Architecture and Design, Behind the Scenes, Getty Center

The Getty Center Turns 15

The Getty Center from the air, 2008

Like all masterpieces, the Getty Center wasn’t built in a day. From architect selection to opening, it took 13 years. And it was well worth the wait. The J. Paul Getty Trust and all of its programs finally had a home.

This Sunday, December 16, 1997, we celebrate the Getty Center’s 15th anniversary. Robert Irwin’s garden has grown lush and full, sculptures have taken up residence on the plazas, and 15 years of new acquisitions fill the Museum galleries and Research Institute—just as 15 years of conservation training and practice by the Conservation Institute and grant funding by the Foundation have changed the landscape of cultural heritage and art history around the world.

We mark the anniversary of the public opening of the Center this Sunday. But its origins date back to 1982, when the Getty’s trustees picked 110 acres in west L.A. as the Getty’s future home. Richard Meier, chosen to design the Center in 1984, won the commission for his vision of what this hilltop would become:

“In my mind’s eye, I see a classic structure, elegant and timeless, emerging, serene and ideal, from the rough hillside….Sometimes I think that the landscape overtakes it, and sometimes I see the structure as standing out, dominating the landscape. The two are entwined in a dialogue, a perpetual embrace in which building and site are one.”

Once construction began, the Center took nearly nine years to emerge from that rough hillside: 24 acres, a million square feet of buildings, 300,000 travertine blocks. The steel reinforcing bars alone weigh 25 million pounds; the travertine, 84 million.

We look back over the past 15 years with real pride for what the Getty has accomplished over a very brief period of time, and with the greatest ambitions for what we can accomplish in the next 15 years.

Here, a look back at the process, move, and exciting first day 15 years ago when the Getty Center welcomed its first visitors and indelibly changed not only the landscape of Los Angeles but our city’s rich cultural life as well.


Millions of Angelenos passed the Getty Center construction site over the years, watching the progress unfold. Here is the hilltop in January 1996, with less than two years to go.

The Getty Center site in January 1996

For 16 months leading up to the day we had the place ready for company, Getty staff moved in from offices and labs across west L.A. Here, Jeffrey Levin of the Getty Conservation Institute (the first program to move to the new space) preps for the move from the GCI’s Marina del Rey offices in June 1996.

Getty Conservation Institute staff member in Marina del Rey offices, 1996

Progress on the Museum Courtyard by February 1997.

Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center under construction, 1997

In March, the Getty Research Institute is nearing completion, and earthmoving for Robert Irwin’s Central Garden is in full swing.

Construction of the Getty Research Institute, spring 1997

With tens of thousands of artworks and nearly a million books, moving the collections took over a year. Here preparators Tom Fitzpatrick and Kevin Marshall brace one of J. Paul Getty’s favorite beauties—Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield—for her road trip from the “old” Getty.

Preparators pack up the collection for the move from Malibu to the Getty Center

The Research Library was built with 26 miles of shelves. Here it is ready for its first books.

Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, awaiting books

The newly built Restaurant before its walls were transformed by artist Alexis Smith.

Getty Center Restaurant in 1997, before the Alexis Smith design

And the paintings galleries, ready and patiently awaiting the first visitors.

Getty Center galleries before opening in 1997

December 16, 1997: the first-ever visitors to the Getty Center explore Robert Irwin’s Central Garden. Opening day of the Getty Center, December 16, 1997

Sun sets over the brand new tram arrival plaza. Martin Puryear’s That Profile, which presides over the travertine, was commissioned two years later; Maillol’s L’Air on the Museum steps came in 2007. What will come next?

The Getty Center in 1997 - tram arrival plaza

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 16, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful. Majestic. Artistic. Three words I’d use to describe this “miracle on the hill” ~ Happy Birthday to my favorite museum. You will forever hold a special place in my heart. Love to you from Idaho. “Knowledge and Art is meant to be shared.” ~ My motto

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    • Polo and Fishing Fore-Edge Painting


      These idyllic fore-edge paintings come from Mary Grey Lundie Duncan’s book entitled Memoir of Mrs. Mary Lundie Duncan: Being Recollection of a Daughter by Her Mother, third edition, published in 1846. After her daughter’s untimely death at 25, Mary Grey Lundie Duncan recorded her daughter’s life and her hymns. Mary Lundie Duncan wrote hymns for her children, most notably “Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me” and “My Saviour, be Thou near me.”

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      Thanks to our new archival assistant, Alicia Fan, for making the gifs.

      Sources consulted: Mary Lundie Duncan hymns, Minister Henry Duncan, Find a Grave: Florence Rice “Floy” Rodman Barnhardt, and Find a Grave: Gen. George Columbus Barnhardt.

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