Driving through Tacoma, a city 30 miles south of Seattle, you might get lost on your way to the LeMay America’s Car Museum. But once you get there, you can’t miss its aerodynamic, curved metal-clad shell, as long as a football field, rising from the ground—a nod to the chrome plating that has adorned many an automobile. The museum is located on a 9-acre campus with a 3.5-acre show field, across the street from the Tacoma Dome, a sports and concert arena. The museum, which opened on June 2, hosts the largest collection of antique and vintage cars in the world.
The planning, design, and construction of the 165,000-square-foot museum has taken a decade, at a cost of $60 million. The late Harold LeMay, the owner of a waste-management business, acquired over 3,000 cars during his lifetime. Along with his wife Nancy, they established a nonprofit organization in 1998 to create a museum to display his collection. The city of Tacoma then donated over $10 million in land, and secured a $1 million planning grant. Los Angeles–based Grant Price Architects (GPA) were hired to lead the design.
Entering the museum is like approaching the mouth of a cave. The entrance, a simple glass wall beneath the corrugated metal roof, hides the immense depth of what lies behind—a pavilion with three levels buried underground that can hold up to 500 cars. The entry, explained architect Alan Grant, executive director of GPA, was inspired by a Victorian train entrance he saw in Europe when he was younger: its deceptively unassuming front disguises a grand interior.
Beyond the ticket lobby, the museum begins in the expansive main gallery—over 300 feet long and 100 feet wide—featuring highlights from LeMay’s collection, including a white, red, and brass 1906 Cadillac Model M, a 1930 Duesenberg Model J, and a 1954 Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe Eight. Floors are a dark gray concrete and the ceiling resembles the skeleton of a ship’s hull, wrapped in laminated Oregon spruce timbers, a material selected for practical concerns as much as aesthetic ones. GPA originally considered using steel, but fireproofing was too expensive.
With cost closely shaping the design, repetition was paramount. The LeMay construction budget was close to $100 per square foot, a feat that seemed nearly impossible since the average museum usually costs around $400 per square foot.
In their research, GPA found that the only structures that fit within that budget were parking garages. So they turned to the garage for their design foundation. Pragmatically and thematically it works—the three underground levels each contain bays connected by gently sloping ramps that rise about 10 feet over 300 feet. Instead of requiring an expensive elevator, cars can be easily driven from floor to floor. And visitors have more choices: they can progress through displays by targeting one side of the building, or traversing each bay and ramp. Automobiles are arranged on ramps and bays in long, neatly ordered rows carefully lit to minimize glare on reflective finishes and grouped both chronologically and geographically.
“Museums should be simple, fun, and inexpensive,”said Grant.
Even as cities slowly shift away from the car as the preferred transportation mode, the museum is a reminder that the automobile still remains an indelible part of our culture, a pioneer in merging technology with design. With vibrant colors and an abundance of glass and mirrored surfaces, LeMay’s cars still recall the words of philosopher Roland Barthes, from his 1957 essay on the Citroen DS: “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals…conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”