Museums Rediscover Beauty, Right in Their Own Backyard


The dead trees, bare patches of earth and unsightly weeds that slowly took over the grounds around the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits are long gone. So are the tractors, earth movers and dump trucks that have recently occupied the 23-acre Wilshire Boulevard site known as Hancock Park.

What’s left? Instead of a depressing wasteland, there’s a brand spanking new, completely redesigned and refurbished park, with a luxuriant landscape, inviting walkways, picnic facilities, tar pits viewing sites and a 150-seat, red granite amphitheater designed by artist Jackie Ferrara.

Ten years after the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition initiated a master plan to renovate the badly deteriorated park, six years after a Los Angeles County bond issue provided $5 million in funding for the project and two years after the L.A. County Museum of Art received $5 million for the renovation and $2 million for related educational programs from LACMA trustee Dorothy Collins Brown, the Hancock Park Improvement Project is complete.


Formally dedicated on Wednesday, the park will be inaugurated today and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., with a free public celebration featuring live entertainment and activities for children.

Characterizing the park as “a village green for art and science,” LACMA President Andrea Rich said that the $10-million renovation took a long time partly because it required balancing the interests of the two museums. “This isn’t just a park; it’s a park with fossils and art,” she said.

The project also entailed making major improvements in the infrastructure as well as constructing the amphitheater and beautifying the grounds. But now that the renovation is finished, the museum has a convenient new entrance through a gate at the corner of Ogden Drive and 6th Street. A winding paved walkway leads to the north entrance of the museum’s plaza, which has been reconfigured to provide “a more welcoming” approach, Rich said.

The amphitheater, terraces and grounds also provide much-needed space for public programs, Rich said. Plans for musical performances, poetry readings, theatrical productions, storytelling, dance recitals and performance art are in the works, but neighbors have been assured that no amplified sound or intrusive lighting will be used.

“We won’t be doing rock concerts,” Rich said.

Plans to install silent sculpture are still in the talking stages, however. LACMA Director Graham Beal said he envisions a continuous sculpture walk around the museum, probably featuring late 19th century and 20th century works, but no decisions have been made.

Ferrara, a New York-based artist known for large architectural projects, said she is thrilled with the completion of her long-planned work. “I’m just beside myself, I’m so happy,” she said, pointing out beveled edges on blocks of red granite and other details of craftsmanship that surpassed her expectations.


Recalling the genesis of the $800,000 structure, she said that Howard Fox, curator of contemporary art at LACMA, had “mumbled something about building an amphitheater at the museum” during a visit to her studio several years ago. “I thought, ‘Right, Howard,’ but he proposed me [as the artist for the project] and his proposal was accepted,” she said.


The result is an elliptical structure set in a grassy berm. A swath of curved, stepped seating enclosed by two triangular end walls forms half of the ellipse, while a stage on the ground level completes the form. Simple and sleek in its design, the granite structure nonetheless offers surprises as park visitors walk around it, discovering staircases at each end of the seats and a grass-covered slope on the back.

Ferrara worked with Laurie Olin, the Philadelphia-based landscape architect who designed the park. “It’s amazing how quickly we agreed on what we wanted to do,” she said. But they made many adjustments along the way as Ferrara’s idea evolved from what she calls her first “really terrible drawing.”

One decision she faced was the choice of stone. “I wanted to make a red amphitheater,” Ferrara said. “I looked at sandstone, which is a more vivid red, but it’s not as hardy as granite. It’s much too porous.” The stage is red, too, but it’s made of poured concrete, stained and scored to resemble the granite.

Ferrara also collaborated with Olin to design the space around the amphitheater, including a long, curved wall that serves as seating around a terrace. Conceiving the wall as a red line that takes a sweeping path from the museum, around the terrace to the amphitheater, she likens her work to “a journey” through an environment of geometric shapes and patterns of stacked stones, accented by black granite squares and stripes.

The renovation effectively recycles a plot of land that was donated to the county in 1915 by G. Allan Hancock. A local businessman, marine scientist and patron of the arts, he hoped to facilitate the preservation and exhibition of Ice Age fossils excavated from tar pits on the site.

Long known as the home of the La Brea tar pits, the park became the site of the county’s new art museum in 1965, when it opened an independent facility after splitting off from the former Museum of History, Science in Art in Exposition Park. The Page Museum, a research and educational branch of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, opened its Hancock Park building in 1977. The bulk of the park runs along 6th Street, between Ogden Drive and Curson Avenue. Formerly arranged in confusing sections and divided by interior gates, the park has been redesigned as a unit, enclosed by a single fence of vertical green bars that seem to disappear when seen from moving vehicles.

Olin’s park design called for more than 300 new trees, 60,000 shrubs and 340,000 square feet of grass on land that has been regraded to create a variety of gentle slopes and contours. Other additions include bridges, picnic tables and benches, restroom facilities, signage and improved lighting.

Although the park was designed primarily to serve audiences of the two museums, it is also expected to be a community refuge and gathering place--open every day, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.