Founded on June 11, 1994 by magazine publisher Robert E. Petersen, and his wife Margie, the $40-million Petersen Automotive Museum is owned and operated by the Petersen Automotive Museum Foundation. Previously located within the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the museum is permanently housed in an historic department store designed by Welton Becket. The building opened in 1962 as a short-lived U.S. branch of Seibu Department Stores, before operating as an Ohrbach's department store from 1965–1986. Six years after Ohrbach's closed, Robert Petersen selected the largely windowless site as an ideal space for a museum, where artifacts could be displayed without harmful exposure to the ultraviolet radiation of direct sunlight.
The museum has about 150 vehicles on display in its main galleries. The remaining half of the collection is kept in a "vault", located on the basement level of the building. Age restrictions and an admission premium are in effect to view the vault collection. The ground floor displays a virtual history of the automobile in Los Angeles, complete with vintage vehicles and buildings. The second floor houses both permanent and special exhibits. The third floor features the May Family Children's Discovery Center — an interactive exhibit where children can learn science through the workings of a car. The fourth floor houses an all-glass penthouse conference center, Founder's Lounge, and kitchen for corporate and private use. The rooftop conference center was originally built by Seibu as a restaurant surrounded by a reflecting pool.
Some of the cars and automotive memorabilia in the Petersen collection include:
The museum received a $100-million gift from Margie Petersen and the Margie & Robert E. Petersen Foundation in April 2011, which includes cash and the property the museum was leasing, as well as many of the vehicles belonging to the Petersens.
Museum in popular culture
On March 9, 1997, after a party at the museum, The Notorious B.I.G. got into an SUV with his entourage and drove fifty yards to a red light where he was murdered by an unknown assailant.
Orbach's department store is featured in a lengthy sequence in the 1988 film Miracle Mile.
The museum is destroyed in the 1997 film, Volcano.