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$13-million gift boosts Natural History Museum's footprint

The donation to the Los Angeles County's Natural History Museum, the largest from the Otis Booth Foundation, will go toward an expansive glass entrance pavilion that will have as its centerpiece a 63-foot-long fin whale.

January 05, 2011|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • A rendering of the Natural History Museum's Otis Booth Pavilion.
A rendering of the Natural History Museum's Otis Booth Pavilion. (NHM and CO Architects )

A 63-foot-long fin whale, one of the biggest skeletons owned by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, will become its public greeter, the museum announced Tuesday, in a new brightly lit glass entrance pavilion made possible by a $13-million gift.

"It's a major statement. It's beckoning and saying, 'Come in and see who we are,'" said Jane Pisano, the museum's president.

The Otis Booth Pavilion, named for the successful investor and former Los Angeles Times executive who was one of the museum's most influential funders and board members before his death in 2008, will replace what Pisano described as an "ugly, dark, barricading" array of steps and walls that had faced Exposition Boulevard. In their place, in time for the museum's 2013 centennial, will rise an architectural signpost that museum leaders say will figure prominently in their bid to boost annual attendance from about 600,000 at the site to more than 1 million, and to spur the $51 million in additional donations needed to fully fund the museum's six-year makeover. The design is by CO Architects, the same L.A. firm that has handled the rest of the renovation project.

Museum leaders have known for decades that the building — actually a series of connected structures that have been added piecemeal to the original graceful domed building that opened in 1913 — needed a commanding entrance, said Paul Haaga Jr., who has been on the board since 1993 and is now its chairman. But in planning the makeover, which began in 2007 and bore its first fruit last summer with the reopening of the restored 1913 building and the popular new Age of Mammals exhibit, officials had decided that a dramatic entrance would increase the cost beyond what they could reasonably expect to raise.

They put off the new entrance until fundraising was finished for the current $135-million "NHM Next" campaign that also includes a new Dinosaur Hall scheduled to open in July, and new indoor and outdoor exhibits focused on nature in Los Angeles that are expected to be finished by the end of 2012.

But when Franklin Otis Booth Jr. died at 84 from Lou Gehrig's disease, part of the fortune he'd made as a ground-floor investor in Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. went toward establishing a new, L.A.-based charitable foundation whose portfolio currently stands at about $190 million.

The $13 million, which will be paid out over three years, becomes the fledgling Otis Booth Foundation's biggest gift, said Palmer Murray, Booth's son-in-law and the foundation's vice president and treasurer.

Murray said that Booth, a great-grandson of Los Angeles Times founder Harrison Gray Otis, left no instructions for the foundation's grant-making. Given Booth's decades of devotion to the Natural History Museum, Murray said, "it became clear to us this is something we have to be involved in." While going over the possibilities with museum leaders, he said, "the fin whale really piqued our interest," because it would give the building "the physical identity it had lacked" along its only major street frontage, creating both a physical and symbolic bridge to the world outside the museum by beckoning with an impressive example of the sights and knowledge to be had within.

In fact, there will be an actual bridge between the world and the entrance pavilion. Its pilings are already starting to rise from the fenced-in expanse of dirt that is currently the museum's front yard. As the 60-foot-high pavilion goes up, 3.5 acres of park-like "urban wilderness," intended to serve as a "living laboratory" of L.A.'s plants, insects, birds and small animals, will take shape directly outside, along with a landscaped amphitheater.

Except for the four years when the 1913 building was being renovated, the fin whale has been on continuous display since 1944. That's when curators finished studying and preparing the creature acquired from a Humboldt County whaling concern in 1926. It currently hangs as the sole occupant of a long, dramatically-lit gallery that's been dubbed the "fin whale passage," leading from the museum's central indoor plaza to the rotunda. When the whale assumes its new position as the museum's frontispiece, the "passage" will become a gallery devoted to Los Angeles history and nature.

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