Southwest Museum

Southwest Museum — Los Angeles Explorers Guild

Southwest Museum

High above Los Angeles from its perch overlooking the Arroyo Seco in Mount Washington, the Southwest Museum has the distinction of being the first museum in Los Angeles.

The Southwest Museum of the American Indian has sat atop a hill in Mount Washington for 107 years. Anyone who’s drive down Figueroa Street or along The 110 Freeway has seen its tall Caracol tower, inspired by The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, standing vigil over Northeast Los Angeles.

The Southwest Museum in the 1930s. Photo via the Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection.

The First Museum in Los Angeles

In a city full of museums, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian is notable as the first museum in Los Angeles. It was founded by journalist, preservationist, and self-appointed savior of native peoples Charles Fletcher Lummis in 1907. Reports indicate it was first located in Downtown Los Angeles and was moved to its current Mount Washington home when construction of the museum building was completed in 1914.

A modern view of the towering Southwest Museum. Photo from the author’s collection.

This new location, which looked down on Lummis’s home, El Alisal, offered easy access from both the Yellow Car line (the Metro of its day) and automobiles and contained plenty of space to house Lummis’s impressive collection of Native American artifacts.

The building was designed by architect Sumner P. Hunt, who designed many buildings in Los Angeles in his day (most notably the Bradbury Building and Echo Park Clubhouse) with his sometime-partner Silas Reese Burns (also responsible for the design of many Los Angeles buildings).

Subsequent additions to the museum included the Caroline Boeing Poole Wing of Basketry (added 1941), established to house an extensive exhibit of Native American baskets, and the Braun Research Library (1971), offering access to a significant number of books, maps, and recordings pertaining to the American Southwest.

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Over the years, the popularity of the Southwest Museum steadily declined. It was on the verge of permanent closure when it, along with the nearby Casa de Adobe, was bought by Griffith Park’s Autry Museum in 2003. These two historic sites were subsequently renamed as the Autry’s Mt. Washington Campus.

Under stewardship of the Autry Museum, a vast majority of the items on exhibit at the museum were removed and placed out of the public eye at the Resources Center of the Autry in Burbank (210 S Victory Blvd; said to be opening sometime in 2022). There they have remained for nearly twenty years.

Today, a visit Southwest Museum — once home to the largest collection of Native American artifacts in the United States — takes less than 20 minutes.

A Hollow Shell

Suffice to say that a visit to the Southwest Museum is, well, disappointing. Right now there are two only exhibits: “Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery” and “Making a Big Noise: The Exploration of Charles Lummis.”

The pottery on display is beautiful and the variance is styles over time and a variety of geographic regions makes for interesting viewing, but due to the many empty spaces in the exhibit where pieces have been removed for restoration, it feels incomplete.

Pueblo pottery exhibit at the Southwest Museum. Photo from the author’s collection.

The other big exhibit focuses on Charles Lummis, the museum’s founder. While Mr. Lummis was instrumental in bringing awareness to the plight of Native Americans and jump-starting preservation of Los Angeles landmarks, has been criticized for focusing his love of Native American culture of the Southwest region while all but ignoring the Tongva and Chumash people of Southern California.

Charles Fletcher Lummis exhibit at the Southwest Museum. Photo from the author’s collection.

There are a few other artworks on display, such as one statue of a Navajo woman and a three paintings from Native American artists. But overall, the museum feels empty.

Even the Caracol tower, which features a spiral staircase and offers visitors panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, remains off limits.

Tunnel into a Museum

Because the museum sits high on a hill, parking space has always been limited. Walking up the steps (now closed due to instability) was tedious for some visitors. So in 1919, an elevator, accessed via a long tunnel off Museum Drive, was added that allowed for easier access to the museum’s exhibits.

The Mayan-themed entrance to the Southwest Museum’s tunnel off Museum Drive. Photo from the author’s collection.

Historically, the alcoves along the tunnel once held artifacts and dioramas, but those have been removed by the Autry Museum and placed into storage with the rest of the Lummis collection.

The tunnel to the Southwest Museum. Note the empty alcoves. Photo from the author’s collection.

Future Plans for the Southwest Museum

The Autry doesn’t really know what it’s going to do with the Southwest Museum, but it’s pretty clear that the Mt. Washington Campus won’t be used to display the Lummis collection (all those pieces are said to be in the Burbank facility), which is a shame.

But they also can’t tear the building down — on August 29, 1984, the site was placed on the list of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments (as number 283). It’s also been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2019, the Autry, working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, put out a Request for Interest, a call for “community-focused” ideas about what might be done with the site. There hasn’t been much ion the way of progress yet, but you can see the latest developments (if any) at National Trust’s Southwest Museum site.

In the meantime, the Southwest Museum is open on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is free.

Southwest Museum

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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