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News Archive: 2008

Autry Museum Getting $100 Million Makeover
By Dana Bartholemew
Posted March 6, 2008

The following is an article excerpted from

This is an artist's drawing of the remodeled Autry National Center.
Photo credit: Model South Elevation 3.3.08 Levin & Associates

GRIFFITH PARK - It'll look as red as a Sedona sunrise, as gray as a Death Valley divide and as clear as a Sierra stream.

Plans for a $100 million makeover of the Autry National Center call for a bold new museum rooted in the landscape of the West, topped with a glowing tower of translucent glass.

"I would call it a window into the American West," said museum co-founder Jackie Autry, widow of the singing cowboy. "I think it's absolutely gorgeous. The building was designed as a mission ... and we're taking it into the 21st century."

The renovation, now under review by the city parks department, is slated to break ground this coming fall, pending city approval, and reopen by 2011.

Its $100 million cost is part of a $185 million capital campaign that includes endowment and operating expenses, of which $116 million has been raised, museum officials said.

Founded 20 years ago, the acclaimed Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum has showcased the history of the American West from the eastern edge of Griffith Park.

But with a merger four years ago with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in northeast Los Angeles, the new Autry National Center needed room to house its cowboy, Indian and multicultural collections.

So the Autry looked to architect Brenda A. Levin, who had overseen the $93 million restoration of Griffith Observatory and designed the train pavilion for Travel Town and many historic renovations downtown.

What was needed, Autry officials said, was much more than the 2 1/2-acre museum now shoehorned between a bare parking lot and the busy Golden State Freeway.

It needed space for its Museum of the American West parade of saddles, Hollywood cowboy icons and the world's largest Colt gun collection.

It needed room to preserve and display some of the 250,000 Indian baskets, pots and war bonnets damaged inside a historic tower at the Southwest Museum.

And it needed room to show how a "convergence" of cultures carved up lands - or one another - west of the Mississippi.

"It integrates the larger idea of the Autry to tell everybody's stories of the American West - with all the same importance," said John Gray, the center's president and chief executive officer.

For Levin, a museum built upon itself meant a connection to the land itself. And what was needed was a whole new kind of museum.

"The whole idea is landscape as a metaphor of the West - that is the defining feature of the West," she said. "The mountains, the skies, the light, the prairies, the plains, the rocks. We've taken that America and carried it through the building.

"We're always trying to connect with the land; everything is about that connection with the land."

For the Autry, that connection is a 13-acre museum site and landfill left over from the building of the 5 Freeway.

Plans call for a renovated museum stripped of its post-modern, Mission-style decor with one-third more space, or 79,000 square feet.

In its place will rise a Autry National Center clad in gray, red Corten steel and sheets of channel glass - including its five-story tower - surrounded by native plants and trees.

After emerging from a "canyon walk" of native oaks and sycamores, visitors would enter the Autry from the south into a "convergence canyon" of soaring bent wood in what is now an open courtyard.

The new Autry will include a northeast gallery for its Southwest Museum, a southwest gallery for its American West Museum and vast "open storage" windows into its behind-the-scenes collections.

In addition to new classrooms, it will house a new Children's Archaeology Discovery Center and Trails West Discovery Garden.

A sacred circle will host American Indian ceremonies, and an ethno-botanic garden will host American Indian medicinal and other plants.

The century-old Southwest Museum, now under renovation in Mount Washington, will also reopen in 2011 as a Southwest Museum Education and Cultural Center. The Griffith Park center will depict a herd of wild horses racing commuters along the 5.

"I love it," Louis Alvarado, longtime honorary mayor of Griffith Park, said of the museum's new sleek design. "I am thrilled because of so much native green. I can hardly wait for the new Autry museum."

"Brenda Levin is one of the best architects in the country," added Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district contains Griffith Park. "I'm clearly proud. It gives me a great level of confidence to know that her thinking is involved with the Autry National Center."

For her part, Levin said the idea is to create a more "inside-out" museum to make the Autry more transparent and open to the public.

Her five-story glass tower, if approved, will shine by day and glow by night as a beacon to the American West.

"I'm unbelievably excited," she said. "This is something new. ... It's not a particular style. It's not adobe. It's not round. It's not Mission style.

"It's timeless."

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