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The Petersen Automotive Museum’s shiny steel ribbons swirl around the striking monument to car culture and the automobile, gleaming like the hundreds of unique and vintage vehicles housed within its expansive collection.
Considered to be the best automotive museum in the world, the Petersen offers an immersive experience covering all aspects of the automotive universe. Visitors learn about the origins of motorized travel, the history of auto manufacturing and the evolution of design. Exhibits dedicated to car manufacturers parade through the showrooms. Displays paying tribute to racing history and famous cars from movies and television dazzle museum guests. For a special treat, tour the vault, which houses 270 of the rarest vehicles in the world.
Opened in 1994 by publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen (1926-2007), founder of Hot Rod magazine and Motortrend, the museum was always intended to be a mecca for auto enthusiasts. Located in a building that once housed Ohrbach’s department store, Petersen’s dream had long been to modernize, update and improve the institution, said executive director Terry Karges, who joined the Petersen Automotive Museum in 2012. That transformation came in 2014-15 and was led by board members Bruce Meyer, David Sydorick and Peter Mullin. After they secured funding and a revolutionary design was created, the museum closed for 14 months and underwent a $90-million renovation.
Karges said one of the most compelling aspects of the project is the design by Gene Kohn, of New York City-based architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, which was unanimously admired by the museum’s board upon first sight. Karges said the prerequisite was that the design had to “represent speed and/or motion,” and KPF created a masterpiece.
“Gene Kohn came out, made a major presentation to us and it was spectacular,” Karges said. “In fact, the design that they brought to us, I don’t believe had been changed more than just a tiny bit. The lines that they created are the lines that you see outside.”
Karges likened construction of the exterior steel ribbons to putting together a giant erector set. He also credited the expertise of contractor MATT Construction, which completed the particularly challenging job in 14 months.
“We closed the museum Oct. 14, 2014, and announced then that we would open on time and on budget on Dec. 5, 2015,” Karges added. “We were told, ‘you don’t do that, no one does that. You don’t take a project this big and announce you’re going to open on time and on budget.’ You know what, we did it.”
Trent Tesch, a design principal at KPF, said the exterior is among the most unique of any museum in the world. He directly worked on the Petersen project with Kohn, who died in March 2023. From the beginning, the goal was to create something special, and it is still a source of great pride for KPF, Tesch said.
“It’s such an iconic building. The first time I saw the ribbons going up and I was coming down Wilshire, my heart was beating faster just seeing it,” Tesch said. “It has such a presence along Wilshire and Fairfax. I think it achieved all the goals that they were trying to achieve.”
Tesch said the curved ribbons convey speed and motion, and illustrate the sightlines and curves of an automobile. He said members of the board chose the brilliant red color, also representative of a fast car, for the walls under the steel ribbons. The building is thoroughly cleaned multiple times a year to keep its shiny exterior gleaming.
“Peter [Mullin] – very clearly at one of our generative meetings – said let’s make everything curved, so there’s really not a straight line on the building,” Tesch added. “Car guys … love the curves of the car, the body of the car and everything about it that represents speed and elegance. All of these words just kept coming across to us, so when it came time for the design, we imagined a series of these lines that would wrap around the building.”
As striking as the exterior is, Karges said the project would not have been complete without a full restoration to the museum’s interior and exhibit spaces. Scenic Route, a company specializing in sets for concerts, television and major trade shows, created the exhibition space.
“It was quickly decided, if you do the exterior, you can’t not touch the interior,” Karges said. “Essentially, the museum had been the same for 20 years. Scenic Route came in to do the interior and they’re spectacular. As time went along, we ended up putting a party together and visited 33 museums around the world to get a look at best practices, what are the things to do and the things not to do.”
The Petersen Automotive Museum stays true to its mission of generating excitement and passion about the automobile, and education has always been a major component. More than 100,000 students visit the museum each year, and the goal is to instill a passion about cars at an early age, Karges said.
Current exhibits include “Splendor & Speed: Treasures of the Petersen Collection,” “Inside Tesla: Supercharging the Electric Revolution” and “We Are Porsche: 40 Vehicles/75 Years of Amazing Stories.” The “Cars of Film and Television” exhibit, with vehicles from “Black Panther,” “Back to the Future,” “Ghostbusters” and “Batman,” is a perennial crowd-pleaser.
Karges said the transformational project of 2014-15 made the Petersen a world-class institution, and just as cars evolve, the board and administration always keeps an eye toward the future. He once asked Robert Petersen’s longtime aide Gigi Carleton what the museum’s founder and namesake might have thought about the finished project.
“Gigi, his personal aide for 48 years, said that he would be smiling, this is exactly what he would want, just the way he would have wanted it,” Karges said.
“We take that as a pretty good reference.”
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