Natural History Museum to build $13-million whale of an entrance


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It’s huge, fast and destined to become perhaps the most striking landmark visible to passersby outside a Los Angeles museum.

No, we’re not talking about the life-size steam locomotive designed by artist Jeff Koons (pictured) that director Michael Govan would love to hang high above the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That’s still on the drawing boards and, depending on how questions about its funding and feasibility turn out, it may never be seen huffing smoke in Hancock Park while hanging stationary from a gigantic construction crane.


We’re talking about the whale-under-glass that LACMA’s former parent institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is planning to introduce by 2013 as a signpost attraction of its own, easily visible to the passing world.

Museum leaders announced Tuesday that they plan to build a new entry pavilion, a 60-foot-high glass structure facing Exposition Boulevard, and that its inhabitant will be a 63-foot-long fin whale skeleton -– 221 bones weighing 7,000 pounds, supported by a steel armature. For the full story, click here.

Feasibility is not an issue. The remains of the creature, which met its fate in 1926 at the hands of whalers out of Humboldt County, have hung at the museum since 1944, getting a few years of recent down time until last summer, when it became the star of the ‘fin whale passage’ that was part of the first stage in a series of ongoing renovations. When it’s remounted in the new, $13-million Otis Booth Pavilion, Balaenoptera physalus, as it is formally known, or ‘the greyhound of the sea’ as the species has been dubbed for being quite the speedster, given its weight of up to 80 tons, will have a different posture. Now it courses along on a level trajectory; in the pavilion, the idea is to make it as dramatic and lifelike as possible, so it will be seen suspended in a dive.

The pavilion is a gift of the Otis Booth Foundation, which was launched in 2006 but got going in earnest in 2008 with a large bequest from its namesake, Franklin Otis Booth Jr. The former Los Angeles Times executive had the smarts to get in on the ground floor as a major early investor in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company; in 1977, he gave the natural history museum $250,000 in stock in a company that was soon taken over by Berkshire Hathaway. As a museum board member, he spent the ensuing decades urging that the money stay parked with Buffett so it would grow. Museum leaders are happy to have heeded him.

The Booth Foundation’s portfolio is currently valued at $190 million, says Palmer Murray, Otis Booth’s son-in-law and one of seven family members who have a say in its grant-making. Private and charter high schools, universities and children’s charities have figured most strongly in its early giving, but arts and culture are on its radar. The foundation’s 2008-09 federal financial return shows a $100,000 gift to Los Angeles Opera, $60,000 to Los Angeles Ballet, $47,500 for American Ballet Theatre, $20,000 to the Pasadena Playhouse and $5,000 for the Independent Shakespeare Co.; the two previous years, when it was in a start-up phase, it made grants to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Music Center.

The idea is to keep the Booth Pavilion dramatically lighted, making it and its giant inhabitant a beacon for occupants of downtown high-rises and passersby on the Exposition Line, a light-rail route where trains are expected to begin running this year between downtown and Culver City.

The museum’s previous identifying structure along Exposition Boulevard -– a life-size statue of a battling T-rex and triceratops -– will be moved closer to the train station just west of the museum.

When all the work is finished, most visitors are to either park in a new, two-level garage built at and below ground level and landscaped to blend in with 3.5 acres of new ‘urban wilderness’ that will showcase Los Angeles plants and small animals, or debark from the train station. They will buy their tickets at a booth near the sidewalk, then decide whether to start with the outdoor nature exhibits or go directly inside. Then the options become entering at ground level into the new Nature Lab, where the exhibits will relate to the plants and animals outside, or ascending by a foot bridge into the Booth Pavilion to see the fin whale, which will rank second only to the museum’s 68-foot-long mamenchisaurus fossil as L.A.’s biggest authentic critter on public display. The blue whale that has hung since 1998 in the lobby of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach is bigger, at 88 feet -– but she and her calf are made of polyurethane and fiberglass. -- Mike Boehm


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Upper photo: Artist’s rendering of Otis Booth Pavilion at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Credit: NHM and CO Architects

Second photo: A model of a locomotive sculpture planned at LACMA. Credit: Jeff Koons Production Inc.

Third photo: The Natural History Museum’s fin whale skeleton, seen presiding over a party in its current spot. Credit: Capture Imaging

Fourth photo: Franklin Otis Booth. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: Artist’s rendering of the proposed future Natural History Museum campus. Credit: NHM and CO Architects