By May S. Ruiz
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is a venerable institution beloved by residents in the San Gabriel Valley, recognized by scholars all over the world, and visited by tourists of every color and stripe.
At the heart of this landmark foundation is Dr. Laura Skandera Trombley, who took over as its eighth president (and the first woman to hold the title) in July of last year. She oversees an organization with so many moving parts that perfectly coalesce to make The Huntington run as smoothly and seamlessly, as it is beautiful and breathtaking.
Prior to her current post, Dr. Trombley served for 13 years as president of Pitzer, one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California. Under her tenure, the college raised its US News & World Report ranking, and improved its acceptance rate. In 2012, The Chronicle of Higher Education named Pitzer College the top producer of Fullbright Fellows among US colleges.
Two weeks before commemorating her first full year at The Huntington, Dr. Trombley remarks on the past 11 and a half months, “It’s like discovering the wonderful contents of a treasure box – from the people, to the objects, to the gardens. The Huntington has the most amazing way of revealing itself like the petals of a flower. You see that the totality of it is stunning but the real beauty comes in the particulars. I’ve spent the year just looking at it a little more deeply than I have ever had before … and that has been really incredible for me.”
Like most people living in the area, Dr. Trombley is no stranger to the place. She remembers that as a child, she walked through the rose garden with her mother and went to tea. Years later she came back to The Huntington as a young scholar researching for her doctoral thesis.
“I felt this strong connection to it and I thought my experience was atypical. But I soon learned that it’s not. In fact I’ve met families who’ve volunteered at The Huntington for three generations; we have someone who has been actively volunteering for 54 years. That a quarter of a million people have the same robust ties to The Huntington – that this is so widely shared – was something that I could not have anticipated,” Dr. Trombley observes.
Dr. Trombley has fully immersed herself in the operations of The Huntington. She has worked alongside volunteers to prune and deadhead the roses in the garden, met school buses as they arrived for tours, and wrapped gifts during the holidays. She says, “I don’t want to just sit in my office; part of the fun is engaging with people here.”
The work for Dr. Trombley going forward is several-fold. She wants to focus on what goes on inside the buildings – continue to expand The Huntington’s collections and increase funding for art exhibitions. Additionally, she is thinking of putting on more outdoor art displays, making sure all staff are well-taken care of, and imagining how to enhance the visitor experience.
As president of Pitzer, Dr. Trombley grew its annual endowment from $42 million in 2003 to $133 million in 2014, and raised its national profile. As she is quick to point out, The Huntington is already a world-class organization as well as a global cultural institution, and is in an incredibly robust financial position. Her charge is to continue to grow the institution and consider carefully its physical footprint.
And as Dr. Trombley did in her previous post, she intends to make The Huntington a model of environmental responsibility. She states, “We are moving strategically towards sustainability – analyzing how much water and power we consume and looking at how we can use less of both. In fact, we will be a beta site for cutting-edge drip irrigation systems that are astoundingly sophisticated – they are all computer-controlled and can actually sense when it’s time to water. We’re considering installing low-flow toilets across the board, and maybe generating our own power.
“These things are options that are important, not just because we are a very challenged area when it comes to water and power, but also because, more and more, the state is requiring that people take measures. Beyond that, we are always a teaching institution and we want to exhibit best practice. We want to show a path for how people can become increasingly sustainable in their homes at an affordable way,” Dr. Trombley expounds.
Ten months ago, Dr. Trombley embarked on a mission to make The Huntington a food destination. She explains, “The thing that’s interesting, and at the same time is complex, is that we have so many constituents when it comes to food. We have children who want grilled cheese sandwiches, tater tots, and mac n’ cheese; adults who want an authentic fine-dining experience, with chefs designing their meals; our staff who want organic food and pre-prepared meals they can take home so they won’t have to go to the market and cook dinner from scratch.
“We plan to launch it in September and we hope it will be part of the attraction among the locals and particularly for our members. We want them to come for a nice walk and then enjoy an incredible meal with the best parking in Los Angeles. It would be so satisfying for me if people think of The Huntington when they want to have a world-class meal in an incomparable setting,” Dr. Trombley enthuses.
Dovetailing with this project is an expansion of their dining venues to accommodate the sheer number of people who visit. Dr. Trombley reveals they are building a second restaurant in the Chinese Garden – the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. The one that currently exists will very likely return to being a dim sum place or become a real teahouse serving sweets and desserts, while the second restaurant would offer heartier fare.
Dr. Trombley says further, “We have received an enormous number of requests for a place to accommodate large parties for weddings, first birthdays, even dances. Right now we only have our grass area and not everyone wants to be on grass; we also have to build a stage, which adds to the expense. To meet that space requirement, we are on the final phase of fund-raising for a 600-seat venue on the hillside of the Chinese Garden to be used for events. It will be able to support a tent so we can have events at any time of the year. It would have a spectacular view of the Chinese Garden and the two restaurants there can cater the affair.”
There are several memorable events during Dr. Trombley’s first year that stand out in her mind. She describes her favorites, “The Huntington Ball is always lovely … I’d never been to a ball before … that was a lot of fun. It’s a fundraiser we hold every September for our members, guests and corporate sponsors.”
One event they had for the first time is the San Marino Day, which Dr. Trombley initiated. In April, The Huntington opened its gates and invited everyone to come free of charge – about 20 percent of San Marino’s population came in that day, reports Dr. Trombley. Another favorite is An Evening Among the Roses, held for the LGBT community. She is also looking forward to the completion of the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, a grand celebration slated for 2018.
“There are so many events here … and I’m not even mentioning the fantastic speakers who have all been extraordinary,” Dr. Trombley hastens to add. “Except for the San Marino Day which we held with my coming in, these other amazing events have been going on for a long time. But it’s a place that’s very open to new ideas … to creative ideas. I find that to be one of the best parts of The Huntington.”
When asked what vision she wants people to have at the mention of The Huntington, Dr. Trombley laughs and protests, “I think it would be almost impossible for me to name just one. We have The Huntington rose, ‘The Blue Boy,’ Mark Twain’s manuscript of ‘The Prince and the Pauper.’ What I’ve learned is that everyone has a different mental image of it.
But one thing that comes to mind above everything is that it’s a kind and gentle place where people are treated very, very well. And it’s a place where you could just have a sense of spontaneous exhaling and, at the same time, an inhaling of creativity. I think that’s the most special aspect of The Huntington,” Dr. Trombley opines.
The Huntington is an institution that evokes as many different feelings and emotions as the tourists and visitors who come to experience it. And just as Dr. Trombley discovered when she came on board a year ago, every single person who steps into this wondrous oasis retains a deep connection to it.
While locals happily share The Huntington’s vast treasures with the thousands who come to visit annually, they are fiercely protective as they are intensely proud of this national treasure in their midst. They are also absolutely certain that in Dr. Trombley’s accomplished stewardship, The Huntington will thrive and flourish for centuries to come.