Dispatch from SWM Site Steering Committee

Los Angeles Public Library photo

View from the south, circa 1915

View from the south, circa 1915. Photo source unknown

HPHT Archives Update from Highland Park Heritage Trust “Our Cornerstone” Summer 2017 newsletter

Dispatch from Gideon Kracov, member of the Southwest Museum Site Steering Committee

The Southwest Museum was opened in Mount Washington in 1914 by Charles Lummis, a
visionary journalist, multiculturalist and historian. In 1932, the Southwest Museum began to focus primarily on Native American culture. The Museum’s collection of Native American art and artifacts is considered one of the most important and comprehensive of its kind.

In 2003, the Southwest Museum merged with the Autry Museum of the American West. At that time, the Autry assumed responsibility for the site’s historic buildings (which include the museum and the 1917 Casa de Adobe, a large, hand-built adobe structure that was intended to be a replica of a historic early California rancho); its approximately 12-acre campus; its archive including an extensive library and photographic collection; and over 250,000 ethnographic and archaeological artifacts. While the Autry has undertaken the careful documentation, conservation, and preservation of the museum’s vast collection of art and artifacts in its new Resources Center, and stabilization of the historic museum building to correct earthquake damage, the Autry and the community have not yet been able to establish a path forward on the most viable, appropriate, and sustainable use for the site, which remains significantly under-utilized.

The Southwest Museum site was declared a “National Treasure” on January 22, 2015, by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With this designation, the National Trust kicked off a complex, multi-phased planning process that included intensive stakeholder interviews; an online survey; a year-long event series to draw new audiences and communities to experience the site in new ways; and the formation of a Southwest Museum Site Steering Committee to work with all stakeholders to explore the future of the site.

Since December of 2015, I have had the privilege of serving on the steering committee (https://savingplaces.org/swm-steeringcommittee) along with a group of 15 volunteers from across Los Angeles representing education, politics, preservation, philanthropy, government, museums, Native American and tribal issues, and the North East Los Angeles community. I am an environmental and land use lawyer, and have lived in Mount Washington since 2006. I joined the Highland Park Heritage Trust as a member earlier this year and have been very impressed with its passion and professionalism.

There are two official community representatives on the steering committee—Frank Parrello (a founding member of the Highland Park Heritage Trust) and Carol Teutsch, an ongoing member of the Highland Park Heritage Trust. They have been doing an amazing job as liaisons to local residents and neighborhood groups. Frank, Carol, and the whole steering committee take very seriously our charge of working together with the National Trust, the Autry Museum, Council District 1, and the community to find the best outcome for the Southwest Museum and the Casa de Adobe, because these places are such an important part of our neighborhood and greater Los Angeles. The steering committee has been reaching out to stakeholders like the Highland Park Heritage Trust, considering community priorities and needs, analyzing with expert consultants the demographics and market potential for the site, researching operating models and budgets of comparable historic sites and museums across Los Angeles County, understanding local educational needs, grappling with the considerable financial costs of restoring and operating the museum site and the Casa, and exploring a range of potential partnerships. We want to be solution-oriented and constructive.

These efforts are starting to pay off. Some exciting potential partnerships have emerged with longstanding, reputable Los Angeles institutions and groups that meet the steering committee’s stringent requirements:
-A deep commitment to rehabilitating the historic buildings;
-An organizational mission to work with the local and Los Angeles community, and to use the museum site and the Casa in ways that enhance their history and legacy, and support the community’s needs;
-The financial and organizational capacity to successfully tackle the large rehabilitation and operating costs in a way that will be financially sustainable over the long run; and
-A willingness to make the historic museum collection a significant component of the site’s future use.

The potential partners are in the process of conducting due diligence to determine if their organizations can make the needed investment in the preservation and operation of the museum and Casa buildings and grounds.

Given the capital improvement requirements, it is not a decision that they take lightly. The steering committee is giving them ample time to do the necessary research and financial analysis. They understand that engagement with the community and all stakeholders will be key to a successful future.

The latest update is that the potential partners are making progress and, if all goes well, we look forward to having them introduce themselves and share their ideas with the Highland Park Heritage Trust board and members, and many other community leaders and groups later this summer. All our fingers are crossed that there may be a good fit! Stay tuned!