Escape to the Huntington. Next door to the glitzy pop culture of Los Angeles is a quiet treasure-trove of art, books, and botanical beauty

WHEN a friend from Boston called recently to say he was coming to southern California, he said he wanted to visit all the ``must see'' tourist destinations. ``You know - Disneyland, Walk-of-Fame, Studio Tours, Venice Beach,'' he said. ``Have you heard of `the Huntington?''' I asked. ``Huh?'' he replied.

Such is the image problem of southern California beyond its borders: What is probably its cultural crown jewel goes largely unnoticed amid the surrounding tinsel.

Yet now that I've lived here long enough to sort out the substance from the merely stylish, the Huntington has become my No. 1 choice of places to take out-of-town visitors. My goal is simple. I want to impress them with a quality and depth not usually associated with Los Angeles, a bastion of television and pop culture, and let them luxuriate in the most opulent oasis of green in a desert of urban sprawl.

The Huntington Library, Botanical Garden, and Art Gallery, after all, is:

One of the great research libraries of the world (2.2 million manuscripts, 360,000 rare books, and 253,000 reference books) specializing in British and American history, literature, and art from 11th century to the present.

One of the best collections of 18th- and 19th-century English paintings found outside Europe - including Gainsborough's ``Blue Boy,'' Sir Thomas Lawrence's ``Pinkie,'' and landscapes by Constable, Turner, and Palmer.

About 200 acres of meticulously kept botanical gardens, representing 14,000 kinds of plants (all labeled), a 12-acre Desert Garden with the largest grouping of mature cactuses and succulents in the world, and a Japanese house, moonbridge, and bonsai court.

I describe it to my friends as a sort of subtropical Versailles. Henry Huntington amassed his fortune building and selling America's first railroads.

When he moved to San Marino in 1903, he built, in the words of historian Kevin Starr, ``the most lavish private house in Southern California before the construction of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon'' and ``turned the ranch grounds adjacent into the most elaborate private garden in America.''

Huntington also began to collect with a vengeance and ``set about to transform his San Marino estate into a utopia of high culture.''

The legacy of what he collected and built opened a year after his death in 1927. It's important to mention the gardens, art collection, and library all in one breath because the Huntington has achieved fame for each of these features independently of the others. Each alone would make a trip worth writing about. So abundant is the Huntington collection that you can't expect to see all things at once. You have to pick and choose if you are going to get anything accomplished. But the flip side to that is: You can keep going back without running out of things to see or do.

We always start with a quick trip around the grounds, beginning with my favorite 12 acres - the succulents.

If you thought the fork-shaped saguaro cactus was the only desert plant with needles, guess again. There are 60 species of pincushion cactuses (Mammillaria) alone, not to mention bizarre flat, round, oblong, spindly, and spiky cactuses growing in the interstices of lava rock, all framed with an otherworldly skyline of yuccas and palms.

One of my favorites, crammed in tightly next to one another in the so-called Desert Garden is the ``creeping devil cactus.'' It resembles a 10-foot cross between a porcupine and a python. There is also the yucca filifera, a towering, shaggy treelike plant from central Mexico that seems fit for a set on ``Star Wars.''

There are 12 other gardens to choose from - rose and camellia among them (the latter with 1,600 varieties) - but we invariably end up at the Japanese Garden, certainly the highlight of the outdoor Huntington. A vermilion moonbridge arches over a koi-filled pond. Iris plants fringe the edge. A zigzag bridge (to frustrate evil spirits that are believed to travel in only straight lines) connects the Japanese house to the Zen garden of raked sand and gravel.

A collection of dwarfed bonsai trees graces the inner courtyard. Walking across the rest of the grounds past acacia and jacaranda trees, rock streams, and marmalade bushes, you need scissors to cut through the aroma that hangs in the air. And on a sunny day (practically every day), you'll need sunglasses for the brilliance of the color.

There are widespread lawns on hillsides arching down to give you a full view of distant hills to the south and the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains to the north. Here you can sit on benches in a sculpture-fringed fountain garden or go on inside.

If you choose the latter, you're still in for a lot of work - and difficult choices. Besides the gallery itself, which was the Huntingtons' opulent residence (and houses the paintings ``Mrs. Reynolds as the Tragic Muse'' and Constable's ``View on the Stour,'' in addition to those paintings previously mentioned), the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery for American Art opened in mid-1984. Here, paintings range from the 1730s to the 1930s and include works by Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley, Edward Hopper, and John Singer Sargent.

Now, if you opt for the Library Exhibition Hall, ignoring the Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Collection of French sculpture, tapestries, porcelain, and furniture, you still have to take a deep breath.

On permanent exhibition are an illuminated Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (ca. 1410); a Bible printed by Gutenberg (1450-55); an ``unexcelled collection of the early editions of Shakespeare''; and Benjamin Franklin's autobiography written in his own hand. Not to mention first editions of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Frost, Thoreau, Fitzgerald, and London.

For those who are overwhelmed with what the Huntington has to offer, the management offers docent-guided tours of the grounds, introductory talks in the library, and brochures describing self-guided tours.

About once a month, there are short informal dance, drama, and musical programs related to the collections.

If you go

Hours of the Huntington are short: 1-4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. You are given a map (which you will need) and asked for a contribution of $2 per person, though there is technically no admission charge. For further information, write to the Huntington at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108, or call (818) 405-2100.

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