Why the Getty Center Is the “Safest Place” For Its Priceless Collection in the Case of Disaster

As wildfires blaze through Southern California, the Getty’s Ron Hartwig explains how the structure was built with fire in mind

An aerial view of the Getty's Los Angeles campus taken before the so-called Skirball Fire broke out Wednesday The J Paul Getty Trust

Wildfires tore through Southern California this week, fanned by the worst Santa Ana winds to hit the region in a decade. Thousands have evacuated and hundreds of homes and buildings have already been destroyed. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the latest brush fire broke out in the Sepulveda Pass, north of two of Los Angeles’ major cultural institutions: the Getty Center and the Skirball Cultural Center.

The J. Paul Getty Museum features an art collection that spans the Western canon from the Middle Ages to modern-day; the Skirball Museum is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Judaica and Jewish material culture. Before the fire started around 4:50 in the morning, both museums had already planned to be closed to the public Wednesday due to air conditions caused from the ongoing fires in the region.

In an interview with Smithsonian.com, Ron Hartwig, vice president of communications for the Getty, says that its Los Angeles campus is the “safest place that the art collection could possibly be in the case of a disaster.”

Perched above the 405 Freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Getty Center, designed by architect Richard Meier, was built with a sophisticated air-filtration system that forces air out of its buildings to protect against rising ash and smoke. “We have to credit the architectural team that realized the Getty was being built in an area that would be hard to reach and was in a native habitat prone to fire,” says Hartwig. “When they designed the building they knew there would need to be a way to protect the art collection and having a very sophisticated air movement system was a key to that.”

Even the campus’ landscape is designed with fire in mind. Water-rich plants, which don't readily burn, are planted closest to the building. Brush becomes more abundant further away from the campus, but Hartwig says there is “a very intensive ongoing brush clearance setup” along with “a million gallon tank of water that’s available for our use should we need to have water.”

The Getty Center has dealt with fires in the past. In 2012, a brush fire threatened the area below the museum where its parking structure is located. “We had visitors on site and we very quickly and efficiently evacuated them from the site along with staff and worked very closely with the fire department to make sure the fire was put out as quickly as possible,” Hartwig recalls.

The Skirball is also prepared and is staying up to date on the current dangers. Mia Cariño, vice president of communications for the museum, writes in an email to Smithsonian.com that she has been in touch with the essential security and engineering staff on site, who are working closely with police and fire officials. “All works in our collection and galleries are unaffected by the situation. We are of course continuing to monitor Museum gallery conditions and object safety,” she says.

Since it erupted, the so-called Skirball fire has blazed through some 475 acres and destroyed at least four buildings, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Laura J. Nelson.

“Our greatest concern right now frankly is for our neighbors across the street whose homes are burning and who are facing the real tragedy,” says Hartwig.

Update, December 7, 2017: This piece has been updated to reflect the Skirball fire's acreage and damage. 

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