New project at Descanso Gardens goes green

Nature will be calling people into Descanso Gardens louder than before when spring arrives. For the first time since 1994, when the rose gardens were installed, the botanical showcase is undergoing major construction.

The private groundbreaking ceremony for Descanso's new Sturt Haaga Gallery of Art was held Friday. The 2,800-square-foot exhibit hall is being designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners of Los Angeles, and will feature a vertical and rooftop garden.

Heather Sturt Haaga and Paul G. Haaga Jr. of La Cañada Flintridge made the construction a reality through a $2.1-million donation, the single largest Descanso has ever received, garden officials said.

"Heater and Paul have a history of making inspired and inspiring gifts around the renovation of historically significant structures," Executive Director of Descanso Gardens David Brown said.

The family was recently featured in the Los Angeles Times celebrating the opening of the Haaga Family Rotunda, which was named in their honor of the family's $5 million donation, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park.

The donation allows Descanso to begin an idea they've had in the works since the fall of 2006, repurposing and renovating the Boddy House garage. Since the early 1960s, artists have been showing their work at Boddy House, the former home of the late Manchester Boddy, who established the estate in the 1930s.

David Brown, executive director of Descanso Gardens, said this new project allows Descanso to become a more vital resource for the community, ensures the future of a vital, historical asset and strengthens the reputation of Descanso Gardens as a museum of living collections.

"Having a proper gallery and well-defined exhibition program furthers Descanso's identity as a museum and a site of historic interest — and distances us from the recreation and park identity many people have of us," Brown said.

The Haagas are longtime supporters not only of Descanso but of many other Southern California cultural institutions, including the Polytechnic School in Pasadena and Berea College in Berea, Ky.

"We think Descanso Gardens is an important part of the immediate community and of the greater community, which is Los Angeles County," said Heather Sturt Haaga, who is also the chairman of the Descanso Gardens Board of Trustees. "This wonderful oasis is not just a garden but a museum of living collections. It is a place that is poised to go from good to great."

Descanso's new garden gallery will be "going green" in its construction and maintenance. Formaldehyde-free drywall; low-voltage, florescent lights and natural lighting; recycled linen insulation; low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint and water-sparing plumbing will be used in the three galleries.

An innovative "green" practice will be the water-reclamation system, which recovers, purifies and recycles all water generated by the gallery so it can be used for irrigation. Also, Descanso has raised $300,000 outside of the Haagas' gift to provide the necessary septic upgrades.

Two of the three galleries in this project, totaling 1,500 square feet, will be part of the renovation to the existing Boddy House garage.

The front and side of the garage will stay the same to preserve the historic building's character, but the back will be extended to make space for storage and restrooms.

A new gallery will be erected in the back of the garage, built into the adjacent hillside and attached to the garage by a short hallway. This new addition will be a vertical garden draped with trays of plants hanging from above, covering the two outside walls.

After exploring the main floor, people will be drawn onto the rooftop garden, which will be covered with climate-appropriate native grasses, sedums and succulents as the San Gabriel Mountains add to the natural beauty of the exhibit.

Frederick Fisher and Partners proved an organic, familiar choice for both Descanso and Brown.

Other galleries have been planted nationwide by the firm, including the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, N.Y., and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where Brown formerly served as president.

"They are well-known artist-architects, and artists appreciate them," Brown said. "…They are experienced working in the local area; they know the terrain. This project is rather modest in scale and needs the right touch, and I knew they would have the right touch."

Brown said he had the pleasure of working with them in the early 1990s when they built the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at the local design college.

"The gallery will allow Descanso Gardens to push the envelope a bit and go from good to great and give the community a new view of art, of green, of interesting architecture and of the possible," Heather Sturt Haaga said. "We are so pleased to be able to do this for a place we so believe in."