After more than a decade of discord over the fate of the Southwest Museum, one of L.A.'s oldest, most distinctive but most underused cultural sites, America's leading private historic preservation group is stepping in to help devise a workable vision for its future.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is ready to announce Thursday that it has added the 101-year-old, castle-like building in Mount Washington to its list of 55 "national treasures."
The designation recognizes architectural and historical significance, and declares that a property merits special efforts to ensure that it won't be undermined by physical neglect or a lack of money.
Over the next 18 months, the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust will gather ideas and build a consensus about how the site should be used. It will do an economic study to determine which options would be financially viable, then lay groundwork for raising the money needed to ensure the Southwest's future.
Officials of the National Trust say they want the discussion to be open-ended, with brainstorming and analysis of a variety of possible uses.
They could include reviving the fully functioning museum of Native American art and culture that the Southwest was from 1914 to 2006 or a radically different approach that might mix exhibitions with other cultural, educational or even commercial uses.
"Our goal is to have a consensus around a shared vision and have a business model in place" that will ensure the Southwest no longer will suffer the chronic lack of funding that has hamstrung its operations since the 1990s, said Christina Morris, director of the National Trust's Los Angeles office.
"It doesn't do any good to come up with a solution that is only going to be struggling financially," Morris said.
The Southwest Museum has been owned since 2003 by the Autry National Center of the American West, which took over from a financially staggering independent museum board that traced its origins back to 1907, when planning began for L.A.'s first privately funded museum.
The city's only older museum building is the rotunda section of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park, which opened in 1913.
The Southwest Museum was the brainchild of Charles Lummis, a journalist, adventurer and lover of native cultures who spearheaded fundraising and amassed the early core of what's now considered one of the world's largest and most important collections of art and artifacts of native peoples of the Western United States, with additional holdings from Latin America.
The Autry committed during the takeover to operate the Southwest Museum and safeguard its collection. It has completed a comprehensive conservation project on the collection but says it lacks the resources to run the Mount Washington site as a full-time museum in tandem with the main Autry museum in Griffith Park.
Exhibitions and operating hours at the Southwest were curtailed starting in 2006. Galleries were subsequently closed for several years. Now the site is open only on Saturdays, offering a single exhibition of Pueblo Indian pottery.
A vocal community coalition that includes homeowners' organizations and civic groups in Mount Washington and Highland Park has tried for years to pressure the Autry to do more, saying that a fully functioning Southwest would be an important educational and cultural asset for northeast Los Angeles and could drive economic development.
In 2009 the group Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition rallied opposition that derailed the Autry's $175 million expansion plan for its Griffith Park museum. City officials at the time refused to OK the expansion unless the Autry also guaranteed a return to full operations at the Southwest Museum.
The Autry abandoned the expansion and adopted a fallback plan that includes renovations to add exhibition space in Griffith Park without enlarging the building -- a tactic that skirted any need for approval by the City Council since it requires no additional takeover of city-owned park land.
Meanwhile, the Autry bought and began gradually renovating a warehouse in Burbank as a research center where its collections are now stored, including the Southwest Museum's holdings.
Barbara Pahl, who heads the National Trust for Historic Preservation's western regional office in Denver, said that the organization has been interested in the Southwest Museum for years, attracted initially by news accounts of the strife over its future.
"The amount of passion that has surrounded this museum makes it clear how significant and special it is," Pahl said. "This is a very important place and it deserves a future. We have to move past controversy and work toward shared solutions to reactivate it."
She said that trust officials waited for the most recent round of jousting to end before offering to act as a sort of mediator for the Southwest Museum's future.
Critics of the Autry's stewardship had sued in 2011 to stop the renovations in Griffith Park, hoping that would pressure the Autry to guarantee the Southwest Museum's future.
The Autry ended all communication with its adversaries, short-circuiting efforts by City Council member Jose Huizar to guide discussions about the site's future. Huizar represented Mount Washington until district lines were redrawn in 2012.
The lawsuits were dismissed last spring, clearing the way for renewed talks and information-gathering that will now be coordinated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and City Council member Gil Cedillo.
"I see this as an uplifting turning point in this saga that gets us out of the mired past and toward a collective and collaborative future," said W. Richard West Jr., the Autry's president. "It lifts us beyond where we have been, to get our sights on where we should end up."
West said that a study by city engineers estimated it would cost $26 million to $41 million to renovate the museum, which he considers a prerequisite to a successful future for the site.
Vital components such as utility systems need to be redone, West said. What its future use or uses might be -- and the Autry's involvement in them -- is something he now regards as open-ended. The Autry previously had sought a nonprofit partner, including an approach to Occidental College, in hopes of sharing the site and its operating costs.
"The Autry is perfectly happy to entertain a cultural dimension that looks to us for exhibits or programming, but it's a collective decision," West said. "You have to be open to any number of configurations. If [a new use] took it out of the hands of the Autry but served the community, we'd be open to it."
Funding possibilities -- including the prospects for tapping government funds and finding major private donors -- "is something we'll find out as we go along," West said.
Maren Dougherty, an Autry spokeswoman, said it has invested $14.5 million in the Southwest Museum since the 2003 takeover, with about two-thirds spent on conservation of the collection and the rest on operations and some retrofitting for earthquake safety.
Critics of the Autry's stewardship applauded the National Trust's involvement and its designation of the site as a national treasure, but said they're sticking by their goal of seeing the Southwest Museum restored as a prominent showplace for the collection sparked by Lummis.
"Looking for solutions that are sustainable is something we welcome," said Carol Teutsch, a member of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Roundtable, a steering committee for the community coalition that has opposed the Autry. "Our suggestion to the National Trust has been that [reviving a museum at the site] be the priority until it's proved nonviable."
The "national treasures" designation aims to generate national attention for chosen sites, creating fresh interest that could lead to funding from beyond their immediate communities. The "treasures" are historic sites that need help to ensure their future, but are not in danger of being razed or otherwise marred.
For those more dire cases the National Trust annually announces a list of the "11 most endangered historic places" in the United States, intended to rally support to save them.