July 11, 2013

Couple plan to spend $15 million on combined Sacramento car and natural history museum

A wealthy couple who have hunted exotic creatures around the globe are making one of the largest private donations to a cultural institution in Sacramento history.

A wealthy couple who have hunted exotic creatures around the globe are making one of the largest private donations to a cultural institution in Sacramento history.

Auto sales magnate Paul Snider and his wife, Renee, have pledged $15 million – plus their personal collection of mounted bears, lions, rhinos and other creatures – to construct a 178,000-square-foot combination natural history and automobile museum on Front Street, at the site of the current California Automobile Museum. The couple have asked to purchase the land for the museum from the city for $1.25 million and, if it is approved by the City Council later this year, could begin construction next spring.

The Sniders' contribution to the museum towers over a smaller plan they abandoned six years ago to construct a natural history museum on the California State University, Sacramento, campus to house their taxidermy collection. That proposal was abandoned amid a faculty uproar. The Bee later reported that university officials had helped the Sniders get permission from the government of Tanzania to hunt exotic animals – some on the brink of extinction – in the African nation.

City officials and leaders of the California Auto Museum have lauded the Sniders' current plan as just the kind of investment needed for an underused stretch of waterfront that the city has for years worked without success to redevelop. The couple are not asking for a public subsidy, the city said.

Situated in the shadows of the Pioneer Bridge, the museum land is bordered by a PG&E facility, an undeveloped bike path and the city animal shelter. A residential and commercial development dubbed the Docks stalled with the downturn of the economy.

"This is a pretty impressive start for the area," said Stacia Cosgrove, a senior planner with the city.

The existing auto museum building would be torn down to make way for the new facility, which would house 100,000 square feet of display space for historic automobiles, a 100-seat theater, a cafe, classrooms, event space and a gift shop.

It would be a huge upgrade for a museum now housed in a 72,000-square-foot warehouse with a leaking roof.

"The cars are fabulous; the building stinks," said Karen McClaflin, executive director for the California Automobile Museum.

The natural history museum portion of the facility would be smaller, at 60,000 square feet. It would be filled with animals and cultural artifacts from the Sniders' collection, said Bill Samuelson, who works for the Sniders. The animals would be arranged in dioramas similar to those found in the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Many of the country's established natural history museums contain animals donated years ago by contributors who hunted and killed the creatures.

Sitting at a small table in the kitchen of the couple's Elk Grove estate Tuesday, Renee Snider said the Sacramento State saga was "a huge disappointment to us," but that she and her husband have moved on to the new plan.

"This community has been good to us, and we just feel this would be an asset," Snider said.

Despite the uproar from the previous proposal, the Sniders' recent plan has so far received no public opposition, at least none that city officials are aware of, Cosgrove said. The project will receive its first public airing today before the city's Planning and Design Commission.

Current plans call for construction to start in 2014 and for the museums to open by mid-2015. The design shows a building clad in a translucent polycarbonate that would be lit by a changing palette of colors at night. The facility would be owned by a nonprofit.

The Humane Society of the United States, which has long criticized the practice of trophy hunting, decried the plan.

"Animals shot as trophies are not art worthy and do nothing to educate the public about the animals, their habitats or behaviors," said Jennifer Fearing, the Humane Society's California senior state director. "This pledge merely highlights the arrogance of people who travel to all ends of the earth seeking out opportunities to shoot and kill animals like rhinos, elephants, leopards, lions and bears so they can drag their trophies back home."

Despite hunting on six continents over 35 years, Renee Snider considers herself a conservationist and said the animals she and her husband have shot and mounted will serve as vital educational tools for generations. She said the couple often target animals that are overpopulated and that they are playing an important role in the cycle of life.

"It's a balance," she said, "and there's a harmony for everything."

The Sniders have long sought to remain out of the public's view. Renee Snider refused to be photographed by a Bee photographer this week and her husband was not made available. Even with their $15 million gift, the couple do not want their name on the museum.

"Why should we?" Renee Snider said. "Who cares? We don't care."

As unprecedented as the Sniders' gift might be, the couple are themselves singular.

Paul Snider made his fortune selling automobiles, an endeavor he began decades ago on his uncle's used car lot in Turlock. Snider eventually opened a Volkswagen dealership on Madison Avenue in Sacramento in 1965, growing his brand to include seven dealers and 22 smaller franchises.

At 86 years old, Snider still puts on a suit and tie each day and heads to an office. His wife said she wants to keep him busy and out of the house.

Like other large homes on their narrow tree-lined street in rural Elk Grove, the Sniders' estate is surrounded by a gate hiding manicured flower beds and a grand driveway. A life-size rhinoceros statue stands on the front lawn.

Inside the home, which the Sniders have owned for about 20 years, dozens of mounted animals are on display.

There's the Marco Polo sheep bagged by Renee Snider at an elevation of 17,000 feet in Tajikistan, where the temperature was 35 degrees below zero. There's the polar bear she shot in a sea of ice inside the Arctic Circle, where the temperature was 55 degrees below zero.

There are wolves and a giraffe, lots of deer and a Himalayan tahr. The couple have five lions, two leopards from Tanzania on display in a jungle scene and a Canadian lynx.

All of these specimens will one day be given to the museum, Renee Snider said during a tour of her home Tuesday.

"Look at how nature has put every piece of wildlife together," she said. "How do you explain that? It's everywhere, it's in everything. I can stand back and be in awe of the beauty of wildlife."

The Sniders' home already has the feel of a museum, and Renee Snider gives tours to church groups and schoolchildren. In addition to the stuffed animals, a series of pens on the 15-acre property house partridges and ring-necked pheasants. Geese, ducks and a family of swans float peacefully on a pond.

As Renee Snider walked through the yard, she paused with her beloved birds, tossing small pieces of bread.

"Hello, babies," she said.

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

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