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The Huntington's Glorious Restoration

September 28, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is up on all threes again after a year of cleanup and renovation. On Tuesday, the Huntington's gallery will reopen its doors to the public, revealing its beloved old self amid a glow of subtle alterations.

Deprived of its art gallery by a fire last October that only destroyed one artwork but did extensive smoke damage, the grand triumvirate of British and American culture has been limping along with characteristic dignity in the interim. Visitors have continued to stroll through the resplendent gardens and to peruse the literary treasures in the library on the 207-acre complex in San Marino.

The faithful also have kept in touch with their favorite couple of portraits, Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie" and Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," which were quickly rescued, cleaned and temporarily rehung in the library's gallery.

But now the perennially youthful twosome has returned to the refurbished gallery in railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington's former home--along with dozens of other canvases, hundreds of porcelain, bronze and silver objects and whole rooms of furniture, carpets and tapestries. The Huntington is whole again.

All washed, vacuumed, poulticed, swabbed, sanded, earthquake-proofed, recovered and painted, the stately mansion and its priceless contents look wonderful. But Curator Robert R. Wark, who has guided the operation, doesn't expect everyone to be pleased with the new look immediately.

"Our art experiences are so conditioned by their surroundings that any change upsets expectations," he said. So he anticipates that "the good, average visitor" will object to the refurbishment and reinstallation--but only temporarily.

Viewers who don't remember the former position of every object or the colors of walls may notice no change at all, except that the gallery has the fresh look of a garden that has just dried itself off after a spring shower.

The fire that smoldered in the gallery's elevator and exploded around midnight last Oct. 17 was put out so quickly that it claimed only one painting--Sir Joshua Reynolds' 1777 portrait of Mrs. Edwin Lascelles--but it deposited oily grime and a smoky stench on every object in the Georgian mansion. Gummy streaks stained the walls, plaster moldings cracked and fell from the hall ceiling. A gray pallor fell on all the draperies and upholstery fabrics. Even artworks that appeared unhurt were covered with a film of grease and carbon.

Relieved that the actual loss of art was slight but appalled by the mess, staff members put on their grubbies and set to work. Help came from docent volunteers and from the professional ranks of the J. Paul Getty Museum and many other institutions.

Jim Greaves, a consulting conservator to the Huntington for paintings, removed the soot from all 110 paintings while volunteers painstakingly swabbed the ornate frames with cotton balls and Q-Tips. Barbara Roberts, the Getty's energetic conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, swept in and organized the cleaning, wrapping, packing and documentation of furniture and three-dimensional objects.

"Imagining a worst-case scenario, I see just how devastating this would be if a museum like this were in the middle of Nebraska," Wark said. "We had a wealth of expertise within miles and a wonderful flow of support. Most of the workers were paid--by us or their own institution--but they came at great inconvenience.

"Closing the gallery and losing a picture were the two negative things that came from the fire," Wark continued. But, by his account, so much else has turned out positively that the tragedy is now seen as, well, not a blessing, but certainly an opportunity to dress up a fading dowager.

One of the things that people love about the Huntington is that it never seems to change. The splendid estate has an air of permanent elegance patterned after 18th-Century England. But, in fact, the gallery had slipped in recent years, even as it had gained such magnificent acquisitions as Judge and Mrs. Lucius P. Green's collection of Old Master paintings and Virginia Steele Scott's 50-picture holding of American masterworks.

Even as it opened a new gallery for American art (provided by the Scott bequest), the Huntington was working to increase its inadequate endowment (established in 1927) and to keep pace with inflation. Meantime, conservation, lighting and earthquake standards had changed. The costs of upkeep and refurbishing a mansion in the grand style associated with the Huntington had become exorbitant.

"Most of the gallery really hadn't been touched for over half a century," said Wark, who joined the Huntington 30 years ago. He credits "the full support" of Huntington Director Robert Middlekauff with seeing that everything was done right after the fire--"cleaning, redecorating and reinstallation to contemporary standards."

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