The Mullin Automotive Museum, which opened last month in Oxnard, California, is one of the most imposingly beautiful car collections in the country, on display in one of the nation’s most nondescript locales. Peter Mullin, a Brentwood businessman and chairman emeritus of a multibillion-dollar executive compensation and benefits planning firm, has parked his curvaceous French art deco machines in a 1990s tilt-up warehouse, in the middle of an industrial park on converted farmland flat as an iron skillet. Before Santa Monica architect David Hertz revamped it, the building literally was the architecture of nowhere.
The museum houses more than 50 Bugattis, Delages, Delahayes, Talbot Lagos, Hispano-Suizas, and Avion Voisins. The cars are marvels of engineering, speed, and design—sweeping, hand-hammered fenders and coaches built around aluminum chassis and super-charged straight- eight and V12 engines. No other automotive designs have so successfully alloyed pure sumptuous sensuality to a blast of raw, roaring horsepower.
After rejecting a proposal to remodel the structure in a literal interpretation of streamline saloons, cabriolets, and racers, Mullin recruited Hertz to give the museum an identity without succumbing to idolatry. Hertz, known for developing the lightweight concrete Syndecrete, and for his ongoing Wing House (made out of pieces of a Boeing 747) in Malibu, has intervened with restraint. “The sophistication of the cars speaks much more eloquently than any attempt to mimic them,” he said.
The tilt-up previously held Times-Mirror scion Otis Chandler’s assemblage of muscle cars and motorcycles—a California surfer’s obsession. Oddly, Chandler had never bothered to adapt the bland structure to suit the image of his collection. The museum remained a warehouse, complete with a single door leading to a small office that was the “foyer.” To get to the showroom, you passed a typical front desk, as if you were going to inspect an overseas shipment stacked in cardboard boxes, and not some very valuable, and beautiful, cars.
Hertz’s instincts are good. He attacked the building head-on by punching a large entrance into the off-street side of the huge concrete shell, while essentially leaving the rest of the building alone. Hertz then deepened the opening and installed an inverted stair-step lintel composed of clear anodized aluminum plates with exposed rivets (inspired by the monocoque frames of early Bugattis).
A canopy made of dozens of Ford Econoline van windshields laid onto a sloped steel framework—referring, obliquely, to the Paris Metro canopies of Hector Guimard—covers a landscaped patio. By extending the building envelope outward to claim the driveway and inward to seize hold of the interior, Hertz has offered not just a sense of procession—sorely lacking in the prior incarnation—but he’s blasted the orthodoxy of his surroundings. This warehouse has style and an appropriate sense of grandeur.
Along the street side of the building, Hertz draped a flat scrim several hundred feet long. It includes three abstracts—versions of the rear fender, the roof, and the front fender of the 1938 Talbot Lago “Tear Drop.” At the corner near the parking lot, he added a perforated metal grille the height of the building, announcing the “Mullin Automotive Museum.” Nothing bold here; just enough to shed the anonymity that otherwise would permanently cloak the museum’s identity.
A few strokes complete the interior. Hertz blackened the ceiling, punched an elevator shaft straight through the roof, where he added a deck—a complete anomaly in a landscape of unused flat roofs— and purposely laid out the museum on its long axis to unveil the collection as slowly as possible. Hertz also convinced Mullin to make the building largely energy self-sufficient (although there are no plans to pursue a LEED rating). The rooftop includes 20 wind turbines, 132 solar panels, and an 830-square-foot green roof, not to mention spectacular views of the nearby Los Padres National Forest.
The 60,000-square-foot project, which took eight months to complete, cost about $6 million. “That’s less than the cost of any one of the cars in the museum,” quipped Hertz. Well worth the price for providing a subtle sense of identity, while shrewdly loosening the confining boundaries of industrial park architecture.