Long before the term “adaptive reuse” became widespread among developers and local governments looking to put tenants into empty buildings, automotive museums often filled spaces built for other purposes. However, in the 50-plus-year history of the parabolic-roofed building near Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, it has hosted only car museums.
In 1953, after Winthrop Rockefeller drove his 1951 Cadillac from New York to Arkansas, he bought nearly a thousand acres atop Petit Jean Mountain to establish Winrock Farms, a cattle ranching enterprise from which he would begin his political career in the Land of Opportunity.
As he built the foundations for his eventual run for governor, Rockefeller also built a sizeable car collection. In addition to his own cars and various cars drawn from other Rockefellers, he bought out at least a portion of James Melton’s Hypoluxo, Florida-based Autorama in 1961 after Melton’s death.
To house his collection, Rockefeller commissioned Ginocchio, Carter, Cromwell and Neyland, a Little Rock-based architectural firm that had designed a number of university and office buildings in Arkansas and that had already designed Rockefeller’s home, barn, and other Winrock Farms buildings. For the museum, the architects specified Virginia slate, Idaho spruce, and a cable-suspended roof that provides a clear span throughout the interior of the building.
Amid Rockefeller’s first campaign for governor, the Museum of Automobiles opened in October 1964; it went on to exist in its original configuration through Rockefeller’s death in 1973. Two years later, Bill Harrah bought the 68-vehicle collection for $947,000, or about $4.4 million in today’s dollars. Rockefeller’s estate donated the museum building and the 57 acres around the building to the state’s Department of Parks and Tourism.
However, thanks to the efforts of less than a dozen car collectors, led by Buddy Hoelzeman, the museum re-incorporated as a nonprofit and struck a deal to lease the building from the state. The museum re-opened in 1976 and has operated out of its original building ever since.
These days, the museum houses a number of Rockefeller’s cars, including the 1951 Cadillac and a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 limousine that Rockefeller used during his two terms as governor. The museum also has the only two remaining cars built in Arkansas, both of them Little Rock-assembled Climbers — one for display in the museum, and one for traveling to shows and events, according to Hoelzeman. President Bill Clinton’s Ford Mustang once was on display at the museum, but has since returned to the Clinton family, Hoelzeman said.
At a time when other museums are foundering, Hoelzeman said, the Museum of Automobiles has managed to remain afloat thanks in part to its unique ties to the state.
“We’re fortunate to have a good group of donors who are generous to us,” he said. “And we also get a break from the state on the building.”
State representatives pursued the listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Hoelzeman said, largely due to the unique construction of the building.
For more information on the Museum of Automobiles, visit MuseumofAutos.com.