Museum of Automobiles

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Wednesday, June 05, 2019


Born to power and wealth, Winthrop Rockefeller was a long way from his New York society roots when he first saw the breathtaking views atop Petit Jean Mountain in Arkansas. And yet, so captivated was Rockefeller that he purchased 927 acres of mountain top land. His family seemed unsurprised by Rockefeller’s choice to take up residence in a state with poor economic and political conditions whose citizens cited failing schools and a lack of health and dental care as primary concerns.

In the 1930s, Rockefeller left Yale University in his junior year to work in the oil fields of Texas. Later he joined the Army serving as an Infantry Commander in the Pacific during World War II where he was awarded the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and Purple Heart. Rockefeller wanted to get his hands dirty and experience life like the every-man, by which garnering lessons which would serve him well in his business and political dealings. According to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute website, brother Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, said, “Win found himself in Arkansas.” While brother David Rockefeller, president of Chase Manhattan, said, “It was just what he wanted and needed.”

Rockefeller settled into life in Arkansas as a cattleman and philanthropist. He was a successful head of the newly formed Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC) as well as being a patron of many charities, including helping to create the Arkansas Arts Center. In 1966, he was elected Governor or the State of Arkansas and served for four years and, upon leaving office, stated that he hoped his legacy would be that of “a catalyst who hopefully served to excite in the hearts and minds of our people a desire to shape our own destiny.”

Prior to becoming governor, Rockefeller built a state-of-the-art facility atop Petit Jean to house his collection of antique and classic automobiles. The building is described in its National Register nomination form as:

The Museum of Automobiles Building is an early and unusual example of a tensile structure, especially in Arkansas.The building was built in 1964 and designed by the Little Rock architecture firm of Ginocchio, Cromwell, Carter, Dees, & Neyland.The Museum opened to the public on October 18, 1964.The building is built on a continuous cast-concrete foundation and has walls built out of cast-concrete panels and cast-concrete columns.The front façade of the building is fenestrated with large plate-glass windows while the other facades are devoid of fenestration.The four corner columns, from which the tensile cables stretch, are connected by cast-concrete beams that form a compression ring.The roof of the building is clad with a membrane and copper sheets, and slopes towards the building’s center following the drape of the tensile cable system.

The tensile cable system, while not a new design idea, was not widely used in structures and especially not in Arkansas. The Museum’s current look is very much the way the original architects envisioned it—a wide open space with a sweeping roofline and dramatic columns that form the supports for the suspension cables.

Many of the original automobiles came from Rockefeller’s personal collection and the collection he purchased from James Melton who once displayed them, along with other artifacts, in the Autorama in Hypoluxo, Florida. When Rockefeller died in 1973, the memorial was held at his beloved Museum. The museum closed in 1975 and all but Rockefeller’s personal vehicles were sold to Harrah’s Museum in Nevada. 

In 1976, a group of businessmen reopened the museum with a collection of 33 cars loaned from surrounding car clubs. Today, the Museum sits on land owned by the State of Arkansas. The building is leased by the Museum and open to the public showcasing 50 cars ranging from a 1904 Oldsmobile to a 1967 Ford Ranchero (once owned by Elvis Presley), as well as motorcycles and a unique vehicle called the 1923 Climber Touring, which was manufactured in Arkansas and touted for its off-road abilities. Visitors can also see a collection of antiques guns, arcade machines, and other memorabilia.
As of May 2019, the Museum of Automobiles is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because the “Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction.”


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