If the Red Cars of the first half of the last century could be considered a sort of art form in motion, then the life of their inventor, Henry Huntington, could easily be thought of as one of art in virtually perpetual motion — professionally and personally.
Born in New York in 1850, Henry Huntington, nephew of Collis Huntington, one of the men instrumental in creating the Central Pacific Railroad, came to Pasadena from San Francisco in 1900 with a specific plan in mind — buy up as much land as possible.
For nearly a decade, Huntington operated under the radar to buy tracts of land throughout Southern California for residential development. According to one myth, he bought his mansion just south of Pasadena in what is now San Marino — where the world-renowned Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is located — for its panoramic view of the San Gabriel Valley. In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, Huntington was always interested in acquiring land and bought up as much of the surrounding community, which incorporated as a city in 1913, as he could.
Henry came by much of his money the old fashioned way — inheriting millions from his railroad magnate uncle. Collis, along with Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, was instrumental in starting the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, later renamed the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Henry came into the rest of his uncle’s fortune when he married Collis’ widow, Arabella, or Belle, probably a native of Richmond and only one year Henry’s junior in 1913. She had inherited everything that Henry did not.
“Went to see Mother . . . HEH [Henry] was there. . . My mother will doubtless marry him, & I am not sure that it is at all for the best. I hope all happiness for her,” wrote Arabella’s son, Archer, in a diary entry.
This may have been quite all right with Archer, who had been adopted by Collis, but Henry’s divorce in 1910 from his first wife, the former Mary Alice Prentice, birth sister of his Uncle Collis’ adopted daughter and mother of his four children, and marriage to the former Arabella Yarrington in 1913 after Mary Alice’s death is said to have raised eyebrows in High Society, according to dgmweb.net and a number of other sites.
In 1903, Huntington purchased a mansion in San Marino and the 500 acres that surrounded it for $225,000, but according to some rumors he never formally moved into the home. He had it knocked down and a new home was constructed by renowned architect Myron Hunt, who built Pasadena’s Central Library, the Colorado Street Bridge and a number of other local architectural treasures.
Henry lived mainly above the Huntington business offices in downtown Los Angeles and continued his buying spree. At one point, he acquired so much land that he owned most of the area just south of Pasadena.
By then, Henry was already making an additional fortune with the Red Car system he started in Los Angeles at around the turn of the last century.
Formally known as the Los Angeles Railway, the railway started in 1898 as a system of streetcars that operated in Central Los Angeles. At its peak, the commuter railway had more than 20 streetcar lines and 1,250 trolleys, connecting Los Angeles neighborhoods such as Crenshaw, West Adams, Leimert Park, Echo Park, Westlake, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and Hancock Park. It also included several routes that traveled through rural areas that did not perform as well as the interurban lines.
During this time, Huntington amassed “far and away the greatest group of 18th-century British portraits ever owned by any one man.” In accordance with Huntington’s will following his death in 1927, the collection, then worth $50 million, was opened to viewing by the public. After Belle died in 1924, Henry spent the remaining years of his life converting the west wing of his home into a museum dedicated to his wife.
The museum, the Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Gallery, contained rooms dedicated to the aristocratic French decorative art she had acquired in France following Collis’ death. All told, Henry spent the equivalent of $30 million acquiring art for the museum, which also included a small part of his wife’s extensive collection. The rest of that collection was left to Archer and auctioned off to various museums.n.