad magnate Jay Gould (a competitor and partner of Collis Huntington). Edwin was a believer in Roosevelt’s Progressivism and served with Henry Huntington on the board of the National Surety Company.
Thanks to the GI Bill, my father graduated from Pepperdine University and became a fifth-grade teacher at the 98th Street School—just off Henry Huntington’s Red Car line—close to his home in Inglewood in the heart of the Southern California suburbia that Huntington had created. He taught there for 42 years.
I grew up hearing my parents talk about their travels on the Yellow and Red Car lines, yet never for a moment could I have imagined that I would one day live on the property that the rail and real estate magnate himself had once called home.
And thanks to The Huntington, I recently experienced a full-circle reality check moment. I was visited at my office by a successful lawyer and professional photographer who had been assigned to photograph The Huntington for a Chinese travel magazine. He wanted to meet me because he had been one of my father’s fifth-grade students—class of 1956. My dad had been his mentor, he said, and had encouraged him to stay in school and earn his degree. To my astonishment, he still remembered what my dad had said so many years ago and quoted a few lines for me. Now he intends to create an endowment at Cal State University to support photographic preservation. I offered to connect him with Huntington staff. He also invited me to attend the 60th reunion of their fifth grade class later this year.
I walked in loving this institution, and I like to think that my path here had something to do with all these connections. I’m always trying to connect the dots. And for all of us at The Huntington, that is, in a sense, our mission: to connect the dots and fathom the big picture for an institution on the brink of its centennial.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve studied budget details and basements, endowment returns and annual attendance numbers. I’ve spoken with many community members and have learned quite a lot. As my knowledge base increases, so does my appreciation for The Huntington. After all my study, thinking, collecting of data, and conversations, I’ve fine-tuned my emerging vision for The Huntington’s future to three fundamental propositions:
Our job is, first, to preserve our assets; second, to continue to collect; and third, to make the next generations fall in love with us. That’s it: preserve, collect, and love.
It is our responsibility to keep thinking about how we open doors to The Huntington—whether it be through new cuisine or sustainability plans or educational collaborations or things I can’t even imagine yet. These are doors that invite new audiences to spend time with us. And once people are in the room, we need to keep reinforcing The Huntington’s heritage while reinventing its future. That means more exciting exhibitions about the art, library, and botanical collections, with education always being part of our work. We must continue to share more of The Huntington outside our physical footprint via outreach programs and digital technology.
The best news is that we don’t lack in content or in creative, audacious, and inventive ideas. This is a beautiful, serene, busy, great place. And it is only by working together that we can continue to support our mission and remain true to Mr. Huntington’s vision.
Laura Skandera Trombley, President