Underground Culture


The new museum will include a rooftop sculpture garden and cafe.
Courtesy Tom Wiscombe Architecture

Downtown Los Angeles’s historic core is about to get its first major museum, if that’s what you want to call it. Local developer Tom Gilmore and architect Tom Wiscombe are teaming up on the complex project, which they are calling the Old Bank District Museum. It will be dedicated to contemporary Los Angeles art and located in the sub-basements, basements, ground floors, mezzanines, and roofs of three interconnected buildings along Main and Fourth streets.

“We’re going beyond the frontier of street level,” said Tom Wiscombe, principal at Tom Wiscombe Architecture and a professor at SCI-Arc. Gilmore, founder of Gilmore Associates, who has been a major player in the resurrection of the Bank District, calls the project “insanely organic.”


Designs are in the preliminary conceptual stages, but as of now visitors enter through the Fourth Street frontage of the Hellman Building and then proceed on a circuitous route through the Hellman, the Farmers and Merchants Bank, and the Bank House Garage. Treasures along the way include inter-connected basements containing more than half a dozen old bank vaults; large openings cut through walls and floors to give visual and pedestrian access from one space to the next (and to create what Wiscombe calls “three dimensional public space” in the cramped basements); and preserved treasures like old pneumatic tubes, submarine doors, and old mechanical equipment.

“It will be an underground museum in every sense of the word,” explained Gilmore, who added that the institution’s unusual architecture and art will evolve as the endeavor progresses. “There’s something beautiful about all the messiness,” he said.

At the highest portion of the project, Wiscombe is planning a rooftop sculpture garden above the Bank House Garage, including, among other things, a restaurant made of folded composite that cantilevers over Main Street; a large composite amphitheater facing the downtown skyline; and multi-level walkways. Composites are being explored, said Wiscombe, because of their lightness, resilience, and malleability. The roof’s first sculpture, Earthwave, a SCI-Arc-produced steel piece inspired by a Lebbeus Woods painting, was placed on the roof earlier this year (see below).


The museum’s collection, said Gilmore, will tilt toward the deviant, up-and-coming variety, an antidote to established museums and philanthropy in the city. It is still very much a work in progress. Gilmore said that he and his partner, Jerri Perrone, will fund the initial phases of construction and that the formation of the museum’s board has yet to commence. He hopes to begin demolition inside the buildings next month, start construction documents by next year, and complete the project by 2017.

Gilmore added that he now has a small window of time to get such an ambitious project approved; a time when the mayor, the local councilman (Jose Huizar), and other political players see the value of architecture. It also comes at a tipping point, when the area is at risk of gentrification. “I want to lock in the context,” said Gilmore, “not let it be destroyed in favor of commerce.”

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