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David Brown reflects on over a decade of leading Descanso Gardens

David Brown

David Brown, executive director of Descanso Gardens, announced his plans to retire in 2017.

(Roger Wilson / La Cañada Valley Sun)

When David Brown came to the helm of Descanso Gardens in 2005 as executive director, the world of plants was still, to him, a largely mysterious one.

Hired by board members who’d gone years without a leader following the departure of former director Richard Schulhof in 2002, Brown was sought out more for his vision and ability to bring far-reaching plans to life than for any particular horticultural know-how.

So he spent his early days working outdoors and learning the ropes.

“I spent my first six months living out of a briefcase with a cellphone, talking to people here and observing how they use the garden,” Brown recalled in a recent sit-down interview with the Valley Sun.

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He asked trustees, staff and Descanso Guild members what they liked and wanted to improve about the botanical garden and the visitor experience. Armed with their answers and his own insights, Brown devised a 30-point agenda that would set the course for more than a decade of progressive development at the La Cañada venue.

With many of those original objectives fulfilled, the end of that long and fruitful journey is now in sight — Brown announced last Thursday he will retire in 2017 after what will be more than a decade of leadership.

His last day will be Aug. 31, a day selected by an office employee to neatly coincide with the end of a pay period and exactly three weeks after his 72nd birthday.

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“The decision came from a very deep place,” he said. “I actually came in thinking this would be a five- or six-year experience, and it will have turned into 12.”

Brown reflected on the long arc of his nonprofit career and how each role helped shape his time at Descanso, including his tenure as president and chief executive at the Art Center College of Design from 1985 to 1999, consultant work for the Wyoming Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and work with Napa’s Oxbow School, a single-semester arts school for high school juniors and seniors co-founded by Robert and Margrit Mondavi.

When a spring 2004 call from a Descanso board member with whom he’d served as a trustee on another board eventually turned into an invitation to assume leadership of the botanical garden, Brown was surprised.

“I thought, that’s a little out of left field, but very flattering,” he recalled. “If you’re willing to hire someone who doesn’t know the name of the plants, I’m willing to try and learn the names of the plants and contribute what I can along the way.”

One of his first major efforts was overseeing the restoration of the historic Boddy House, home to Descanso founder E. Manchester Boddy, from an ad hoc storage facility and office space into a local historic attraction.

Brown collaborated to have the Hollywood Regency style home serve as the 2007 Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts. The following year, a grant from the Ahmanson Foundation was secured to help transition the house into a public museum home.

“I knew when I came here I wanted that house to be part of the visitor experience,” he recalled. “The rehabilitation of the house, it was the No. 1 idea on everyone’s list.”

Brown would also be the driving force behind the 2011 arrival of the Sturt Haaga Gallery, transformed from Boddy’s personal garage into a space housing exhibits that seek to, in Descanso’s official words, “illuminate the intersection between contemporary arts and the sciences represented by the garden — botany, horticulture, biology, ecology, conservation, and the study of gardens as cultural artifacts.”

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Working closely with the gallery’s La Cañada namesake lead donors, Paul and Heather Haaga, Brown lent his interest and expertise in design, helping guide curatorial direction, according to Descanso Chief Operating Officer Juliann Rooke.

“That was his project,” Rooke said of Brown’s work with donors. “He had a vision for that space and was involved in the concept design and the actual design. They thought it could provide an area for historical exploration, scientific exploration and art. I think it adds another dimension (to the garden).”

Turning portions of Descanso’s 160-acre campus into opportunities to educate and inspire visitors’ awe and curiosity about the local history and the natural world around them has been at the center of many of Brown’s visions.

“The thing I want to be remembered as is the guy who had ideas,” he said. “I love having ideas. I love seeing them grow and mature and then become reality.”

He credited his staff for helping execute those ideas, and for charting with him an exciting course for the future that, if executed, could help Descanso Gardens become a showcase for innovation.

Ideas for future enhancements at Descanso include the creation of a 1-mile chaparral walk from the Boddy House around the new Oak Woodland area, a focus on cleaner and more natural water filtration, in part, through an emphasis on riparian habitats and a parking lot renovation that would include stormwater capture and a solar energy installation.

“He’s definitely been a visionary,” Rooke said. “When you look at what Descanso looked like five years ago and what it looks like today, it’s very different landscape. I think David Brown leaves very large shoes to fill.”

As for Brown, who hopes to continue his working relationship with Descanso if all works out, he remains hopeful about the garden’s future.

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“We’ve had great success here, and there’s more success to come,” he said.

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Sara Cardine, sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine


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