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Koreatown Is Getting A Museum Celebrating Korean Americans. Here's A First Look

A sleek building almost appears like a space ship in a rendering
The Korean American National Museum will occupy the corner of Sixth Street and Vermont by its scheduled 2022 completion.
(Courtesy Morphosis Architects)
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A $32 million museum celebrating the Korean American experience is on pace to break ground in Koreatown next year.

New designs for the Korean American National Museum unveiled this week depict an airy, 17,000-square-foot building that mixes elements of Korean architecture -- including a courtyard you'd find at a hanok, or traditional-style house -- with dramatic modernity.

The first-of-its-kind museum is scheduled to be built by early 2022 on the corner of Vermont and Sixth Street on property leased from the city. The plot is currently used as a 57-space parking lot by the Department of Transportation.

A rendering shows people walking toward a rounded opening overhead.
The entrance to the planned 17,000 sq.-foot Korean American National Museum to be built in Koreatown.
(Courtesy Morphosis Architects)
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The museum has been a long time coming. The institution itself was founded in 1991 to plan and operate a physical museum space, and it has been producing exhibits and cultural programming in various galleries over the years. It just needed a permanent home. Executive director Shinae Yoon said that "it was important for us to do something now."

"A lot of first-generation Koreans who came over [to the U.S.] in the late '60s and '70s are now in their eighties," Yoon said. "We wanted to build something that was a legacy institution, not just for the people who came over but for future generations."

The museum will join other L.A. institutions devoted to chronicling the story of Asian Americans, including the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo and the Chinese American Museum downtown.

Light shines down into a modern courtyard area
The modern-looking museum will feature elements of traditional Korean design, including a courtyard you'd see at a traditional house, or hanok.
(Morphosis Architects))

Yoon said that other museum locations had been considered, including in Orange County, but it was undeniable that Koreatown is the "epicenter" of the Korean American community, which tops 300,000 in the L.A.-area.

When the Korean American museum project was presented to the city in 2012, the plan included building more than 100 rental units, with 10 percent set aside as affordable housing.

It was an effort to address the housing crunch facing the neighborhood, where the majority of renters are low-wage Latino workers. There was also a hope that the units would help pay for the operation of the museum.

But the museum's board abandoned the idea in 2018 after running the numbers because of "elevated construction costs," Yoon said. She pointed out that a whole slate of development projects had started to come online to meet some of the demand.

At that time, the board ended its relationship with Gruen Associates and hired Morphosis Architects to take on the project's re-design. Yoon noted that Morphosis, which had been serving as a consultant on the project, has a team that is predominantly Korean American.

People hang out in an exterior walkway leading up to an angled building.
The museum project initially included 100-plus rental units, but the plans were abandoned when the construction costs looked too high to the board.
(Courtesy Morphosis Architects)
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The museum project has gotten big assists from local politicians. Councilman Herb Wesson, who's had a tumultuous relationship with the Korean American community, had proposed the parking lot as a building site and helped secure $3.5 million from the City Council to fund the museum.

And this year, the state Legislature allocated $4 million to the project, thanks to L.A. politicians such as Assemblyman Miguel Santiago and state senators Holly Mitchell and Maria Elena Durazo, Yoon said.

The museum's organizers still have more fundraising to do. So far, they have drummed up $15 million to go toward the price tag of "$32 million, $33 million," Yoon said.

People walk down a short flight of what appear to be stone stairs coming out of an angled reception area
Fundraising for the Korean American National Museum is more than two-thirds of the way done. City and state officials have allocated $7.5 million.
(Courtesy Morphosis Architects)

Yoon said the goal is to buy the land from the city after the 10-year lease is up and expand the museum by converting some of the underground parking.

As part of its agreement with the city, the museum must maintain the 57 parking spots currently available to the public. Yoon said architects are designing the garage keeping in mind that once the obligation to the city is over, some of the parking can easily be turned into museum space.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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