How totem poles by master carver Henry Hunt came to call the Coachella Valley home

Thursday, October 27, 2016

By Anne Rowe, Sunnylands Director of Collections & Exhibitions

Long after Sunnylands was completed in 1966, Walter and Leonore Annenberg continued to acquire culturally diverse artworks to enhance the estate grounds. With their keen instincts, the Annenbergs were adept at identifying best-in-class artists and craftsmen.

It’s one of the interesting challenges of my job to maintain the artworks in excellent condition – a task that’s not always easy given that some are displayed outdoors all year under the harsh desert sun.

In 1976, the Annenbergs commissioned a 30-foot tall totem pole from master First Nations carver Henry Hunt. Hunt’s acclaimed father-in-law, Mungo Martin, inspired his life of carving. Together, in 1958, they carved the famous 100-foot tall pole installed in England’s Windsor Great Park. The pole was a gift from the Canadian people to Queen Elizabeth I, marking the centenary of British Columbia. Henry succeeded Mungo as Chief Carver at the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria, Canada, and his poles are installed throughout the world.

Upon the passing of Leonore Annenberg in 2009, the Sunnylands estate and art collections entered into a public trust. The 33-year-old totem pole required restoration, but Henry Hunt passed away in 1986 so I contacted his son, Stanley Hunt, for artistic and cultural guidance on the project. I sent him photos of the pole, which he had never heard of, and he confirmed provenance – “Yes, that’s my dad’s pole.” Then, he offered a welcome surprise: “I would love to come to the desert and restore my dad’s pole.”

In the spring of 2010, Stanley, his son, Jason Hunt, and his wife, Lavina Hunt, arrived to restore the Henry Hunt totem pole at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage. Two years later, the family returned with additional family and friends and trunks full of ceremonial blankets, carving tools, headdresses, masks, and regalia and performed a re-dedication ceremony blessing the pole with drumming, dancing, and spoken dedications

Hiding in Plain Sight

During their original two week visit, Stanley casually mentioned one day, while taking a break in the shade, that he had heard that there was a second Henry Hunt pole in the Coachella Valley. We asked around locally and no one seemed to know about it.

Not long after the Hunt family’s second visit, however, I was riding in the car along Racquet Club Road in Palm Springs with my partner, Michael Vega, and he suddenly slammed on the brakes. There it was in plain sight. The second Henry Hunt pole is installed on the corner of Racquet Club Road and Via Miraleste perched upon a stone monument with a plaque marker.

After a bit of research at the Palm Springs Historical Society and Library, I learned that the totem arrived in 1968 and was a gift from the city of Victoria, British Columbia, to the city of Palm Springs. Victoria and Palm Springs were “sister cities” at that time. On April 5, 1968, the imminent arrival of the pole was announced on the front page of The Desert Sun. The article explained that Vista Del Monte Park was being renamed Victoria Park in honor of the sister-city relationship and that the pole was to be installed there. The public was invited to attend the dedication ceremony and a follow-up article with a photo of the installation appeared in the newspaper on April 8.
In 2015, recognizing the cultural and artistic significance of their Henry Hunt totem pole, the Palm Springs City Council, upon request of the Public Arts Commission, brought the Hunts from Fort Rupert, British Columbia, to restore the Palm Springs pole to its former glory. The pole was 47 years old – eight years older than the Sunnylands pole. Stationed on a busy corner, the Palm Springs pole had suffered sun and water damage, a lost raven’s beak, and many well-intentioned, albeit misguided, paint jobs over the years.

The firefighters of Palm Springs Fire Station 3, across the street from Victoria Park, generously made room in their garage for Stanley and Jason Hunt to set up their tools and work on the pole. Students from Vista Del Monte Elementary School, who pass the pole daily, came by to watch the carving and painting. The result is stunning. The pole has been reinstalled in its original location for all to enjoy. Like the Sunnylands totem, the Victoria Park totem will receive regular conservation guided by the advice of the Hunts, to preserve it for future generations.