Tunnel trouble below the Southwest Museum

Rising high above the homes and trees on a Mount Washington hillside, the fortress-like main tower of Southwest Museum is designed to command attention – and it does. But for many museum visitors, especially generations of school kids who arrived by bus, their first notable impression of the museum comes at the base of the hill, off a side street. Here, they walked under an elaborate Mayan-style portal and through a more than 200-foot long tunnel, lined with dioramas depicting Native American life, before boarding an elevator that rises 100 feet to the museum above. This passageway, built in 1920 to make it easier to reach the hilltop museum, is still there and open but needs some major restoration work. This week, however, a group of Southwest supporters at odds with the museum’s owners – the Autry National Center – revealed that the Autry has turned down a $160,000 grant to repair the tunnel. It’s a decision that many Southwest supporters viewed as the most recent example of the Autry’s lack of commitment to the Mount Washington landmark. “This is a strange and illogical way to be a responsible steward,” said a statement issued by the Friends of the Southwest Museum.

The California Cultural and Historic Endowment had awarded the Autry $162,000 to water proof and repair the electrical system in the passageway. But that covered only about half of the $324,000 needed to make the repairs, said Autry spokeswoman Yadhira De Leon. “Due to the current economic climate the Autry was unable to raise the matching funds needed to move forward with the project at this time,” de Leon said in an email. “No funds were ever received from the funder. So, there were no funds to return. In the future if CCHE makes the grant available we will definitely resubmit an application. The project is simply postponed.”

The entrance tunnel and elevator, which were completed in 1920, were built to make it easier for visitors to reach the hillside museum. There was even discussions to build yet another tunnel to reach Figueroa Street (then called Pasadena Avenue). The second tunnel was never built but the opening of a nearby Gold Line station on Marmion Way raised hopes that more visitors arriving by trolley would use the tunnel.

Anyone who had walked through tunnel recently might have found it a bit depressing, said Nicole Possert of the Friends of the Southwest. “They removed all the dioramas [for resoration] and it’s a sad experience of caution tape and holes for the art.”

The recent decision to cut back on public access to the Southwest and postpone the tunnel restoration means the passageway will remain in the dark indefinitely, Possert said. “It would appear that the tunnel won’t be accessible to the public for years to come.”

Top image from the California State Library website; bottom image from the Friends of the Southwest Rehabilitation Study.

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