Stephen George Garrett, a British American architect who helped oil tycoon J. Paul Getty transform his improbable dream of a Roman-style villa in Malibu into a world famous cultural attraction and became its first director, has died at a care facility in Santa Monica.
Garrett, who enjoyed working with the demanding and sometimes unpredictable billionaire, died Monday of natural causes, his daughter Rebecca Garrett said. He was 96.
“Stephen Garrett’s first and foremost contribution was working with Getty on the whole concept and development of the villa, in which Getty’s collection would reside,” said Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Born in a ranch house in Malibu in 1954, the museum moved to the facility now known as the Getty Villa in 1974 and later expanded into the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Although the villa was Getty’s “brilliant” idea, Potts said, “Stephen was very much involved with making it happen. He was an architectural consultant who provided expert advice. Getty was not on the ground. He was in England. Stephen was the man here on the ground.”
The immensely wealthy but notoriously frugal Getty was not an easy boss. Historical accounts are peppered with tales of his complaints about the tiniest museum expenses, such as a $17 electric pencil sharpener, and demands that guests at his Sutton Place estate near London make telephone calls from an outdoor phone booth. Long after he had become a serious art collector, Getty had to be assured that acquisitions proposed by his curators were good buys before he would approve them.
But Garrett “adored working for Getty,” his daughter said in a telephone conversation. “I think, in great part, it was because Getty knew what he wanted. My father loved working for someone who had an opinion and was very well educated and well researched.”
Born in Ashtead, England, on Dec. 26, 1922, Garrett got his early education at Dragon School in Oxford and Charterhouse School in Surrey. Following his passion for architecture and design, he studied at Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he earned a master’s degree in architecture. After working four years at the Design Research Unit in London, he established a private architectural practice, ultimately specializing in the restoration of historic buildings.
He also became the father of two girls, Carey and Georgia, with his first wife, Peta Jones. Their marriage ended in divorce and in 1964 he married Jean Mackintosh, with whom he had two more children, Rebecca and Jason.
Garrett met Getty in 1967, when the oil baron was looking for a “good, inexpensive architect” to advise him on the possible renovation of structures on Gaiola Island in the Bay of Naples in Italy, his daughter said. He agreed to make a quick, cheap trip — flying back and forth in one day and packing his own lunch — and then file a report.
But it was only the beginning of an adventure that led to other projects, including the possible expansion of Getty’s ranch house in Southern California. Getty had purchased the 64-acre property in 1946 and added a wing to create the first version of the J. Paul Getty Museum, but he wanted more space for the art.
Garrett agreed to take a look, this time with room and board provided, and concluded that there was no way to expand the building without destroying its architectural integrity. Since plenty of land was available, he suggested that Getty construct a new building for his collection. The following year, 1968, Getty came up with the idea of reconstructing the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman villa in Herculaneum that was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.
An exact replica was impossible, but he envisioned a building based on available information with scholarly imagination filling in the gaps. Garrett declined Getty’s invitation to take charge, feeling unqualified to deal with such a complex project in a city with a plethora of unfamiliar rules, but he became Getty’s architectural consultant, embarking on a five-year marathon of travel at the behest of a fiercely engaged man who wanted to know about every last detail and loved to peruse photographs of workers pouring concrete and installing marble walls.
At the time, Getty, who was living in London, had become ill and developed a fear of flying. In 1973, the year before the villa opened, Getty appointed Garrett as the villa’s deputy director, retaining the top position for himself. But, either because of his health or his aversion to flying, he never saw his dream come to life.
After Getty’s death in 1976, Garrett was promoted to director and presided over an unsettled period when the unexpected gift of Getty’s fortune led to speculation that the museum would end up dominating the entire world art market. Garrett stepped down in 1984 and spent the next few years working with the Long Beach Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum. Later, he traveled the world with his with longtime partner, Phyllis Nugent.
“Even in his final years, when I got to know him, he was an expansive, dynamic, enthusiastic, adventurous, amusing character,” Potts said. “He was admired. He was not someone you forgot. All of that played into his ability to work for a famously difficult man, namely Mr. Getty.”
Garrett is survived by his children, Carey Cowham, Georgia, Rebecca and Jason Garrett, and partner Phyllis Nugent.
Muchnic is a former Times art critic