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Preservation effort begins for Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum’s Auburn administration building

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Photo courtesy Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.

When the founders of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum moved into the headquarters of the company that built the cars they intended to celebrate back in 1973, so much dirt and dust covered the building’s main showroom floor that they couldn’t see the terrazzo floor’s original Art Deco geometric designs. But that floor – and many of the building’s other original elements – had somehow remained intact over the decades, and now the museum aims to preserve intentionally what had once been preserved incidentally.

“Part of our vision statement is to have the museum open, in this historic structure, sharing the story of automotive innovation for the next 500 years,” said Kendra Klink, the museum’s chief operating officer. To ensure that happens, however, museum officials not only need a full assessment of what aspects of the administration building they need to preserve but how to go about preserving it and how much that preservation effort will cost the museum.

To that end, the museum has hired an architectural firm – Indianapolis-based Ratio, which was originally founded with a focus on historical preservation – to complete a Historic Structure Report, funded by a recently awarded $38,232 grant from the Jeffris Family Foundation’s Heartland Fund and by another $38,232 from the museum itself.

“We’ve done some tuckpointing projects over the years and have put interior storm windows in to preserve the look of the facade, but this report will tell us what needs to be done now to preserve the building for the future,” said Laura Brinkman, the museum’s executive director. “We see the report as a bible on how to keep the building here; it’ll prioritize what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.”

Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum

Photo by Jim Donnelly.

Built in 1929 on Auburn, Indiana’s South Wayne Street for Auburn Automobile Company according to a design by architect Alvin M. Strauss, the two-story 120,000-square-foot building – including its 12,000-square-foot grand showroom – only served its original purpose until 1937. Following the demise of Auburn and E.L. Cord’s automotive empire, the building went on to serve a variety of purposes. Dallas Winslow, who bought the assets of Cord’s empire at bankruptcy auction in 1938, used his vast supply of parts to restore Auburns, Cords, and Duesenbergs out of the building over the next few decades. A used car dealership, motorcycle dealership, and a machine shop went into the showroom at various times. A clothing company – complete with rows upon rows of sewing machines – operated out of the building’s second floor.

Museum staff, in turn, began to revert as much of the building to its original appearance before the museum opened to the public. Their efforts paid off in 1978 with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and in 2005 with National Historic Landmark status.

“The goal of these designations is to save old buildings with guidelines and stipulations on how to preserve them,” Brinkman said. “For example, they don’t want you to change the facade at all, but they do allow you to do things to keep it working and in use.”

As far as what the building needs to continue operating for the next few hundred years, both Klink and Brinkman said the study will identify more specifics, but Brinkman pointed out both major items to address – some areas of the building aren’t as watertight as they’d like – and minor – the decals in the windows should be actual gold leaf if they’re going to remain true to the building’s original configuration.

The study should take until the end of the year to complete. Once it is, Brinkman said the museum will hold a public presentation for the plan and eventually structure a capital campaign around the completed plan’s objectives.

“Like everything we do, it will all come down to money,” Brinkman said. “As we get funded, we’ll be able to do the things the plan calls for. The museum is, after all, our number one artifact.”

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