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Eco-Art in California

Had it not been closed for renovation, the Roman villa that J. Paul Getty re-created near Malibu would have been our next stop. Unlike architect Richard Meier's Getty Center in L.A., the product of an institutional vision, the villa reflects the tycoon's personal passion: antiquities. So fascinated was Getty by the archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum that he built a house based on the Villa dei Papiri as it had existed before an erupting Vesuvius covered it, nearly 1,900 years ago.

Instead, we drove to the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington in Pasadena, built on the site of a hotel developed in 1914 by railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington, who in 1919 established the formidable Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in nearby San Marino. We rented bicycles (after more than 400 miles and three days in the car, we needed exercise badly) at the hotel and pedaled leisurely to the library, where we continued on foot, pausing to examine such treasures as a Gutenberg Bible from circa 1455 and Thomas Gainsborough's famous Blue Boy, circa 1770.

Of all the museums we visited, Pasadena's are closest in look and feel to those of the East. A century ago, the town was a winter mecca for snow-weary millionaires, including Mary and David Gamble—heirs to the Procter & Gamble fortune—for whom architects Charles and Henry Greene built an Arts and Crafts—style residence, in 1908. Now a museum run by the University of Southern California's School of Architecture, the Gamble House is a jewel box of iridescent glass, inlaid furniture, and custom light fixtures.

Our final destination was the museum named for industrialist Norton Simon, whose synoptic collection of Western art is breathtaking. It ranges from Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve (both circa 1530) to Picasso's Woman with a Book (1932). The wall text is inspired, often quoting artists' correspondence about the pieces on display. Buddhas and bodhisattvas occupy the basement gallery; after honeymooning in India in 1971 with his movie-star bride, Jennifer Jones, Simon started acquiring Indian and Southeast Asian art. The floors are gracefully linked by a subtle stairwell renovation by Frank Gehry.

Although the building's exterior, built in 1969 as part of the Pasadena Art Museum, is undistinguished, the Norton Simon sculpture garden, redesigned in 1999 by Nancy Goslee Power, seduced me. I inhaled lavender. The sun glinted off the Henry Moores. Insects hummed. In this ripe outdoor environment, as rich in art as in natural beauty, I didn't have to think about coming to my senses. I was already there.

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