The Petersen Automotive Museum plans to expand its gallery space. (Petersen Museum)
Nearly 20 years ago, the owner of a publishing empire built on magazines about cars turned a vacant department store building into a museum he hoped would showcase car culture.
Oh, at this point you should know that this didn’t take place in Detroit, the acclaimed Motor City, but in Los Angeles, where the emergence and spread of car culture had been chronicled in publisher Bob “Pete” Petersen’s magazines such as Hot Rod and Motor Trend.
Petersen worked with the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum to create the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Recently, plans were revealed to update the displays inside the museum and to give the building’s exterior a startling, architecturally iconic face-lift befitting its position as the gateway to Wilshire Boulevard’s “Miracle Mile.”
“As we approach the Petersen Automotive Museum’s 20th anniversary, our goal is to design and build an exterior as stunning as the vehicles and displays housed inside,” Peter Mullin, chairman of the museum’s board of directors, said in announcing the effort and revealing drawings of what’s to come.
“For two decades this museum has charmed visitors with its fantastic collection and its focus on education and entertainment,” Mullin added. “Our plan is to work with the best and brightest minds in architecture, automotive history and interactive design to give the people of Los Angeles and the world a place where they can be immersed in the culture, signs and sounds of the greatest vehicles ever built.”
But, you may wonder, shouldn’t such a world-class automotive museum be in the Motor City?
“There’s a part of the car world that evolved in California after World War II when the hot rod culture really took off,” said Terry Karges, a former executive for Detroit-area automotive suppliers who returned to his native state last year to become executive director of the Petersen museum.
“Guys who had been working on Jeeps and airplanes and military trucks came home and started to modify their cars,” Karges said, adding that because of such people, and because of year-around good driving weather, “this became the car capital of the world.”
Yes, Karges said, auto manufacturing was headquartered in Detroit, but car culture was born and bred in Southern California. Because of that, he added, so has automotive design, with 23 automakers from around the world operating advanced design studios in the area.
Drag racing became an organized sport in Southern California, the automotive aftermarket product industry is based in Southern California, and, he continued, Bob Petersen created a publishing empire around chronicling such things, the cars and the car culture.
“Part of what we want to do is to preserve his legacy of telling the story,” said Karges, a Southern California native who worked at Disneyland and Sea World before becoming a vice president at Roush Performance in Livonia and at Venchurs Vehicles Systems in Adrian.
“We’re still going to tell the stories about car culture in Los Angeles,” Karges said, “but we’re going to expand that to talk about how the car has affected culture worldwide.”
To do that, the museum is working with former Disney and Universal Studio staffers and with a Hollywood set production company on new interior displays, and with some of the leading architectural and construction firms in the world on what promises to be a dazzling new exterior shell.
The building will be covered with red aluminum screening and flowing, stainless steel ribbons, with all of it illuminated at night — and visible from the air.
“Seeing if from the air, people [flying into the L.A. area] will say, ‘Look at that! I’ve got to go see that!” Mullin said.
The exterior design will carry over inside the museum, where an additional 15,000 square feet of gallery space will become available.
Galleries will be added that focus on motor sports, on automotive technology and on the people who design and produce cars.
“We’re going to get much better at storytelling,” Karges said.
There also will be a major focus on the car as art, as rolling sculpture. “That will become a driving force of what we’re doing,” he said.
To do all that inside the museum, around 100 vehicles that had been donated to the Petersen have or are being sold.
While the new exterior may draw people to the museum, it is the quality and freshness of the displays inside that will encourage repeat visits. “We have themes that will evolve each year,” Karges said, adding that plans call for a new exhibit to open almost on a monthly basis.
The museum will remain open during the construction, which begins inside in November, and on the exterior early next year, with completion scheduled in the first quarter of 2015.