The Petersen is not just a car museum. Now, it’s become a Los Angeles landmark.
I wrote that sentence in my notebook as I stood Wednesday night, kitty corner across the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue from the Petersen Automotive Museum, which is located at the head of the Miracle Mile, once the center for consumer shopping and now home to LA’s museum row.
Interesting to learn that when the Miracle Mile was being developed in the 1920s, part of the goal was to design the multi-story storefronts to draw the attention not of people walking Wilshire but of those driving the boulevard. And interesting as well, some seven decades later, to hear architect Gene Kohn talk about how the stunning ribbon and beam facade of the new Petersen was designed to be seen while driving because “the context of Wilshire is driving.”
And so, as we learned Thursday when we got inside for the press preview of the museum’s reopening, driving cars also is the context of the Petersen’s new interior.
Built originally as a department store, the museum bearing the name of the founder of Hot Rod and other magazines opened in 1994. In conjunction with its 20th anniversary, the museum closed for 14 months to undergo a $90 million transformation that, after a weekend of various previews, re-opens to the public on Monday ($14 for adults, $12 for children, free to active-duty military, educators and children less than 3 years old).
According to Kohn, the building’s exterior look was inspired by photographs of the airwaves that swarm and flow around a car when it is undergoing developmental testing in an automaker’s wind tunnel.
Meanwhile, the building’s interior underwent an even more stunning redesign. The old escalator is gone. The third floor has been turned into exhibit space; the museum now has 95,000 square feet in which to exhibit vehicles.
Elevators carry visitors from the lobby to the new third-floor area where they can visit eight galleries designed to showcase automotive history. A wide, spiral stairway guides those visitors to the second floor, where 11 galleries primarily focus on the automotive industry and education, as well as specialized areas for motorsports and motorcycles.
Speaking of the educational focus on the second floor, the Art Center College of Design has glass-fronted classrooms in which future car designers will learn and work and, just across a hallway, the Pixar Cars Mechanical Institute will help younger students learn about the automobile, how it works and how it is designed and produced and powered.
And if you’re more into play than study, there’s the Forza Motorsport Racing Experience where you sit in racing-style seats and drive a virtual car around virtual race tracks.
Back to the stairway and down to the main floor and three more galleries designed to showcase automotive artistry and, like the building’s exterior, the glories of shaped sheet metal.
Yes, the new exterior design is polarizing — people immediately seem to either love it or hate it (A headline in the Los Angeles Times called it the ‘Edsel of architecture’ and ‘a gloriously bad redo.’). Some people will be delighted to learn that the old Johnny Rockets restaurant is being replaced by the more upscale Drago brothers’ newest location. And some (me among them) will lament the loss of the old exhibit that showcased the LA love affair with the car through various street scenes — the Speed Shop, Jamm’s Drive-In, Pep Boys, the Dog Cafe, the neon-lit car wash, the scene from a Laurel and Hardy movie, even the cop on a motorcycle behind the Cadillac billboard.
But, let’s face it, times change and the museum needed to change with them to maintain credibility with and interest from impatient generations growing up with the instantnet. Fourteen months and nearly $100 million later, the Petersen has been transformed, and not only into an LA landmark but into a museum that looks not just at the past but also to the future.
Photos by Larry Edsall