City Beat

Sacramento’s forgotten auto museum drives ahead

The California Automobile Museum has launched a fundraising effort to pay for much-needed roof repairs.
The California Automobile Museum has launched a fundraising effort to pay for much-needed roof repairs. Sacramento Association of Museums

There’s a warehouse across the street from the city animal shelter on Front Street, near the Sacramento River in downtown. It’s got a huge gravel parking lot out front, feral cats living out back and a leaky roof. Oh, and the air conditioning and heat barely work.

If you’re into old cars, it’s the most beautiful barn in the city.

But the California Automobile Museum often gets overlooked and often seems to be in trouble. Very few people seem to know it’s there, although it does attract 55,000 visitors a year. When city officials talk about revered cultural institutions, they rarely mention the auto museum.

Now, once again, the museum is trying to reinvent itself a bit, with a new director and a new fundraising effort.

The museum renewed its lease with the city last month. As part of that agreement, the museum vowed to raise enough money to fix the roof, which will likely cost about $500,000. “One of the things about this very special building is that it rains indoors,” said new museum director Delta Pick Mello, adding that museum staff have mastered the art of placing the cars in spaces where they aren’t damaged by water.

The $200-a-month lease has given the museum an injection of stability. But because life is never easy for this forgotten museum, the agreement with the city comes with a couple of caveats.

If the museum foundation doesn’t show the city by Feb. 1, 2017, that it has the cash to fix the roof – and doesn’t substantially complete the work by Aug. 1, 2017 – the city can terminate the lease with 30 days’ notice, according to a city staff report.

There’s more. The museum stands smack in the middle of what is known as the Docks – a proposed development calling for 1,000 homes and office high-rises overlooking the Sacramento River. The project has gone nowhere and is barely a footnote on downtown’s list of big plans; the most updated reference to the project on the city’s website is dated December 2009.

However, the city still holds out hope that something will be built someday. And, according to the staff report, “if a developer is identified for the development of the Docks project ... the proposed agreement provides that the City can terminate the lease (with the museum).”

Think they would do that to the Crocker?

The auto museum probably gets ranked below other city institutions for a few reasons, even though it’s been around for nearly 30 years. Its marketing efforts have been uninspiring, its location is convenient only for those adopting a dog or cat, and – because it doesn’t receive direct city aid – doesn’t get the same attention from public officials as the Crocker or other public institutions.

But there’s something very Sacramento about the collection. Gov. Jerry Brown’s 1974 Plymouth Satellite – the car he drove during his first term in office – is there. There are many extravagant and pricey autos on display, like the 1987 Lamborghini Countach 5000SQV owned by Malcolm Forbes and a 1933 Lincoln KB that was owned by Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini. But a lot of the other cars are models that the working person of the time in Sacramento could have owned.

It will be on Mello to make sure the Auto Museum survives. She has a background in this line of work; she was membership and community relations director for the California State Railroad Museum Foundation for eight years and was the long-time director of marketing and community relations at the Sacramento Zoo. And she drives a gold 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle convertible.

“We struggle with being a little old museum,” she said. “But we want to be known as great.”