Christmas at the San Marino Ranch with the Huntingtons

By Nancy Armitage

Christmas at the Mr. & Mrs. Henry E. Huntington’s (Arabella) Mansion. They were called “Edwards & Belle” to their family & friends. San Marino Ranch in Southern California was a magical time. Perfect sunny weather instead of cold, snowy and rainy in New York. We know of 5 years that the Huntington’s celebrated Christmas there: 1922, & 1923. After Mrs. Huntington died in 1924, but Mr. H.E. Huntington was at the Ranch at Christmas in the years 1924, 1925, & 1926.

The Huntington Mansion was dressed up beautifully for Christmas with 100’s of bright red poinsettias from Mexico, a Large Christmas Tree (maybe 2, one in the foyer & I think another Christmas tree might have been in the Large Library). The Huntington mansion having fragrant Christmas wreaths on all the doors. The loggia & the main hall and other rooms decorated with amazing grand red rose & white flower arrangements with 150-200 flowers in each.

Beautiful fragrant Della Robbia Christmas Wreaths, a tradition in San Marino & Pasadena was to buy of Christmas Wreath from the Boy’s Republic; an orphanage for boys started back in the 1920’s. Did the Huntingtons buy these wreaths? or did the Ranch make their own wreaths?? Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

On Christmas Day, the Huntingtons had a special reception celebration. They invited all the employees & household servant staff that lived on the San Marino Ranch to a lovely Christmas tea reception. They gave their employees their bonus, sometimes gold coins and treats says the Head Butler: Mr. Alfonso Gomez. Mrs. Arabella Huntington loved to buy little presents and treats for everyone, even the employee’s children.

Christmas at the Huntington Mansion would have been very elegant with Mrs. Huntington best damask napkins, gold & white porcelain plates, & crystal glasses and Gorham silver flatware.. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

As one walked up to enter the Huntington Mansion on the Ranch, a lovely red surprise. At Christmas time, there were 100’s maybe 1000’s of bright red poinsettia plants surrounded the area, the entrance to loggia. (The Huntington Library guards have told me this was the tradition of the Huntingtons). On the Loggia, a enormous Christmas Flower arrangement atop the marble top table. Mrs. Huntington had a great affection for the “Madonna & Child”. As shown by her grand collection of Madonna & Child paintings, she collected she the called “the Primitives”. A Christmas creche (Nativity Scene ) or several creches would have graced the Huntington Mansion.

This picture is actually the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, CA. But it gives us the idea of what the Huntington’s Loggia might have looked like with 100’s of poinsettia flower pots. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

The flowers on the Loggia Table & in the Huntington Mansion were most-likely bright red & white “Winter Roses”. Winter Roses are huge in Southern California; big as oranges) with Christmas greenery, & red berries. Mr. Huntington had 3 hot houses on the ranch; one of them was just devoted to roses. Usually, the Huntington’s flower arrangement had 150-200 flowers, like a gigantic fancy hotel foyer flower arrangements. The stunning red rose plants that were ordered most often at the Ranch were called “General MacArthur” Roses (similar to Mr. Lincoln red roses). They ordered 100 or 250 of General MacArthur roses at a time. also White Irish “Killarney” Roses. They bought 100-200 rose plants at one time where ordered at the ranch by William Hertrich. Also, “American Beauty” red roses were also Huntington favorites. In the 1890’s, this special rose was were ordered by the Huntington family. They would decorate the Huntington Mansion on Nob Hill with gorgeous bright red “American Beauty” roses for fancy 16-course banquet dinners: Southern Pacific Co. annual banquets, and other entertainments like Christmas time, etc.

100’s of bright red roses in the foyer of the Miramar Hotel, Santa Barbara, CA. The rose roses could be “Veteran’s Honor”, “Mr. Lincoln” or “Christian Dior” or the florist red rose called this red rose “Freedom”. It gives us an idea of the Huntington Mansion Loggia & household flower arrangements with 300 or more flowers in each. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

We know of 5 years that the Huntington’s celebrated Christmas at the Ranch. Edwards & Belle enjoyed Thanksgiving & Christmas there in 1922 & 1923. After Belle’s death, Mr. H. E. “Edwards” Huntington himself had Christmas at his beloved San Marino Ranch in 1924, 1925, & 1926. Sometimes, his daughters or son’s Howard & Leslie Huntington’s family would join him & houseguests, also. Howard had passed away in 1922, but the family still remained close.

One year, in 1924 (the year Belle died), the Huntington’s enjoy an early Christmas Breakfast at the Ranch. Then Mr. Huntington & his daughter, Marian Huntington were joined by his sister, Carrie Holladay & his brother-in-law, “Burke” Holladay ‘motoring” to Riverside, CA. They took Mr. Huntington’s limousines for a couple of days; guests of Frank Miller at the Glenwood Mission Inn in Riverside, CA.

The Huntington’s grand Christmas tree was decorated in the middle of the foyer between the 2 grand staircases. The Huntington Library guards have told me that the Huntingtons tree was huge at the time. It was filled with the most ornate glass German Christmas bulbs: the smallest at the top & Christmas ornaments “as big as grapefruits” at the bottom of the tree. Arabella probably had a amazing collection of Christmas ornaments from her travels. Especially Parisian ornate ornaments or German glass sparkly ornaments with thick red French ribbons.

These are some hanging Christmas ornaments at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, CA. See the different size ornaments “some as big as grapefruits” & the French hot air balloons!! Did Arabella Huntington have a French themed Christmas tree?? Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

The Huntingtons loved Christmas & were very generous people. The daughter of the Mr. Huntington’s gardener once told a story. On Christmas Day at the ranch: Mr. & Mrs. Huntington would host a large Christmas tea reception. Everyone that lived on the Ranch (household servants, ranch employees, & their families) were invited. The number of guests could have been up to 60-80 or more people. Mr. Huntington gave out Christmas bonuses & gold coins (Alfonso, the Butler stated); Mrs. Huntington spoiled all the little children with wonderful gifts, treats, chocolates, & candy! Probably Santa Claus was invited to come to sit & have the children meet him & give out candy canes. Christmas music would be playing his from Mr. Huntington’s music box “Electric Victrola” in the “Coat Room”. Or maybe Mr. Huntington’s sister, Carrie Huntington Holladay or his daughter-in-law Leslie Huntington (Howard’s wife), played Christmas carols on the Steinway Grand Piano in the Large Library.

For the Christmas Tea, Mrs. Arabella Huntington might have used one of her 11 different sets of Havilland dishes or Limoges (gold & white) dishes. Several of her beautiful Havilland & Limoges patterns dishes were gold & white; perfect for a elegant tea reception on the Dining Room Table as a Christmas buffet feast.

The Huntington’s Christmas Tea Blend would have been “Orange Pekoe“, a blend of Ceylon tea & India tea with cinnamon and allspice and orange peel. (Mrs. Huntington’s favorite). This was a wonderful tea, they used to have at the Hotel Huntington in Pasadena, now the Langham-Huntington. The tea would have been placed in a large silver tea urn that the Huntington’s Head Butler, Alfonso Gomez would have helped the guests. Also, Christmas Hot Cocoa could have been served to the little children.

A much larger version of this tea urn would have been used to serve 60-80 guests. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

A Punch Bowl filled with festive Christmas Champagne Punch would have been festive for the adults. The Huntington Mansion’s inventory states that they had a cut-glass punch bowl with punch glasses & also a silver punch bowl (most-likely Gorham silver or Sheffield silver). Mrs. Huntington loved “Champagne Punch” which is a combination of champagne, rum, & fruit juices. A hot punch called Christmas “Sherry Tea” was a Pasadena tradition at the Hotel Huntington could have also been served.

A typical Huntington tea reception had doily-lined Gorham silver butler trays of dainty tea sandwiches of minced ham or roast beef, chicken, cucumber, or salmon. There were salmon, caviar, or French Roquefort cheese canapes passed around on silver trays to the guests. They would have served sliced Virginia ham, on Southern Beaten Biscuits with French Dijon mustard. They could have have made lovely EnglishCream scones” or Southern Beaten Biscuits . These light scones served with English clotted cream or French “Chantilly Cream (powdered vanilla added) & Ranch-made Orange Marmalade & Raspberry Jam.

They would have had bowls of Jordan Almonds & Virginia Peanuts. For dessert, a team of dessert cooks would have made Christmas goodies like: Huntington Fruit Cake or a Christmas Pudding or Huntington Spice Cake. All sorts of Christmas Cookies, small Tartlettes of pecan & lemon curd, French Chocolate BonBons & Peppermint BonBons (truffles) & iced “Petit Fours” (French petit cakes). Mrs. Kley was a dessert cook for the Huntingtons. A granddaughter of Mrs. Kley (dessert cook for the Huntingtons) gave me 2 of her recipes: Huntington Mansion “Honey Spice Bars” (between a chocolate brownie & a truffle) & “Cinnamon Stars” (a almond based cookie with cinnamon) with Royal icing.

Recipe for Christmas “Fruit Cake” handwritten in one of Mr. H.E. Huntington rare books: Corona Club Cookbook, San Francisco (1911):

1 c. brown sugar

1 c. butter

4 eggs

2 c. flour

1/4 t. salt

1 lb. raisins

1 lb. currants

1/4 lb. citron [or dried apricots]

1/4 t. nutmeg

1 t. cloves

1 t. allspice

1/4 pt. brandy

1 t. baking powder

There were no directions on the pencil notation; in a middle size bowl add all ingredients. Bake in a slow oven 325 degrees for about 2 hours or more.

Historical Note: Background on Mr. Huntington & this little San Francisco cookbook. In 1910, he was single man/divorced from his 1st wife, Mary Alice; that year he moved into the Huntington Mansion on the ranch with a small servant staff . His 1st housekeeper at the San Marino Ranch was Mrs. Foley from San Francisco. Mrs. Foley was Mrs. Collis P. Huntington’s (Arabella) Head Housekeeper from her San Francisco Mansion on Nob Hill at 1020 California St. in SF, CA. I think Mrs. Foley helped Mr. H. E. Huntington to set up his large mansion kitchen, & maybe brought some cookbooks with her. Or Mr. Huntington bought the Corona Club Cookbook & gave it to his cook to use. This is the only cookbooks I found in the HEH’s personal collection labeled: HEH Collection with hand written notes in it. A couple months later after Mrs. Foley arrived; Mr. Huntington employed Nora Larsen as his loyal cook & head housekeeper (1911-1927). Edwards & Arabella Huntington got married in 1913, but Arabella & Sir Joseph Duveen was very involved with the setting up of this residence, paintings, & tapestries to be purchased, etc.

Document: HEH Coll. HEH 8/9 (San Marino Ranch Papers) Red roses & grocery & food lists of Huntington household SMR; HEH Coll. HEH 38/6 uncat [Huntington Mansion inventory book]; HEH Coll. MS 10968 (E. Burke Holladay Journals 1914-1924)- Mission Inn trip in 1924; Cookbook: Corona Club Cookbook, San Francisco (1911) in the HEH Collection of books. Huntington Library San Marino, CA

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