To explore and present the history of the automobile and its global impact on life and culture using Los Angeles as a prime example.
In 2015, the museum underwent an extensive $90 million renovation. The building’s façade was redesigned by the architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, while designers at The Scenic Route configured interior spaces to accommodate changing exhibits that are intended to encourage repeated visits. The exterior features a stainless-steel ribbon assembly, made of 100 tons of 14-gauge type 304 steel in 308 sections, 25 supports and 140,000 custom stainless-steel screws.
Founded on June 11, 1994 by magazine publisher Robert E. Petersen, and his wife Margie, the Petersen Automotive Museum is owned and operated by the Petersen Automotive Museum Foundation. Previously located within the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the museum is permanently housed in a historic department store originally designed by Welton Becket. The building opened in 1962 as a short-lived U.S. branch of Seibu Department Stores, before operating as an Ohrbach’s department store from 1965 to 1986. Six years after Ohrbach’s closed, Robert Petersen selected the largely windowless site at the intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard as an ideal space for a museum, where artifacts could be displayed without harmful exposure to the ultraviolet radiation of direct sunlight.
Having designed high-profile buildings throughout the world, the KPF thumbprint was on most major urban areas with one notable exception: L.A. Following a tour of the old museum, Gene Kohn began sending sketches to Petersen Vice Chairman David Sydorick. KPF eventually compiled these in a stunning 78-page book with a hand-engraved cover. Instead of providing budget breakdowns and engineering data, the KPF presentation offered ideas about how an existing building could communicate speed and motion. Then KPF took a leap of faith: The architectural firm created a 3-D model of the daring design. A 120-page “proposal” book of sketches and renderings soon followed. The KPF model and book inspired community leader Peter Mullin to return to the Petersen in January 2013 as Chairman of the Board to steer the museum’s re-birth.
If there is one thing that we all have in common, especially in Southern California, it’s the automobile. To some the automobile is an appliance, but to us it is a passion. The Petersen Automotive Museum has been celebrating this passion since 1994 on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the third most travelled intersection in the city of Los Angeles. It anchors one end of the famed “Miracle Mile” created by real estate developer A.W. Ross in 1936. Created in a time before shopping malls, the Miracle Mile centralized shopping in the area and was “The” place to go for high end shopping. Wilshire was also home to various “firsts” including dedicated left-turn lanes and the first timed traffic lights in the United States. Ross also required merchants to provide automobile parking lots behind their stores, all to aid traffic flow.
The Museum’s unforgettable architecture by world renowned architect, Welton Becket was cutting edge when the building was opened in 1962 as Seibu, a Japanese department store. When Seibu left the United States in 1965, Ohrbach’s moved into the building and it became a popular local shopping spot until its closing in 1986. The building stood vacant for approximately 6 years until inspiration struck the late Robert E. Petersen, who was looking for a consolidated headquarters for Petersen Publishing. Upon further investigation, he decided that the near-windowless structure would not be the best choice for an office building, but it would make an excellent museum. To preserve the Museum’s artifacts inside, they need to keep away from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.
Seeing the building’s true potential as an automotive-inspired educational institution, Mr. and Mrs. Petersen put forth a large portion of the money necessary to create the Petersen Automotive Museum. The Museum was to be much more than a large room filled with cars parked in rows like an indoor parking lot. From the beginning, the vehicles chosen for exhibition had to be displayed in context to give them real meaning and a better experience for all who would come to visit. The “Streetscape” was full of architectural elements that were period correct for the vehicles that surrounded them, immersing visitors deep into the stories that were told. The second floor featured rotating exhibit areas and the third floor featured the Discovery Center which taught art and science through the automobile to children of all ages.
The Museum was developed in a mere three years and opened on June 11th, 1994.