Inside the Struggle to Revive One of L.A.’s Most Historic Museums

Why the Mt. Washington institution has been gathering dust for so long

Charles Fletcher Lummis was so smitten with the American West—and so restless in his native Ohio—that he traveled, on foot, from his home in Cincinnati to Los Angeles, writing about his 143-day trek for the Los Angeles Times. The year was 1884.

Along the way he stuffed his pockets with rattlesnake skins and gold nuggets, chunks of petrified wood and turquoise jewelry. After arriving here, he continued to gather mementos whenever he roamed the Southwest, trading his camera and favorite revolver for a gold-inlaid musket and making wax-cylinder recordings of American Indian songs. A lover of books, he took a branding iron to his vast library of rare titles and seared his name into them to discourage would-be thieves. In 1905, when the author, anthropologist, sometime wanderer, and philanderer became the director of the Los Angeles Public Library, he branded a bunch of its books as well.

Among his favorite things to collect were Native American artifacts: Navajo textiles, Hopi baskets, Andean ponchos. Lummis, an outspoken proponent of Indian rights, amassed so many thousands of pieces, he built a hilltop castle on Mount Washington to house them. Constructed in 1914, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian was modeled after the fortresslike Alhambra in Spain and boasted light-filled exhibition halls, recessed display cases, and a Spanish mission-style patio. The collection would become second only to that of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in size and scope and the greatest of its kind west of the Mississippi. But the Southwest struggled financially from the start, as the museum went into debt to complete Lummis’s grand architectural plans. Four years later Lummis was so broke that he relied on the museum for a small, largely honorary salary; it paid for his funeral, too, when he died in 1928.

Over the years the museum endured a similar decline as attendance dwindled. The buildings were neglected, with artifacts suffering from humidity, heat, and bugs. The institution’s Romanesque tower was damaged in the 1994 Northridge quake, and repairs weren’t completed until 15 years later. Between 1998 and 2000, the Southwest operated a satellite space at LACMA West, the former May Company department store at Fairfax and Wilshire. “Our experience at LACMA West has been very positive. It has brought many people to our exhibitions, broadened our audience and increased our membership,” former Southwest Museum director Duane King told the Los Angeles Times when the operation was closing down. Back then the Southwest had plans to add a 9,500-square-foot building to the Mount Washington site. But while Highland Park, which sits down the hill from the museum, gained the Gold Line and began its transformation into a neighborhood on the rise, the museum remained idle.

Fans of the space, who tend to be ardent, hoped for a turnaround when the Southwest sought a merger with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in 2003. Founded in Griffith Park in 1988 by Hollywood cowboy and former Anaheim Angels owner Gene Autry, the museum already had a world-class array of western memorabilia, from Annie Oakley’s pearl-gripped handguns to a pocket watch owned by Pat Garrett, the infamous lawman who shot and killed Billy the Kid. When the merger was signed, the Autry consented to preserve and care for the Southwest’s treasures, take on its debts and liabilities, and fund operating shortfalls up to $750,000. The two mega-museums became one: the Autry National Center of the American West.

According to the terms of the merger, both sides intended that the Southwest site “shall be the location for all aspects of The Southwest Museum,” but as more and more sections of the Mount Washington property were closed for repair and to preserve its contents, museum programming steadily diminished. Although work on the tower was completed in 2009, getting the facility up to modern standards involves far more than seismic retrofitting. So the museum has remained closed ever since, except for a six-hour window on Saturdays, when it is open to the public. Autry spokespeople insist that the site will open; they just can’t say when, in what form, or for what purpose.

That has angered community groups on Mount Washington and in Highland Park, who’ve responded with lawsuits, name-calling, and accusations of racism. Even in an era defined by toxic squabbling, the fights over the Southwest stand out. A western-themed museum taking over a Native American one? Nearly from the start, a “Cowboys vs. Indians” narrative emerged. The rancor has been so bad that Washington, D.C.’s National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the Southwest a “National Treasure” in 2015, declared that the greatest threat to the original facility is us. “We define ‘threat’ very broadly,” says Christina Morris, field director of the Trust’s Los Angeles office, as she describes the process her organization went through before issuing its assessment. “Here the threat [has been] this intractable conflict that was preventing this building from ever being used.”

It’s a sunny morning and I’m getting a tour of the Southwest Museum from Stacy Lieberman, the executive vice president and deputy director of the Autry. She has the friendly demeanor and ready smile of a former publicist who rose to become the Autry’s number two. Morris is here, too, asking questions about particular pieces and how items are being stored. Before the Autry stepped in, prized baskets were stacked one on top of another at the Southwest site to save space; budget concerns meant fewer staff to care for the collection, which continued to expand owing to donations from individuals and other museums. Now many of the artifacts reside in Burbank at the Autry Resources Center, a storage and research facility established in 2010.

Not that the Southwest site is barren. We walk through an airy, barrel-vaulted exhibition space where examples of four centuries of Pueblo pottery are on view for Saturday visitors. Canoes hang from the walls; in one area, I’m told, human remains wait to be repatriated. We ascend a tight spiral staircase in the center of the museum’s seven-story Caracol Tower. As we emerge at the top, the mountains of the Angeles National Forest stretch to the north; the city’s skyline, to our south. The museum’s 12 acres spread out before our eyes: the Spanish-style courtyards, the palm-lined walks, the tile roofs. We snap photos of the view with our cell phones.

The Southwest Museum sits castlelike on Mount Washington
The Southwest Museum sits castlelike on Mount Washington

Photo By: Spencer Lowell

That view comes with a cost, however. The Southwest poses multiple obstacles for the disabled as well as folks with strollers or weak hearts. When you exit the 110 and turn into the entrance, you discover a tiny parking lot with only 65 spots. Lummis, a believer in the moral virtues of physical fitness, figured people should have to work to see his museum. So for years the primary means of reaching the Southwest was the steep, meandering, 50-yard-long Hopi Trail, which is currently closed due to safety issues. And even now many areas and levels of the museum are not wheelchair accessible, or they lack restrooms or walkways with disabled access. Inside the iconic tower, there is no elevator and no room for one. “The Southwest’s biggest challenge is the accessibility issue, no question,” says Lieberman. “Everyone loves the property, and then they come with their mother in a wheelchair and they wonder, How do you expect me to get her down these stairs?”

The Autry contends that addressing the challenge might not pencil out. In 2006, an independent study estimated that the cost to rehabilitate the site would run between $28 million and $40 million. There were the repairs one might expect on a building constructed a century ago and the alterations to make it conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Then there is the additional space needed to accommodate the artifacts themselves. “Over the years the Autry has offered to give [the Southwest] to anyone who wishes to run it for a dollar,” says Lieberman. “They say back, Well, what you’re really giving us is a negative $40 million.”

Even before the two institutions joined, there were hard feelings between the Autry and various community groups. In 2001, the American Indian Movement called for a boycott of the Autry, claiming that the museum, with its cache of western movie memorabilia from a less enlightened age, “promoted the insidious, racist stereotyping of American Indians.” After plans were formulated to create two side-by-side museums in Griffith Park—one for the Autry’s exhibitions, one for the Southwest’s—the Friends of the Southwest Museum coalition filed suit in 2011 to halt the project. Protesters claimed that the Autry was using the costs for rehabilitation as an excuse to shutter the Southwest for good—an ultimate victory, some said, of the cowboys over the Indians. “There was a time that staff were told not to wear their badges when they went out in the community because they would be harassed by residents,” says Lieberman.

“There’s criticism of the Friends of the Southwest Museum for being a little too zealous in their approach, but I think there’s a bit of a vacuum,” says Louisa Van Leer, an architect whose firm created a design of the Mount Washington site for the coalition. “People felt that they weren’t being listened to because we’re in Northeast L.A. You’ve gotta shout a little louder, be a little more aggressive.”

In 2014, the lawsuit was dismissed, opening the door for the National Trust to offer assistance. The Trust had been eyeing the Southwest for years, says Morris. “Quite frankly the Trust did not want to deal with a political land mine that they might step on and blow them all up,” says W. Richard West, who became president of the Autry in 2012 after serving as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “So they waited until we were at a point where we could begin to rework this conversation and focus on the future instead of constantly quibbling about the past.”

The Trust’s first move was the “National Treasure” designation, an honor that has been bestowed on some of the country’s most important and endangered sites, including a North Dakota ranch once owned by Teddy Roosevelt (a classmate of Lummis’s at Harvard), which is being threatened with development from mining interests; there’s also the former home of Malcolm X in Boston, which has been ravaged by water leaks and decades of neglect. In many cases, simply bringing attention to an endangered site is the National Trust’s most important role. But in the case of the Southwest, the situation called for more. The Autry needed a neutral mediator between the assorted warring factions. “This one is certainly challenging—I won’t lie to you,” says Morris. “In a lot of instances you’re working with just one owner or one institution, and you’re just trying to get them to maybe change their position on something.” With the Southwest, she says, the number of parties they’re working with is in the “dozens and dozens.”

To attend to the various concerns, the Trust helped create a steering committee composed of experts across a range of disciplines. There are leaders from the L.A. Conservancy and the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California, from the city’s Office of Historic Resources and USC’s Fisher Museum of Art, which, along with the Southwest, is among the city’s oldest museums. There’s a land-use attorney from the California Mining and Geology Board and a history professor from Occidental College. Some are participating because of their expertise in historic preservation (L.A.’s Office of Historic Resources, the L.A. Conservancy); others bring years of experience working with similar museums (Fisher). Two community representatives were also selected, in meetings and elections carried out independent of the Trust and the Autry, to serve on the committee. “The National Trust said that they weren’t going to be involved in picking them because no matter what, it’ll be our fault,” says Lieberman. “And the Autry was not involved at all.”

At the moment, advocates from a variety of sides and positions are gathering around a single table. Change couldn’t come soon enough, at least for the Autry. “The board has been demonized over the merger,” says Lieberman. “There are some who would have liked to just walk away from the Southwest completely and others who understand that, for the Autry to be successful, the Southwest has to be on a path towards success, too.”

A 1995 sculpture by T.D. Kelsey
A 1995 sculpture by T.D. Kelsey

Photo By: Spencer Lowell

For a sense of just how much the Southwest has accumulated, one must travel to the Autry Resources Center. Located along a stretch of Victory Boulevard dotted with auto parts stores and recording studios, the imposing two-story structure is almost the length of two football fields and houses 100,000 square feet of state-of-the-art storage. Enter one door from the gleaming white hallway, and you’ll find scores of baskets, each in its own sealed box, filling cabinets that nearly reach the ceiling. Enter another room to see sculptures—a bucking bronco, an Apache dancer in full regalia standing tall beside an old-timey movie theater box office.

Since much of the Southwest’s holdings, from snowshoes to blankets, are made of organic materials, the temperature and light and humidity are precisely controlled. To prevent fires, there’s what is called a Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus, a monitoring system so sensitive, it can home in on the smallest airborne contaminants, from smoke particles to the dust tracked in on visitors’ shoes. Sacred objects that Native American custom dictates should be handled only by men are clearly marked. Near the lobby is a ceremonial garden, a private space where tribal members will be able to interact with those objects. More research facility than repository, the center will open its doors in 2018 to scholars and students of every stripe (“We define ‘student’ broadly,” West says).

As for the rest of the public, it’s clear that most of the objects will remain out of view for years to come while the fate of the Southwest is debated. There’s general agreement among committee members that the Mount Washington campus will be, in some capacity, a museum, but what exactly is a museum in 21st-century Los Angeles? Younger audiences expect more than old stuff prettily arranged. They want to do things, interact with the exhibitions, maybe hear bands or watch movies. That’s why the new Petersen Automotive Museum features racing simulators and an interactive “Cars Mechanical Institute” (cohosted by Disney/Pixar) alongside the classic rides on display, and why immersive high-tech experiences are the hot draws at LACMA (Random International’s Rain Room) and the Broad (Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room). In a recent poll commissioned by the National Trust, craft fairs, film screenings, live music, and permanent museum exhibitions made the list of things people want at the Southwest. Maybe there will be a restaurant or a bookstore or a performance space—or all of the above.

As much as anything, though, people want the site to come back to life. “It’s an L.A. landmark and an icon in the truest sense of the word,” says Morris. “People see it, they recognize it, they navigate by it. So we’re trying to set aside the conflicts that happened in the past and really step back and think creatively about what this place could be for the next 100 years.”