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A remodel for the ages

The $20-million makeover of the historic Huntington mansion in San Marino has turned into a daily exercise in detective work. The goal: Make this museum feel like a home again.

April 20, 2006|David Ferrell | Special to The Times

HENRY HUNTINGTON was one of the richest men of his time, a visionary tycoon who made millions lacing Los Angeles with railroad tracks.

Freddie Summerville grew up on the wrong side of those tracks, in Compton.

The arcs of their lives might never have touched but for the house: Huntington's old mansion, some 60,000 square feet of marble and fine hardwood, originally containing 15 bedrooms (most for servants), 10 bathrooms and 13 ornate fireplaces, set amid the spectacular gardens of his estate in San Marino.

Summerville knew nothing of Huntington or his estate or his art until he started working here, assisting in a $20-million renovation that began in January. But it has since changed his view of the world -- and of what is possible in it. He wishes every young person could be so inspired. "I'm saying 'wow' to this, and 'wow' to that, and I'm older," says Summerville, 48, who still lives in Compton -- in a home that would fit neatly inside the Huntington's main portrait gallery.

When completed in 1911, this mansion was hailed as the finest home in Southern California, rivaling the palaces of the Astors, the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts. After Huntington's death in 1927, it served as a museum for Huntington's vast art collection, including the paintings "Pinkie" and "The Blue Boy."

Today, construction aims to make the building seismically safer and more effective as a museum. Walls are being opened up and reinforced with rebar and concrete. Stairs and doorways are being moved. New lighting, thermostats and sophisticated smoke-detection equipment are going in. Places where visitors were never allowed before are being transformed into exhibit space.

Once the project is completed -- in late spring or summer of 2008 -- the mansion will offer significantly more gallery space, project officials say. At the same time -- and this is the tricky part -- the mansion's main floor will retain the look and character of the original home. Visitors will likely see Huntington's study just as it was, right down to the paper-strewn desk. Cordoned-off areas of the main library are to feature original French rugs and furniture, as well as the massive Beauvais tapestries that famously cost Huntington more than the mansion itself -- $577,000 at the time, by one calculation, compared with $479,377 to build and decorate the house.

SUMMERVILLE often commutes to his job on the Metro Rail -- the successor to Huntington's pioneering Pacific Red Car line -- when he doesn't drive his old Ford. As he shovels plaster debris, pushes a wheelbarrow, spools out electrical cord, he marvels at what Huntington constructed: a home with soaring ceilings and camouflaged doors, buzzer systems for the servants and receptacles that fed a hidden network of suction pipes so that hoses could be plugged right into the walls to do the vacuuming.

Huntington had a circular shower that sprayed him from all sides. (The fixtures are still intact.) He even had a railroad spur in the basement, where he brought in shipments of books and art through a service tunnel. A section of track remains, partially paved over.

"There's something new every day," Summerville says of the discoveries being made as workers bore into the walls and ceilings like so many archeologists. He laughs. "I've never been in a house like this. It's a mind thing; it makes you wonder, 'How did they do this?' "

John Murdoch is the man most responsible for finding out how -- and for making sure the integrity of the former home is preserved. Murdoch became head of the Huntington's Art Division after being recruited from the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Educated at Oxford and the University of London, he talks in patrician tones about rooms "communicating" with one another, and "managing vistas," and the "irony of this major American heritage project being consigned to a foreigner."

Some members of the project have devoted their lives to studying art; others rarely, if ever, set foot in a museum. Yet nearly all seem genuinely amazed at the scale and opulence of the mansion.

Sculpted cornices adorn the enormous L-shaped room that once was Huntington's personal library. On a table formed of plywood and sawhorses lie a set of original blueprints to help the workers find wiring conduits. Next to the blueprints are some original push-button light switches and wall plates. Electrician Humberto Carrillo shows off a switch imprinted with a 1900 date. The accompanying plate is dated 1902.

When the renovations are done, the vintage switches will go back in the walls, but they will no longer work. Lighting will be controlled from a single, concealed location.

Electrician Wynton Davis, 43, who lives in an apartment in Gardena, is an amateur photographer with a keen appreciation for the mansion and its aesthetics. He has taken pictures of the interior to show his wife when he gets home at night.

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