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Pierce-Arrow Museum founder proposes ambitious expansion

James and Mary Ann Sandoro have big plans for the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum.

Actually, the biggest.

The couple plans to turn the exhibit space at Michigan Avenue and Seneca Street into what would appear to be the largest auto museum in the world.

They recently bought property east of the museum that, combined with the current museum, would create about 300,000 square feet of exhibit space. That’s two square blocks. Which would make the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum larger than the Miami Auto Museum at the Dezer Collection, which at 260,000 square feet ranks as the nation’s largest.

The Buffalo museum also would eclipse the largest car museums in Europe: the National Automobile Museum in Italy (200,000 square feet), the National Automobile Museum-Schlumpf Collection in France (200,000 square feet), and the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Germany (177,000 square feet).

The Sandoros expect the enlarged museum – already an international attraction with its Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station – to be a can’t-miss destination for car aficionados from around the world.

It also would give them a chance to unbox and display their extensive collections – not all automobile-related – in one place.

“The dream has been to have it all under one roof,” James Sandoro said. “We hope it will become very valuable as far as tourism, and that’s what we’re all about – tourism.”

Sandoro expressed confidence that should the Buffalo Bills build a downtown stadium, it would not be located on the current museum site. A state-commissioned study released in January identified Seneca Street between Michigan Avenue and Chicago Street – the length of the planned museum – as one of three potential downtown sites for a new stadium.

To make one continuous steel-structured building for the museum, the Sandoros plan to seek the purchase from the city of North Carroll Place, legally but not yet identified as Frank Lloyd Wright Way, which runs between Seneca and Exchange streets. That would allow them to connect the current museum to the former Ethox building property that they bought in November. The alternative would be a bridge, which Sandoro said would drive up costs and detract from the concept.

That newly purchased property – actually four connected buildings, ranging in size from 2 to 3½ stories – would add 177,000 square feet to the current 60,000-square-foot museum.

James Sandoro estimated that an addition between the buildings would cover 70,000 square feet, and that even more could be added if he decides to build two stories instead of one.

Parking behind the former Ethox building would provide spaces for 225 cars. Solar and possibly geothermal energy also would be considered.

Sandoro said he has collected more than a quarter-million artifacts – more than enough to fill the addition. “We already have the artifacts to put in there. We don’t have to acquire anything else to display,” he said.

Sandoro said that the project would cost about $10 million and that he hopes it can be completed by 2020.

“We have some very, very great benefactors who I know will be interested in making this a reality,” Sandoro said.

Sandoro expects to eventually launch a capital campaign to help raise the needed funds. He also hopes to receive state grants to help pay for the project.

“People overuse the words ‘world class,’ but this is going to draw the world,” Sandoro said.

The Wright Filling Station, which opened last June, is in a 40,000-square-foot glass-and-steel atrium. The site has drawn thousands of people to see what Wright once planned at Michigan Avenue and Cherry Street. Sandoro wants to use the Wright Filling Station and his extensive collections – including 80 vintage automobiles and collections of carriages, bicycles and trucks, as well as historic signs, toys, model cars and planes, train layouts, furnishings and clothes – to re-create a streetscape of early 20th-century Buffalo. A Buffalo facade would be painted on the walls.

Sandoro is also considering recreating the Dan Montgomery Steak House, a one-time Buffalo institution at 160 Exchange St. He acquired many of the handcrafted artifacts, including leaded-glass windows, light fixtures, cast-iron pieces used in the dining room, furnishings and antique kitchen equipment 30 years ago.

“We have a really fabulous collection. These are things I forgot about because we put them away so long ago,” Sandoro said.

Although the number of cars he owns is less than the hundreds found in some other car museums, Sandoro said it was never his intent to possess a sea of automobiles. “Too many cars bore me. That’s why I love memorabilia that highlight automobiles,” Sandoro said.

Last year’s paid admissions to the museum numbered around 18,000, he said. He expects paid attendance to reach 40,000 to 50,000 annually, citing the corporate parties, special events and high-end trade shows that help keep the museum going.

The Sandoros’ Buffalo Motor Car Catering Co. serves private gatherings, such as the coming Father’s Day events that are expected to draw more than 2,000 people. The couple, who married 44 years ago, have lived the entire time a short distance from the museum. They see their collection as a gift to Buffalo.

To maintain the museum after they’re gone, the Sandoros have arranged for everything, upon their deaths, to go to the not-for-profit museum.

email: msommer@buffnews.com