History museum set to step into future

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History quietly has begun a $115-million fundraising campaign and five-year renovation project to update the oldest segment in its string of connected structures in Exposition Park.

The renovations, already underway, include restoring the museum’s original 1913 rotunda, letting in a lot more light and girding it with modern earthquake protection. Existing exhibition spaces in the rotunda building and adjoining 1920s-vintage areas will be reconfigured to create six new galleries -- one of them a hall of dinosaurs to be lorded over by a T. rex named Thomas, who is expected to become a star attraction.

“I think that is going to be an iconic exhibit,” museum President Jane Pisano said Thursday. Besides showing off Thomas -- not yet exhibited and said to be the most complete fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex on the West Coast -- the gallery will evoke the Montana dig site where the museum’s chief dinosaur scientist, Luis M. Chiappe, unearthed the huge carnivore’s remains in 2003.


The museum is staying open during renovations; attractions such as the current dinosaur exhibition and the child-oriented Discovery Center have been temporarily relocated. New halls will open one by one as the project proceeds, said Pisano, adding that not all their themes have been decided. She projects that the first of them -- part of a near-doubling of the space devoted to those ever-popular dinosaurs -- will welcome visitors by September 2009.

The private, nonprofit foundation that has overseen the museum jointly with the county since 1965 still has far to go in the first major funding campaign in the foundation’s history. Pisano said about $19 million in pledges and donations has been raised so far, along with commitments for $23 million in government funding. That leaves about $73 million to be raised by a target date of 2012. The $115 million includes about $85 million for construction and associated costs, such as architects’ fees and interest payments on bonds, as well as $6 million a year for regular operations at the museum. The county covers nearly half the museum’s annual costs of about $26 million; it’s up to the foundation to come up with the rest from donations, investment earnings and door receipts.

The renovations will be paid for largely with proceeds from an $82.5-million bond issue floated April 24. The initial interest rate on the tax-free bonds is 3.7%, but that will fluctuate weekly with changing market conditions, said Stan Hazelroth, executive director of the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, a state agency that fronts for nonprofits such as the museum foundation, which can’t issue bonds on its own authority. It’s strictly up to the museum foundation, rather than the county, to pay the interest and principal over the next 30 years.

Analysts for two investors’ services, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, agreed that the fundraising campaign is “a major undertaking for this relatively small organization” that historically has generated “modest philanthropic support,” as Susan Fitzgerald, a Moody’s analyst and specialist in the nonprofit sector, put it in her report. But both services predict that the museum’s established cultural significance to L.A. and good prospects for growth on its board of trustees should see it through. Still, the natural history museum foundation is accustomed to raising about $5.5 million annually, according to Moody’s, not the $23 million per year it needs to average during the five-year campaign.

In 2002 the natural history museum announced that the noted New York architect Steven Holl had won a competition to design a reconstruction costing up to $300 million, a project contingent on county voters passing a bond issue that would have funneled $98 million each to the natural history museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

After it failed, the art museum quickly moved ahead with a revised plan anchored by a $60-million donation from Eli Broad; Renzo Piano’s $156-million LACMA expansion and reconfiguration is scheduled to open in February.

Pisano said the natural history museum’s planning wasn’t as advanced, and with its original 99-year lease with the state due to expire in 2010, prospective donors needed assurance that the museum had a home over the long haul. Pisano said it took five years to negotiate the 75-year lease extension signed last October, which freed the museum foundation to move ahead with its campaign.

The current renovations, overseen by the L.A. firm Co Architects, are not a scaled-back substitute for the 2002 proposal, Pisano said, but a precursor to an eventual, hoped-for demolish-and-rebuild of the museum’s nonhistoric sections that Holl remains signed on to create -- if and when enough money is raised.