The new $68 million Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA opens to the public on April 4, bringing 52,000 sq-ft of new buildings, 42,000 sq-ft of underground collection space, and six and a half acres of native California gardens to the historic grounds.

Designed by San Francisco-based Architectural Resources Group (ARG), the complex of buildings and gardens harmonizes with the original early 20th-century Beaux-Arts architecture on the 207-acre property, which was once the estate of Gilded Age railroad magnate, real estate developer, and collector Henry E. Huntington.

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I met Stephen J. Farneth, FAIA, principal in charge for ARG, at a preview of the new center today, and he said one of the challenges his company faced on the project was taking a 90,000 sq-ft program and making it fit in with existing historical structures instead of overwhelming them with sheer size.

"So we took the program and instead of making one very large building we made a series of smaller buildings that are interactive with the gardens around them, to reduce the scale of the overall development and make a comfortable place for people to inhabit," he said. "The resulting interaction between gardens, pathways and buildings makes it more conducive to movement of visitors through the property."

And speaking of gardens, the new plots at the Huntington are definitely a highlight of the project. Designed by the Office of Cheryl Barton, in concert with ARG's architecture, the landscaping reflects California's Mediterranean climate, while also paying tribute to the Huntington's agricultural roots.

The gardens welcome guests with a walkway lined with pepper and orange tree groves reminiscent of early California ranches. After entering, visitors can gaze down an olive-lined allée that forms the axis of the entire complex, or meander through airy and ever-changing native and adaptive plantings in the central Francis and Sidney Brody California Garden, where they will find outdoor spaces of various types. There are small or intimate spots for one to two people, hedge rooms for small groups, and plazas for larger groups.

The allée terminates with the symmetry and vibrant color of the Celebration Garden in the south, where the new gardens dovetail with the formal historic landscape of the original estate.

Other aspects of the visitor center project opening next week include a 400-seat auditorium; a café with indoor/outdoor seating and garden views; four multi-use classrooms; meeting and event spaces; and an orientation gallery, all surrounded by the new gardens.

Construction on the project, which broke ground in April 2013, was led by Santa Fe Springs, CA-based MATT Construction. The new visitor center was funded entirely with private contributions, with a lead gift from Charles T. Munger.