Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Nethercutt Collection: The House That Merle Norman Cosmetics Built

Everyone's house has a smell.  Frustratingly, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the fragrance of one's own home because years of living in a particular aroma leave the olfactory senses distinctly immune (finally putting to rest the old saying that has been haunting me my entire life, "He who smelt it, dealt it").  As a child, I was especially concerned with the different smells of houses.  One of my childhood friends' homes smelled like a perpetual batch of buttery croissants was freshly baking.  Another's home smelled of wheat grass and sandalwood.  Yet another's home had the crisp and comforting smell of chlorine; his was the "cool" house featuring an architect-designed swimming pool with waterfall.  Having spent a good part of my childhood around families of much greater means than mine, I always assumed that if rich houses smelled rich, then our tidy but modest home must have smelled of festering bologna and day-old diapers.  Years of neurotic nose-blindness were laid to waste one fateful day when I walked into a "fancy" neighbor's home and was immediately assaulted by the stench of stone-cold goat urine.  Stale.  As one is loath to find a goat within the suburbs of Southern California, I committed each subsequent trip across their threshold to full-bloodhound mode, sniffing out the fetid source of the home's signature scent.  For reasons inexplicable, I always suspected their ancient family Bible, haughtily perched in the same location, silently bragging about the baptisms and marriages of Mayflower descendants and a commitment to Christian idealism.  I still don't know if that was the origin but I now know that the Bible was probably purchased at auction and that people of independent means can often smell like the product of incontinent "weens."  Yes, money needn't necessarily equate to the perfume of prosperity.

To wit, when passing through the bas-relief doors of solid brass into the
house that Merle Norman Cosmetics built, one is greeted by the rather
plebeian, if not entirely unpleasant, aroma of axle grease and rubber tires.

To adulterate Fats Waller's famous quote for my own pun-ny benefit, "One never 'nose,' do one?"  Nevertheless, while circling the soaring marble columns, taking in the grandeur of a mirrored, recreation deco-era auto palace filled with beautifully-restored antique automobiles lit by glittering chandeliers, one cannot escape the distinct whiff of wealth.  Started by Mrs. Merle Nethercutt Norman in the 1920s, the eponymous cosmetics company (currently helmed by her great-nephew) has, over the past nine decades, amassed a world-class collection of rarities, featuring priceless cars and automated music machines.  After many seasons of gathering dust on the wacky tacky adventure list, The Nethercutt Collection finally made its way to the top, happily finding us in sunny Sylmar, CA.

Housed behind the windowless edifice of a monolithic, late-'60s commercial building, the Nethercutt Collection was officially started by Norman's successor, nephew J.B Nethercutt.  His passion for collecting, restoring, and entering historically-significant automobiles into competition has been transformed from a hobby into a slightly-obscure but must-see destination for car enthusiasts, history buffs, and high-class hoarders everywhere.  Open to the public since 1971, the collection contains sports cars, executive sedans, luxury touring cars, roadsters with rumble seats, and even an Isotta-Fraschini.  "Have you ever heard of Isotta Fraschini?"   

I fell for the tonal stripes (a stock option) on the 1930 Ruxton in a big way!

One of the first electric cars

Besides an insipid fascination with things that are fast and shiny, Mr. Tiny is not a car guy - but the Nethercutt might have changed that.  In spite of the numerous Concours titles the Nethercutts have won for their amazing 1920s-30s automobiles, they are no snobs when it comes to vehicles of all makes and models.

It didn't matter that I was bigger than this four-seater Vespa,
I was in love with a pretty little surrey with the fringe on the top!

And I could never turn my nose up at a customized '79 lowrider Lincoln!

What we saw on the first floors of the collection would have been enough to keep our imaginations quite busy.  To see all of the crown jewels, however, one must venture onward and upward!

The landing of the grand staircase is home to the simultaneous-recording
grand piano on which George Gershwin played/recorded "Rhapsody in Blue."
It was a bit thrilling to be accompanied by Mr. Gershwin as we ogled Maybachs,
and Daimlers, and Rolls-Royces.

The uppermost floor of the collection, "Cloud 99," is accessed via the "Stairway to the Stars."
The one-and-one-half spiral staircase is decorated with gilt sconces and a swirling music
staff that is an actual transcription of the well-known song - the Nethercutt's favorite. 

Cloud 99 is a grand salon used for special events and corporate entertaining.  The bulk of the room is open, the walls lined with an unrivaled collection of nickelodeons and orchestrions (completely animated music machines that briefly substituted for live bands in beer gardens, restaurants, and dance halls before the introduction of the jukebox). 

The floor is covered by thousands of square-feet of green, hand-tufted
carpet with sculpted flowers, meant to evoke a field of wild flowers.

A large, oval-shaped dining room features large mirrors at either end, creating and infinite reflection of both the diners and the antique, crystal chandeliers.  The ceiling of that dining room is adorned with Classical frescoes in the style of Michelangelo.  Studying the heavenly subjects, a few faces stand out amongst the seraphim.

The J.B. Nethercutt's and their cherubic children!
Isn't this the best?!?!!  Sometimes having more money than you know what to do with is an AMAZING thing!!!

Whilst on Cloud 99, visitors are treated to demonstrations of the nickelodeons, orchestrions, and the mighty Wurlitzer organ (one of the largest in the world).  Understandably, video recording was strictly prohibited; oddly enough, I was one of the few people who obeyed the rules!

A small fraction of the organ's smallest pipes, is dramatically lit during the performance.

The beautiful, central figure on the largest of the orchestrions.

A primitive, psychedelic light at
the apex of a Wurlitzer Nickelodeon.

By the turn of the 21st Century, the Nethercutt Collection outgrew its home and a new building was constructed across the street, called the Nethercutt Museum, to house the bulk of the automobile collection, a library, and a Edwardian-era, private Pullman car. Each and every one of the cars is operational and is driven on regular rotation; with approximately 150 cars in the collection, I am astonished that they rejected my offer to become a full-time driver!

The Nethercutt Museum

The movie Tucker was a family favorite so it was a delight to see a beautifully-
restored model of the extremely-limited-edition, 1948 car of the same name.

Rudolph Valentino's car!!! 

The car that dreams are made of.
The 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II Town Car that once
belonged to Hollywood star, Constance Bennett

1937 Bugati

As a lover of miniatures, it was a treat to walk through the Pierce-Arrow Travelodge Trailer,
pulled by a matching Pierce-Arrow, and then find the scale-model of the same in a display case.
The only thing I couldn't understand was the pair of contemporary camping chairs; with so much
time, money, and energy put into the restoration, why couldn't we find some period-appropriate
chairs on eBay?!?!!  

"All Aboard!"
Mr. Tiny at Nethercutt Depot

Representing the golden age of rail travel, the 1912 Pullman private car (pulled by a 1930s engine)
includes multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, a fully-functioning kitchen, a dining room, and parlor.

The Nethercutt collection is so much larger than we could represent here (the hood ornaments alone would take a whole year to catalogue); so, if you've got a free afternoon to "sail away on a lazy daisy petal," then sail on over to the Nethercutt Collection.  Even if the household aroma may be decidedly automotive, the smell of J.B. Nethercutt's success is still very sweet.

"Stairway to the Stars" - Ella Fitzgerald

The Nethercutt Museum & Collection
15151 Bledsoe St
Sylmar, CA


Mr. Tiny


  1. When you come visit Nashville...which let's face it- is must go to the Lane Auto museum. It's fantastic and features weird and wonderful (sometimes one of a kind vehicles). I'm usually not a car person, and I love it!

    Also, I always wonder what my home smells like. Like what if I'm unaware that it has a crazy odor because it's too engrained in my nostrils!?!? When I was young I had a friend whose ice out of her refrigerator tasted weird. In fact everything tasted I didn't like to drink or eat at her house bc everything had a weird aura of burnt plastic. It was very off-putting so much so that I didn't look forward to sleepovers because I knew I'd inevitably have to drink something.

    1. I'm adding the Lane Auto Museum to my list immediately. The worst part is that you can't ask somebody what your house smells like/if it smells good because what are they going to say? A hot day at a garbage dump?!?!! I guess all I can do is Febreeze and hope for the best.