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Southwest Museum of the American Indian: Los Angeles' First Museum

Perched on the hills of the Arroyo Seco, the Southwest Museum opened its doors to the public in 1914. It's no exaggeration to say that it was the Getty of its era, and the city celebrated the Southwest Museum's arrival with good reason. Los Angeles now had a world-class museum with an immense collection of Native-American and Pre-Columbian artifacts (collected by Charles Lummis during his travels throughout the Southwest and South America) that rivaled anything the U.S. (This was an era before the provenance of Native American artifacts much interested museums.)

The city had Lummis to thank not only for the items in the collection, but also for his vision and perseverance. He deeply believed that public institutions played a positive role in the health and growth of cities, and where other institutions often focused exclusively on donors, he initiated discussions about the then proposed museum under the auspices the newly formed western branch of the Archaeological Institute of America. Through fierce advocacy and saavy fundraising, Lummis gained the support of city leaders and financial backing from attorney Joseph Scott. In 1907, he opened a temporary Southwest Museum in Downtown Los Angeles. Soon after, inspired by the notion that man should "climb for knowledge," Lummis acquired the land atop the hills across the Arroyo to build a permanent home for the museum.

The museum opened in 1914 and remains there today, overlooking Lummis' home, El Alisal, and the Arroyo Seco. The views afforded from the Museum are some of the most breathtaking in the region, and they provide a window into both the love affair many early settlers had with the area and the arroyo, as well as the expansiveness of Charles Lummis' genius. Unfortunately, almost a century later, the first museum in Los Angeles is closed to the public, with only portions available by appointment. The building is now owned by the Autry National Center and houses an archaeological research center, an extensive collection of local historical artifacts, and the Braun Research Library, which contains all of Lummis' writings.

 

An Advocate for Native Americans
Eliot Sekuler explains how Charles Lummis became an advocate for Native American rights and worked to preserve indigenous cultures and traditions.

 

Southwest Culture
Eliot Sekuler explains how the term 'Southwest' evolves as a location and aesthetic with the work and promotion of Charles Lummis.

 

Struggles
Kim Walters recounts the origin and subsequent struggles of the Southwest Museum to retain its integrity, building and history.

 

Staging the Southwest Museum
Suzanne Lummis describes how Charles Lummis used his social and political connections to promote and build a museum home for the Native American artifacts he has collected throughout his life.

 

Fundraising
Kim Walters on Charles Lummis founding the Southwest Society, the western branch of the Archeological Institute of America.

 

From the Southwest Archives
Kim Walters describes the wealth of riches in the Charles Lummis Collection, including literature, photographs and music, that provide a unique historical record of Spanish culture.

 

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The Southwest Museum of the American Indian was established in 1907 by the Southwest Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, with its Secretary Charles Fletcher Lummis.. Originally located in the Pacific Electric Building, the collections were temporarily housed in the Hamburger Building, shown here, until completion of the structure across Sycamore Park in 1914. | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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Early sketch of the Southwest Museum's new structure reveals a structure designed to resemble the original Alhambra in Spain. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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The Fremont Flag is raised by Elizabeth Fremont, daughter of explorer John C. Fremont, who carried the flag during his expedition. At the groundbreaking ceremony, November 16, 1912. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Lummis helped lay down the cornerstone of the Southwest Museum on December 6, 1913. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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The future site of the Southwest Museum, described in Los Angeles Times at the time of groundbreaking as "One of the most important foundations for education ever made in any part of the West." | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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"Colossus of Science Born on Museum Hill," read the headline in the Los Angeles Times at the time of construction. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Noted at the time of construction as "Los Angeles' Acropolis," the museum aimed to "Extend scope and become dominant factor in educational science," according to the Los Angeles Times article dated June 16, 1912. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Grading during construction, 1913. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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The building was designed by Sumner P. Hunt and Silas R. Burns, partners in the design of such noted buildings as the Automobile Club of Southern California and the Los Angles Ebell Club. Lummis collaborated with the architects in every detail. | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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The Southwest Museum's brand new structure opened its doors in August, 1914 with little fanfare due to its coinciding with the beginning of WWI and the disspiritedness of the directors from lack of funding to complete the counstruction. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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"Fine place to take Eastern guests...for it s the very essence of California," said the Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1914. | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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The jewel of the new structure was its Caracol Tower, overlooking the entire city region from the top of Museum Hill. Named after the Spanish word for 'snail,' it containted its signature spiral stairs. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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The entrance to the spiral stairs in the Caracol Tower. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Staircase from the Torrance Tower, named for Jared S. Torrance, one of the original financiers of the museum and founder of the City of Torrance. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Its collection of 238,000 Native American artifacts is one of the largest and most significant in the United States. | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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Limited accessiblity due to its lack of a driveway prompted the museum to contruct a tunnel on Museum Drive in 1919. The tunnel portal led to a waiiting room where visitors were taken up to the lobby in an elevator. | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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The indian Welfare League was headquartered in the Southwest Museum, and fought for the right of Native Americans to vote. | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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Designed by architect Gordon B. Kaujman, The Caroline Boeing Poole Memorial Wing was built in 1940 to house 14,000 Native American baskets. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Northern Californian carrying basket, possibly Atsugewi or Achomawi. ca. early 1900s. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Despite or because of its unique location, the museum with its world class collection struggled to have prominence in the public's eye. In 1950 the Los Angeles Times wrote, "By-passed by thousands of commuters daily...few of [them] know its name, and few have entered. Yet the Southwest Museum has stood for 36 years and is known the world over."
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Parking for the museum was not added until 1956. | Image courtesy of the Autry National Center
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Braun Research Library was constructed in 1977. | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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In 1984 after a major renovation, the Los Angeles Times remarked, "The Southwest Museum - all spiffed up and uncelebrated." | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
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The Southwest Museum merged with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in 2003, forming the Autry National Center. The museum has been closed to the public since 2009. | Image by Flickr user vlasta2, used under a Creative Commons license.
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The restoration efforts of the almost 100-year old structure has been at the root of many discussions since the closure of the museum to the public. | Image by Flickr user z.b.p. used under a Creative Commons license.

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