Just Wondering: Covenant Of The Lost Art

Guggenheim Productions
Industrialist Norton Simon

Update: Please check recommended reading list based on what’s come up in the comments at: Of Interest.

As long as we’re going down the hallways of myopic design and architecture in our fair city, there is a bigger but forgotten side story that bears remembering. After all, a loss this big should never have happened.

Since almost 40 years have passed, the story bears repeating for those who were too young, and others who are new to the city.

When one sees the Hunt Library through the eyes of an architectural aficionado, one can’t help but be stunned. How did this building get here? Along with the now shuttered and desecrated Hunt Foods, it was part of an overall design by nationally renown architect William Pereira. Pereira, an architect and designer of office buildings (The TransAmerica Building), museums, university campuses (UCSD) and entire cities (the Irvine Masterplan) designed the now forlorn library. Why was this here? How? The old Hunt Foods was shuttered –a victim of an economic move out of state.  I requested the records from the city clerk and read how this building came into being. In addition, I revisited my salad-days haunt in Pasadena, watched a movie, and read the only biography of Norton Simon. (Later, the book & movie were donated to the Hunt Library).

The TransAmerican BuildingAt one point, the Hunt Library was part of the campus of Hunt Foods, owned by an entrepreneur and industrialist Norton Simon. In 1927, he and his family purchased an old orange juice bottling company in Fullerton. Over the years, they added more produce and vegetables and most notably proceeded to turn tomato sauce and ketchup into gold.

He became rich –so rich that he bought other companies. He also collected art. Loads of it. Art was on the walls of his home, in the Hunt offices and in the Periera-designed library next door. He shared his art with school children. It has been hailed as the most significant private art collections in the world. In it are collections of the Impressionists, Old Masters, Flemish, Baroque, East Indian, and Asian artifacts —his curiosity about the world was answered by art.

By 1974, he wanted to find a home for his collection.

The rest of the story and the sad conclusion may be seen in the video below.

Simon died in 1993.

Just Wondering: What else would have developed along the industrial corridors where the museum would have gone? What impact would a deeper appreciation for culture and art have on the values of a community? How would having a world class collection of art supported smaller venues such as The Muckenthaler, The Fullerton Art Museum, and even those things budgeted under community services? What effect might this have had on future building projects? What can we learn from this, and is there a place in our city for an aesthetic shaped by a deep understanding of art and culture in a time when bigger, cheaper, homogeneous and beige is deemed more reasonable?

At a time when sweeping changes are being proposed,  when city services are being cut, and when we can point to regrettable changes in our downtown landscape, it’s time to see the relationship between how we make choices to live as well as art and design.

“Art is the signature of civilizations.” –Opera Singer Beverly Sills

32 Replies to “Just Wondering: Covenant Of The Lost Art”

  1. missk, I recall hearing a story about how the school board painted over a mural at the high scool because they didn’t like it back in the 1930s.

    Somethings never change!

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised. A lot of murals that came out of the WPA were met with a lot of dissent –not only in Fullerton but also across the nation. The artists (which included Diego Rivera, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Maxine Albro, Fred Omstead, Jr. at that time were naturally influenced by the politics of the day, when there were struggles between unionists, and socialism was explored with great curiosity by many in the creative community. There’s a great book called “Coit Tower –San Fransisco Its History and Its Art” by Masha Zakheim Jewett” that details the political struggles in the aftermath of The Great Depression. If you can find it –do buy it. You’d love it.

    Artists, Writers, Filmmakers, and Designers chronicle the times we live in through their creativity. Their art is our history. When we destroy vestiges of it, we diminish our own perspective.

  3. Did William Pereira design the UCSD campus? I know he designed the original buildings at UC Irvine. Although he is something of a giant of late modern master plans, he is not without his critics. The Transamerica building has been compared to a ministry building in Orwell’s 1984, and his UCI campus was used without much dress up as the dystopian set of of the future totalitarian government in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The Social Sciences building always looked like a prison to me. I can tell you from experience that the cold, hard interiors of his UCI buildings are probably the best arguments one could find for the postmodern architecture’s frequent return to comfortable inside spaces with windows one can actually open.

    Not to say that I want to see his work pulled down, and we do certainly lose something when a master planned campus is obscured by later additions. We’ve seen the latter happen not only with the Hunt in Fullerton, but also at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the addition of a contemporary wing in the 1980’s has obscured Pereira’s original from Wilshire Blvd. altogether.

    UCI had always planned to add buildings as they grew (“Under Construction Indefinitely”). They have been quite successful at attracting Charles Moore, Frank Gehry, and other luminaries of postmodernism, but the newer additions are still distinct from Pereira’s original structures. The master plan prevails there mostly because it is set in a circle around a campus park (it’s so much easier to round up pesky protesters that way).

    I’ve written on this blog before about how to build something new that doesn’t wreck something old. With William Pereira it is more complicated because he was known for the sort of master planning that is so much derided in recent decades. And yet, there is an undeniable style, and even charm, to the late modernist grand schemes he so effectively designed.

  4. He designed the Geisel library at Scripps.
    All architects have their detractors. All architects have hits and misses. This is the nature of creativity.

    Architecture and art will always be a reflection of the times and thoughts of the era. His was no different, and if you look at controversial buildings in this context, it all makes sense.
    I remember quite well the old design of LACMA, and also how many people utterly hated it. And now –as with many things, the interiors and exteriors have evolved.

    But to not know about Pereira and the significance of his work and to make decisions blindly about the Hunt buildings is a higher crime than anything he could have designed.

    There is a very good book you should read: “William Pereira” by Julius Shulman. (Who by the way will be talking at the Fullerton Museum.)

    1. The Geisel library at UCSD is fantastic–truly one of William Pereira’s high marks. Oddly, I always had a fondness for the original LACMA buildings even though they were not well received in the art world. They always seemed much warmer to me than some of his other works.

      I completely agree that a city should not be ignorant of an architect of Pereira’s stature, but if you think Fullerton is alone in dismissing him take a look at what Rem Koolhaas wanted to do to “unify” the mess LACMA has made of it’s now disparate collection of structures:


      Ultimately nobody had the money to fund Koolhaas’s solution–to simply level everything that is currently LACMA–and replae it with a new museum, and the project never went forward.

      But in a city the size of Fullerton you would think someone would have noticed that an architect who once graced the cover of TIME magazine built one of the nicest buildings of his career right here in our little town. The junk that’s been built here since is an insult by comparison.

  5. Matt, there are two issues here. One is historic preservation that tries to look at things objectively for their historical quality. As such Pereira’s building qualify for their connection to Norton Simon and Pereira himself. They also qualify as a Modernist unified site design – Admin Bldg, Library, and landscape itself.

    The other approach is practical, a much more subjective analysis, but not unfathomable. Posed as questions here are the tests: Does a building look good, and does it function well? Because many of the Modernists buildings spectactulary failed both test they have been reviled and some justifiably torn down.

    To my thinking the Pereira Buildings passed both tests.

    You are quite right to point out the deficiencies of the Modernists. From the beginning their movement approached architectural problems as universal, the solutions as universal. Their attitude was very often high-handed and dispensed from on high like Divine Benefaction. Tom Wolfe captured the spirit and in his often humorous “From Bauhaus to Our House.”

    And before we start on the Postmodernists and their jumbles of self-indulgence, or comical kitschy historical references we might recal Wolfe’s perceptive conclusion on folks like Robert Venturi – that they were just the flip side of the same architectural coin.

    1. No doubt that there have been some awful postmodern indulgences too–but nothing is as bad as what gets built around here.

  6. P.S. The Modernists were often at war with their environments – hense the sealed windows. They loved the idea of air condirioning! Their’s was often a vision of unlimited energy and industrial solutions to mass proletarian housing and work spaces(some of which actually got built before and after WW II).

    This sort of attitude won’t work anymore. The barest sort of sustainability is at odds with their optimistic, hopelessly theoretical, weltanschauung.

  7. Those drawings by picasso, degas and monet pale in comparison to sharon kennedy’s artwork at fullerton’s doo dad shops. just what is art? art is subjective like a bowl of ice cream. some like vanilla ice cream others like chocolate. does that mean vanilla is not equal or better than chocolate. uh, well i know sharon would get what im saying.

  8. kanani fong has torn open fullerton to reveal its soul was held in the clutches of petty bureaucrats who believed real art costs a lot of money and therefore art can take a hike to pasadena. As a child, I had the pleasure and privilege of reading my Dr. Seuss book next to a henry moore sculpture at the Hunt Library. for a brief time, fullerton sat on the cusp of true culture. Now it rests on its murals honoring car culture.

    1. van, speaking of “murals honoring car culture”. An item is coming up on the citys arts commissions agenda that will determine which murals on the Lemon St. pedestrian bridge will be restored and which will go bye bye.

      1. Considering the amount of money and effort that goes into restoration projects, it’s hard to imagine the city spending much on preserving what most people believe are mostly worn out 30ish year old folk art murals.

  9. Artiste –If it were possible to tear open the soul of a city, it would take forces much greater than mine. I have simply reported what was always there in public records. It’s not only the story of Fullerton, but the fight of every city trying to preserve parts of their past and raise an appreciation of art and design.

    By the way, there are wonderful photos at the Fullerton Library saved from old newspapers of children looking at the Modigliani when Mr. Simon had them at the Hunt. Perhaps you’re in one of them.

    Mr. Leslie –you are indeed correct about the problems of some of the buildings the modernists built. I recall correspondence between Frank Lloyd Wright & his clients that said in effect, “it leaks.”

    Mr. Adler, Yes, the Pereira building passes both tests. From what I recall the Hunt library building is still owned by the Norton Simon Foundation. The city of Fullerton is allowed to use it only if they keep the library functioning. I don’t know if they were ever consulted as to the placement of Pooch Park. But it seems to me a rather sad addition to the original vision of both Simon & Pereira.

    The preservation of what is left of Pereira’s buildings is a worthy thing to focus on.

  10. I met three people and their DSC00264hounds at the dog park. One was from La Habra, one from Brea, and one from Anaheim. People come from all over NOC to let their dogs play & poop in Fullerton.

    The reflecting pond is gone, but it’s not because of the dog park. Grace Korean Church removed what I remember as a magnificent reflecting pond. In it’s place is a DSC00276poorly finished grey concrete slab that’s already cracking, a broke down fountain, a couple of raised planter box’s, and an array of palm trees that totally contrast with the surrounding wonderful landscape gardens. The palm trees block the awesome front elevation of Pereira’s brilliantly designed office building.

  11. WTF are those freakin’ palm trees doing there? What are they trying to do? Make it look like the freakin’ Hyatt?
    Truthfully, I can only hope the church is made to put that reflecting pond back.

  12. The reflecting pond in front of Richard Neutra’s OC Courthouse in Santa Ana is gone too. Ironically, one of the only ones to survive is the one in front of our own city hall.

  13. Note how the pattern of the “T” colulmns is reflected in the concrete benches. The Modernist vision of total design and built environment perfectability.

    “our own city hall

    An institutional monstrosity with a odd neo-formal exterior screen of gangly, tibia-like columns and terra cotta screeens that hide the building. The North elevation tells all. Might as well be a county hospital.

  14. kanani, it isnt too hard to tear apart fullerton to reveal its soul because its main street is made of styrofoam buildings.

  15. Friends, I hate to pop you bubble, but, Fullerton is not “the education community” that it claims to be, and you all know that idea’s a joke and deceitful.
    Speaking of deceit, “deception is reality” in Fullerton. Fullerton’s “the community of deception”. Don’t trust me, hear it from one of the pillars of F-town who’s been elected not once or twice by mistake, but, four times! Sharon Quirk even gave this pillar a “Distinguished Fullerton Citizen Award” when it was her turn to play Mayor.

  16. The way I see it is that if you don’t care about Rembrandt, Moore, Gaugin and Degas, you probably don’t give a damn about art, design, scale, proportion, contrast, balance or history in general.
    It was a whole generation in power with very little aesthetic value besides what came out of a fast food stand. Sadly, they passed this shortsightedness onto another generation, who now exhibit what I call the “TJ MAXX aesthetic.”

    So if you want a nice refreshing break, go on over to my blog for some nice photos of another city.

  17. Personally, one could live without knowledge of those values. But it makes it difficult to plan a city without them.
    Hence, the awkward juxtaposition of old and new (Whiting Avenue).

  18. TheDivineMissK, “Personally, one could live without knowledge of those values. But it makes it difficult to plan a city without them.” True statement, and the results are a reckless mess that gets handed down to future generations.

    “We” have become nothing more than worthless caretakers. The “I’s” and the “Me’s” of our world are running amuck, perhaps it’s time to move or move on.

  19. TheDivineMissK, “TJ MAXX aesthetic”, you just described Fullerton.

    Just the Facts, your facts are wrong. When Sharon Quirk was Mayor, she honored Dick Jones as her “Home Town Hero”, not a “Distinguished Fullerton Citizen Award”.

  20. Ah, well, I think the only thing to do is to make a resolve and educate people in matters of art history and design. You look at what Grace Korean Church is doing to the grounds with utter abandon and with the assistance of the equally unskilled groundskeepers and you just know there’s a level of education and appreciation to be instilled not only with them but with everyone.

    What’s worrisome is here they are with a masterful site, and their tearing it apart signals to the students a certain obliviousness and lack of caring to art, history, and design.

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