The New Petersen Automotive Museum Shines
Posted on March 1, 2017
Los Angeles has long been the epicenter of American movie and car culture. Just after World War II, resident Robert Petersen had a career with MGM Studios in the movie publicity department. When the studio had one of its periodic staff reductions, Petersen was out. He quickly shifted his showbiz skills and joined a friend to publicize local hot rod shows. When he found the growing car hobby did not have a quality publication to match, Petersen created Hot Rod Magazine. Over the decades, Petersen Publishing grew to become a major automotive-focused media company.
In 1994, Bob Petersen and his wife Margie established the Petersen Automotive Museum Foundation, endowed with a $40 million gift. The resulting collection of cars that represented California automotive culture was housed within the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Later, when a former department store became available, a Welton Becket designed building on the corner of Wilshire and South Fairfax, the Petersen found its permanent home. The museum took a mild design departure from its department store roots by attaching vertical fins (à la 1950s Cadillacs) to the building’s slender white columns, and added a billboard marquee and a wall-mounted car to the exterior. Inside, the displays placed vehicles in historical context, including vintage gas stations and diners.
Attendance grew at a steady pace with periodic updates to the 100-car collection. In 2011, the museum received a $100 million gift from Margie Petersen and the Foundation that included cash, the museum property, and many of the Petersen vehicles for the permanent collection. The transformation from a noteworthy national automotive museum to a world-class one began in 2015, when the board of directors launched a successful $125 million capital campaign to rebuild the entire structure inside and out.
From Box to Motion
Trent Tesh of architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox led the design team to remake the existing building previously described as a “dumb box sitting squat and square” to a sweeping, curvaceous silhouette that reflects the cars inside and the flamboyance of Los Angeles. The design used 308 arched stainless steel panels. More than 140,000 stainless steel screws recalled early automotive fasteners. Computer-controlled LED light fixtures illuminate the building. The original aloof white box was transformed into a vivacious sculpture, seeming to race down Wilshire Boulevard.
Of course, the interior space is the final destination where 100 cars, 23 motorcycles, four scooters, and a full-size Lightning McQueen await. The new interior was completely redesigned, adding 12,040 square feet of display space. A restaurant and museum store occupy the first floor. There are now 47 show-controlled Panasonic projectors, interactive touch screens, LED monitors, and 100 CARSpad tablets. The Grand Concourse has an eight-by-twenty-foot LED billboard. A 134-foot long, 180-degree projection wall spreads across the Family Motorsports Gallery, and a 130-foot segmented projection wall is housed in the Hollywood Gallery.
Visitors can start their journey with a short elevator ride to an automotive history exhibit on the third floor. A wide, three-story spiral staircase descends gently to the Industry and then the Artistry floors. The museum’s private vault holds another 125 to 150 vehicles from the Petersen’s permanent collection. A new, seven-ton capacity freight elevator — one of the largest in Los Angeles — moves the vehicles up and down.
Bugatti Family Jewels
We recently visited for the opening of the Art of Bugatti exhibition in the Mullin Grand Salon. Peter Mullin himself is a car enthusiast, collector, and Chairman of Petersen Museum’s Board of Directors. The new display is the most significant Bugatti exhibition ever mounted, with cars that include a 1935 Type 57C Atlantic, a Type 41 Royale, and while we were there, the new Bugatti Chiron.
I was able to spend some time with the museum’s Executive Director, Terry Karges, Sr., an executive and car enthusiast with roots in for-profit industries. Karges believes that a successful public attraction should pay its own way and not rely on constant fundraising.
The new Petersen Museum has welcomed more than 400,000 visitors since its reopening. For car lovers, a visit to Los Angeles isn’t complete without a look under this new, spectacular hood. General admission is a very affordable $15. 323.930.2277, petersen.org Brian Douglas
Photography by David Zaitz