The Hunt for Distinction
Myron Hunt, one of Pasadena’s most prolific architects, designed some of Southern California’s most iconic buildings and arenas.
By Michael Cervin 09/01/2011
Dapper and bespectacled, Myron Hunt had a fondness for tweed suits and was, by most accounts, a social gadfly, although he didn’t look the part — his appearance was always tidy and perfect, reserved and precise. He also didn’t seem like the type of person who could have created some of Southern California’s most iconic arch-itectural structures, his formal dress and manners belying the creative whirlwind inside his head. In the Southland alone, his projects included the Rose Bowl, the Hollywood Bowl, the Ambassador Hotel, Caltech, Riverside’s Mission Inn, Occidental College, Pasadena’s Central Library and the Huntington Art Gallery.
A pioneer of Mediterranean/Spanish Revival design in the region in the early 1900s, he wasn’t even born in California, nor anywhere particularly sunny, for that matter. Myron Hunt was born in Massachusetts in 1868. Educated at Northwestern University and MIT, he studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, who declared Hunt his “most enthusiastic advocate.” Hunt married Harriette Boardman in 1893 and they moved to Pasadena 10 years later, in part due to her tuberculosis. (She died just a decade later.) After arriving in Pasadena in 1903, Hunt partnered with architect Elmer Grey and joined Pasadena’s burgeoning Craftsman Movement. The region was a tabula rasa for enterprising architects.
“Hunt and a few others brought to Southern California the new academicism that entered American architecture at the turn of the century in the east,” says Sam Watters, author of Houses of Los Angeles: 1885-1919 and Houses of Los Angeles: 1920-1935. “It’s important to note that Hunt graduated from MIT, one of the early professional architecture schools, and spent time working in the circle of Frank Lloyd Wright before coming west. This means he was at the intersection of major changes in architecture and brought his knowledge to L.A. in the first decade of the new century as the city entered two decades of both residential and commercial building.”
These two decades were a boon to architects like Hunt and Greene & Greene. His partnership with Grey lasted only five years, however; Grey’s failing health led to the dissolution of the partnership just as they were moving away from Craftsman style and into Mediterranean and Spanish motifs. But their early Craftsman work was noted in 1913 by an architecture critic in The Country House magazine: “Myron Hunt, Elmer Grey and Greene and Greene in the vicinity of Los Angeles are all designing houses which are picturesque without being affected and free and bold without in general being freakish and bizarre. Their work gives one the sense, so rare in this country, of being at once freely and vigorously imagined and carefully composed.
That was also the year Harriette died. The tuberculosis she contracted in Massachusetts had slowly sapped her energy and Hunt, unable to help provide a cure, may have subconsciously found an expression for his loss in his work. “My mother being sick in the hospital may have influenced [my father’s] interest in the design of hospitals –– La Viña Sanitarium, the Pasadena Hospital, Huntington Memorial Hospital and Los Angeles County Hospital,” son Hubbard Hunt recalled in a 1984 oral history.
From 1910 to 1929, Hunt was caught up in a whirlwind of activity, bringing to life his greatest and most enduring works –– including the Rose Bowl, which celebrates its 90th birthday in 2012. Hunt’s Rose Bowl was a horseshoe design with roses on the open earth-banked sides. Three years later, the south end was built out to increase the seating capacity from 57,000 to 76,000. That period also saw the realization of his designs at the Mission Inn in Riverside; on the Caltech, Pomona and Occidental college campuses; the Pasadena Central Library; the Huntington Estate; and even a hotel (now the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy) commissioned by U.S. Sen. Frank Flint for his own suburb, Flintridge –– all told, some 500 projects in 19 years, including homes, churches and country clubs.
Myron Hunt has left an impressive legacy, even if few people today are quite sure who he was. “He was a product of an era when architects succeeded to the extent that they were able to synthesize historic styles,” Watters says. “Clearly, the scale of his practice suggests that his synthesis and organization appealed to a broad base of clients in a building boom.”
True enough, but beyond that, Pasadena deeply bears Hunt’s vision; his design stamp on public buildings is nearly ubiquitous. And greatness is not always measured in an architect’s signature buildings. In addition to the celebrated works, there are the obscure practical buildings architecture magazines overlook, which nonetheless show Hunt’s attention to detail and, to this day, quietly continue to serve their purpose. Constructed as a dormitory for the Mount Wilson Observatory staff and visiting scientists, the Monastery, as it is called, is situated at the end of a rocky outcropping with drop-offs on three sides. Built in the shape of an inverted “J,” it has 14 rooms separated into day and night sections for scientists –– one of them, Albert Einstein –– working on either solar or nighttime projects. The building also includes a kitchen, dining room and library. The original Monastery was destroyed by fire in 1908, so Hunt designed a new, fire-resistant version in 1909, thus enabling it to escape 2009’s ruthless Station Fire. Simple but effective, the Monastery is still occupied more than 100 years later.
Another example is the Falkner Art Gallery addition to Santa Barbara’s Public Library. The January 1931 edition of The Architect and Engineer magazine noted, “Mr. Hunt has chosen to design in a distinctly modern style, simply and logically, with nothing freakish or forced but getting the most out of a necessarily limited cost.” Hunt was nothing if not pragmatic. The Great Depression imposed fiscal restraint on projects built during the 1930s. As wood and stone grew scarce, concrete became the new durable building material that was also affordable, and Hunt entered an experimental phase that made heavy use of concrete, as is clearly evident at Occidental College. He utilized different styles and methods, which Watters describes as “a reserved formality and restraint in his adaptation of historic precedents.” All you need do is walk the Occidental campus to see Hunt’s handiwork and use of architectural vocabulary. Hunt played a significant role as the master planner of the original college and as architect for numerous buildings until 1940. His extraordinary body of completed work at Occidental College –– totalling 21 buildings –– sets out a dependable system of organization with an emphasis on spare but elegant structures rendered in a Mediterranean style. Nineteen buildings designed by Hunt have survived, most unaltered.
He was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1908 and received the Arthur Noble Medal from the City of Pasadena for Outstanding Civic Service in 1928. Two properties on the market at press time further demonstrate his enduring impact. Located next to the Gamble House and a stone’s throw from Frank Lloyd Wright’s La Miniatura house, a former residence now converted into a commercial property is for sale for $3.5 million. In Ojai, the Hunt-designed Edward Libbey (the financier who created the look and feel of downtown Ojai) estate is on the market for $4 million. Money, of course, does not make a great architect. What made Hunt great was his ability to adapt to changing styles, to work within material and financial constraints and to nonetheless create beauty and functionality everywhere he could. Hunt passed away in 1952 in Port Hue-neme at age 84. He is buried in the San Gabriel Cemetery near another peer of his, Henry Mather Greene of Greene & Greene.