Lorado Taft's Dream Museum

Lorado Taft's Dream Museum

Lorado Taft discusses plans for his "Dream Museum" of comparative sculpture and architecture in Griffith Park with Clarence Mitchell of
the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

Photo: USC Regional History Center

(This article appeared in the Glendale News-Press, Oct. 4, 1994)

Even for Los Angeles, where dreams tended to run big, the story was almost too grand to swallow, especially in Depression-racked 1934. Lorado Taft, often referred to as the dean of American sculptors, was spearheading plans for what he called a "dream museum" of ancient sculpture and architecture.

The Los Angeles Times was a little gaga over the project: "Taft's museum . . . surpasses in scope and purpose virtually every museum in the world. It would be the only one of its kind in existence and . . . would be the mecca for art lovers the globe over."

Like the Parthenon of ancient Greece, Taft's museum would sit on a hill with a commanding view of the city. But instead of resting on the Acropolis overlooking Athens, the dream museum would sit on a hill above Commonwealth Avenue in Griffith Park overlooking Los Angeles. Actually, the Parthenon comparison is fitting since Taft's dream museum was to contain, among other things, a full-scale replica of that ancient temple.

A Monumental Structure

The dream museum was to consist of one room­but what a room! As envisioned by father-and-son architects John and Donald B. Parkinson (who would later design Union Station downtown), it was to be 750 feet long and 200 feet wide. The ceiling would be 80 feet high in the center of the room, tapering down to 50 feet at the sides. The gigantic room would be surrounded by a 20-foot-wide hallway, which would house temporary exhibits. All of the exhibits would have been illuminated by natural light, through extensive use of skylights.

Taft envisioned a museum of comparative sculpture and architecture, arranged by culture and century. The museum would have seven aisles. One aisle would be assigned to Egyptian sculpture and architecture, for example. Egypt's earliest sculptures and structures would be at one end, its most recent at the other. A walk along the two-and-one-half football field long aisle would be a virtual march through time.

Rows bisecting the aisles at regular intervals would have made the museum comparative. If a person walking along the Egyptian aisle wanted to see what Chinese architecture was like around 1500 A.D., for example, one could simply cut across a row. Taft, never one to undersell his dream museum, said this comparative aspect would reveal the meaning of life.

The sculpture and architecture would be reproductions. Taft believed that proper lighting was more important to appreciating sculpture than whether the sculpture on display was an original or a copy. This kept the museum's estimated price tag under $2 million.

Chicago-based Taft enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, Hollywood-based novelist Hamlin Garland, to win support for the museum. One of their earliest backers was Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler.

In January 1931, Chandler wrote Garland, suggesting that the dream museum project be brought before the powerful Community Development Association. "I do not believe there is the slightest doubt but what the board would endorse the museum and help to put it over," Chandler wrote.

Taft Campaigns for Dream Museum

With Garland's help, Taft undertook an intermittent lecture tour of the Southland to extol the virtues of his dream museum. Regarded as a charismatic speaker, Taft received enthusiastic responses at colleges and universities, women's clubs and other civic organizations. He soon picked up the backing of the influential Los Angeles Art Association.

Taft eagerly embraced the charms of Los Angeles. In fact, he told lecture audiences that the Southland was destined to become the sculpture capital of the United States.

"There is no part of the United States where one misses sculpture so much as in Southern California," he said at one lecture stop. "One does not look for classic art in Chicago and Kansas City."

By December 1933, Taft was on hand to survey the Griffith Park site. Flanked by Park Board President Mabel Socha, Taft declared it "magnificent beyond imagination! A spot of unsurpassed beauty--one of the most glorious views in America."

Socha added the Park Board's support to the project: "We feel that Mr. Taft should be given all the encouragement possible."

Taft Breaks Ground in Griffith Park

On Feb. 9, 1934, Taft's dream seemed tantalizingly close to reality. He, Clarence Mitchell (head of the Los Angeles Museum of Art) and Garland returned to the museum site. Taft turned a ceremonial shovel of dirt and drove a stake at the location of the grand building's cornerstone. Mitchell brought along a movie camera to capture the moment for posterity. Instead of his usual flowery rhetoric, Taft said simply: "This is the beginning of the realization of my life-long dream."

But it would turn out to be the beginning of the end. No single event caused the dream museum to slip away. But money was a big reason. Times columnist Lee Shippey wrote in December 1933 that the project needed a financial benefactor, perhaps a Col. Griffith J. Griffith of the arts. But benefactors were scarce during the Great Depression. By June 1934, Taft sought federal funding of the museum as part of a New Deal employment project, without success.

Another factor was Taft's advancing age. In 1934 he was 74 years old. He was constantly troubled by sciatica. In July 1931 he had been afflicted with an embolism that left him bedridden for two weeks. And in 1932 he had undergone prostate surgery. Neither Taft nor Garland (who was the same age as Taft) were in a position to wage a long battle over the museum.

Taft's final push for the Griffith Park dream museum came during a speaking tour in the winter of 1934-35. He told one audience in December 1934: "I have not waned in my plans to build the museum of historic sculpture and architecture here. And although I intend to rest most of the time, our plans will go forward."

It was his last trip to Los Angeles. Taft returned to his Chicago studio where he devoted a room to the dream museum. It featured a table with tiny replicas of temples and arches and the world's greatest sculpture.

Taft died on Oct. 30, 1936 after a series of strokes. Wrote Ada Bartlett Taft in eulogy, "I shall have to acknowledge that my husband was just a little daft about museums."

After Taft's death, the project quickly lost its focus. In May 1938 the Los Angeles Art Association requested $950,000 from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for a smaller but broader museum of music, sculpture, painting, dance and theater adjacent to the Otis Art Institute on Wilshire Boulevard.

It wasn't built either.

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

Please call me at Glendale College 240-1000, Ext. 5352 (I have voice mail, so you can leave a message at any time.)

Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

E-mail me at MEberts@glendale.cc.ca.us

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