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At the Getty, Art in Loo of Bathrooms

March 16, 1998|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT and DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Getty Museum, the $1-billion showcase of architectural magnificence, is long on art treasures but short on key creature comforts: restrooms and drinking fountains.

"This is one of those unfortunate things that can happen in large construction projects. You realize you made a mistake well into the project, but by then it is too late," said Barbara Whitney, the Getty's associate director for administration and public affairs.

Long lines outside the few women's restrooms at the Getty are commonplace on busy weekends, where crowds have been running 5,000 to 8,000--well above projections, Whitney said.

Whitney said the museum staff has been debating solutions to the problem, but no immediate plans are in the works.

With hot summer days and the first big waves of schoolchildren approaching, the problem could get worse before it gets better.

One possible solution--those tacky-looking portable toilets--is out of the question, at least for now. They just wouldn't fit in, Whitney said.

The problem is particularly acute in the larger buildings where paintings and sculptures are on display.

There are no restrooms in the North Pavilion or South Pavilion, and only a set of smaller bathrooms, with four stalls in the women's restroom, in the West Pavilion.

So visitors are being urged to make use of restrooms in the parking structure at the bottom of the Brentwood hill that the museum is built on or the main entrance hall.

Water is available, for $1 and up per bottle, at refreshment stands throughout the grounds, but drinking fountains are as scarce as bathrooms.

The shortage of drinking fountains and the availability of bottled water and other beverages at a price calls to mind a situation that existed when Dodger Stadium was built. In the case of the Dodgers, legend has it that the late Walter O'Malley deliberately left out drinking fountains to promote the sale of beer and soda.

Asked whether the situation at the Getty was similar, Whitney laughed, "Absolutely not."

The Getty was built and endowed with money from the vast Getty oil fortune, and Whitney said the museum was not trying to promote the sale of water.

The water fountain problem is related to the shortage of bathrooms. "We should have noticed that water fountains tend to travel with bathrooms," she said.

Whitney said the Getty is getting complaints from the public about the problem.

"This was never a surprise to the Getty," she said. "We know we don't have enough bathrooms and we have plans up our sleeve to correct the situation, but it is going to take awhile."

On Sunday, most of the bathrooms in the complex were fairly empty early in the day, but as the trams fed more and more visitors to the hilltop museum, bathroom lines inside the main building began to grow, and so did the complaints.

"It is just frustrating," said Lois Gomez, waiting inside a tiny bathroom in the museum's West Pavilion with four other women.

Another woman coming out of a bathroom near the museum's main entrance said: "This is typical. It is not a problem just with the Getty. Architects never think to design enough stalls for women."

There were no lines in the men's bathrooms.

Still, few were willing to be too critical of the museum that has already awed many with its impressive architecture and art collection.

"The women are complaining that for a very big museum there aren't enough bathrooms," said Jocelyn Korshak, of Sherman Oaks, who waited about three minutes for a stall. "But for myself, it is OK."

Korshak said, however, that the museum could use a few more water fountains.

"We had to walk around to find one," she said.

So far, the museum, though packed on weekends and with its limited parking slots booked months in advance, has not tested its facilities against the hordes of schoolchildren expected to attend later this year. The Getty school program is not expected to begin until the fall, with from 80,000 to 100,000 schoolchildren expected to be scheduled for tours during the school year.

Whitney said the museum has enough bathrooms in the parking structure and entrance hall and in buildings near the museum's restaurants, but acknowledged a problem in the main exhibit halls.

The Getty figures that visitors will spend about four hours touring the galleries and sprawling campus, with its gardens and spectacular vistas of Los Angeles.

The problem, the museum staff has found, is not when visitors are beginning their tour or ending it, but midway through, when they are in the south or east pavilions and need a drink or a restroom.

"We are going back to the drawing board on that vicinity [the south and east pavilions]," Whitney said.

She said the museum staff was considering various "trade-offs," such as whether to reduce gallery space to add restrooms inside the existing buildings or to build them outside.

The museum was designed and built by famed architect Richard Meier. Meier was out of town Friday, his office said. Michael Palladino, his partner, referred questions back to the Getty, saying that the restroom issue is "a need that the Getty is trying to evaluate now."

Museum builders and designers saw the problem developing about five years ago, but were cautious because of the dangers that too much plumbing would pose to the collections. Among the fears were dangers posed by earthquakes or other mishaps that might cause a rupture in the pipes and destroy priceless artworks.

"We feel we made a mistake by not pressing forward to solve that problem five years ago. In the press of other problems, we went on [with construction]," Whitney said. "This is at the top of the list of things we want to do. We completely 'fess up and say we've known for five years we made a mistake. But we are certainly going to correct it."

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