American expansion

Times Staff Writer

Nearly 20 years have passed since the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery for American Art opened at the oh-so-British Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Since then, the San Marino institution has expanded its American art collection from the 50 paintings donated by the Scott Foundation to more than 11,000 works, including sculpture, prints, photographs and decorative objects.

This astonishing development has done little to change the Huntington's image. The main attraction for many visitors is still the gallery of full-length British portraits, starring Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie" and Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy." And even if the Huntington sometimes stands in for the White House in the "West Wing" TV series, Americans might see the sumptuous estate as a set for British drama on "Masterpiece Theatre."

But American art is on the rise at the Huntington -- and never more so. The Scott Gallery is about to undergo a $6-million expansion that will increase its size from 10,000 square feet to 26,000 square feet and reorient the building with a much more compelling entrance on the north side. A great swath of land just west of the existing gallery has been cleared in preparation for the new addition. Last week, a ceremonial groundbreaking officially launched the construction.

Designed by Los Angeles architects Frederick Fisher and Partners, the new wing is a one-story, 16,000-square-foot, limestone-clad structure with a long, glassed-in loggia on the front. Initially, only the front half of the structure will be an exhibition space. The back half will be used for storage, but it will eventually be converted to galleries.

The expanded complex will house a collection that encompasses American paintings from the 1730s to the 1930s -- including works by George Caleb Bingham, Mary Cassatt, William Michael Harnett and Edward Hopper -- sculpture by Hiram Powers and Chauncey Bradley Ives and decorative arts by Southern California architects Charles and Henry Greene.

New names are also on the way. The Scott addition -- to be called the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, in honor of the Huntington trustee emeritus and former Times Mirror Co. chairman and his wife -- will be part of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries for American Art.

The challenge was to "do a modern building that would be absolutely at home with the other buildings," says architect Fisher, who is known for his distinctly up-to-date sensibility but often applies it to historic buildings, including the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica and the planned expansion of the Oceanside Museum of Art.

"The Huntington has some very important architecture and a very well-established style," he says. "But I think that their selecting me indicated that they were prepared to depart a little bit from the Neoclassic style that exists more or less throughout the campus."

London influence

If there's a model for Fisher's scheme, it's London's Dulwich Picture Gallery, designed in 1811 by Sir John Soane. "It's one of my favorite museum spaces and one that is very closely related to the Huntington, in terms of its scale, its reinterpretation of classical architecture, the notion of it as a space for a private collection and the way it faces a green," he says.

The plan he came up with is a rectangular structure with a loggia that projects to the east, passing a courtyard and leading into the Scott Gallery.

"It's an extremely simple conception," says John Murdoch, director of the Huntington's art collections. "But it's the kind of simplicity you have to fight for, with very close attention to detail."

Perhaps the biggest problem was to figure out how to link the new structure with the old one, Fisher says. "The Scott Gallery is a very formal architectural piece. You can't crash into it just any old way. We knew the new building wasn't going to look like the old one, but we wanted the connection to make sense. Also, the more you touch an existing building, the more expensive it is. Our strategy was to touch it as lightly as possible."

He also had to tie the buildings together without destroying the flow of art history in the galleries. "The new building will ultimately house the most modern work and you don't want to enter the existing Scott building in the middle of the story," Fisher says. "We made the connection at the north end, where we can go into the 19th century as a transition point."

The expansion will provide much needed space for the burgeoning collection, but it will also create a new presence for American art, Murdoch says. Standing in the covered plaza between the Scott's exhibition space and curatorial offices, he points out that the most imposing entrance leads to the private offices, not the public galleries.

The Scott Gallery opened in 1984. When architect Paul Gray designed it with Robert Wark, then director of the art collections, the rationale for having such a modest entrance was that it would lead to a surprising interior, Murdoch says, "but the idea was not properly integrated." The entrance is so "extremely understated" that "the message it gives off about American art is all wrong."

Fisher's building, with its much more prominent entrance, should change that. But the Huntington's big picture of American art won't be complete for a few years. The new building is expected to open next fall -- without American art. Instead, it will temporarily house the British and European art collection while the old Huntington mansion undergoes an extensive renovation. The plan will allow the Huntington to keep its most highly prized artistic treasures on public view and to avoid paying an estimated $1.5 million to store them.

When the British and European pictures are returned to the refurbished mansion, "the real excitement for the American collection will begin," Murdoch says. "Then the new building will make a dynamic point of what we can do with the American collection. It will also be an invitation, to those who might feel inclined, to help us reach its potential."

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