Sometimes at the beginning of a project the client comes to the architect with a project goal that seems like it just might be too challenging or insolvable. When a husband and wife pair of car collectors had purchased an old plumbing warehouse and wanted to convert it into a pristine and cool showroom for their 18 antique cars.

The first challenge was just to figure out a way to fit the cars. Even using lifts to raise a number of the vehicles up, it took quite a few iterations of design to figure out how it would be possible to fit the required number of cars.  To make sure they fit we collected the width, length, and height of every vehicle in the collection and drew a three dimensional diagram of them all in their proper locations and worked out a pattern to make sure the vehicles could actually be loaded and unloaded into the space.

The next challenge was figuring out how the high space could actually be heated in the wintertime to the point where it would be a comfortable place to work on and enjoy the cars. For that A4 Architecture devised a radiant heating system contained within the slab and avoiding the support points of the lifts. Not only did this offer the most comfortable and energy efficient solution, it avoids reheating air that might contain carbon monoxide.

The challenge after that was perhaps the hardest of all. How could an old and anonymous prefabricated “Butler Building” be made into a hip and cool home for a DeLorean, Ferrari and other extremely stylish cars? The DeLorean from the Back to the Future series provided the inspiration for the design. What if the ruggedness of the structure was emphasized in a “steam punk” solution and allowed to counterpoint the sleekness of many of the cars?

Slightly different colored panels covered the upgraded insultation to look like metallic sheets, allowing signs to other memorabilia to be mounted anywhere that was desirable. Copper pipes for air hose were left exposed. The heavy steel trusses were painted metallic silver as if they were parts inside a giant mechanical device. Instead of mundane overhead doors, frosted plexiglass doors were selected so that natural light could enter the interior and yet protect the vehicles from visibility and ultraviolet light. The owners were open to the creative and sometimes crazy ideas we offered, and the end products built during the COVID epidemic so the challenges did not end at design.

The Damon  Company, an excellent construction partner, was selected to do the construction and did outstanding work from beginning to end. Work commenced and the budgets and schedules continued to be met and in May of 2020 the project was completed, and the outcome was beautiful, surpassing everyone’s expectations when the first visit to the derelict old plumbing warehouse marked the start of the project.

Newport is quickly becoming the east coast destination for antique cars with the construction of the Newport Car Museum (actually located into nearby Portsmouth) and the Audrain Car Museum, situated less than 100 yards from the entrance to the International Tennis Hall of Fame located at the Newport Casino. The exhibition gallery for the museum can display more than 14 of the more than 200 vehicles in the collection and the exhibitions is changed four times annually so there are new vehicles to see and new stories to learn. These institutions have drawn internationally renowned car collectors like Jay Leno to acquire homes in Newport and participate in active car collector community that is growing within the city.

Acknowledging not only the quality of the Rhode Island personal car museum project but also the rising importance of Newport County as a car collector destination, Garage Style Magazine, the premiere publication on luxury car storage subject, published an extensive profile on the project in the May 2021 edition.

So it just goes to show: even when you start a project under challenging circumstances, sometimes the outcome will get published in a magazine and the challenges of the project make the successes all the sweeter. A4 Architecture was pleased to be invited along for the ride.



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Ross Sinclair Cann (AIA, LEED AP) is an historian, educator, author, and practicing architect living and working in Newport for A4 Architecture. He is the founding Chairman of the Newport Architectural Forum and holds honors degrees in Architectural History and Design from Yale, Cambridge, and Columbia Universities.