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The Sylmar Surprise

Some stunning discoveries are made on a tour of the Nethercutt building.


They call it the best-kept secret in Sylmar. When you walk into the posh San Sylmar building and see its 200 expensive vintage cars and antique mechanical musical instruments, you'll know why.

The building and collection seem out of place in a working-class neighborhood surrounded by factories, warehouses and liquor stores with window bars. The building, with 10-foot-high solid bronze Renaissance doors, is owned by famed collector and millionaire J.B. Nethercutt and his wife, Dorothy.

Free tours of the Nethercutts' famous collection are offered twice a day Tuesday through Saturday by reservation only. Oh, and there's a dress code: No jeans or shorts.

After checking in with the hostess, guests begin their tour in the underground garage, where there are some shining examples of coming attractions. The garage contains an array of restored vintage cars such as a 1930 Cadillac, 1913 Rolls-Royce and 1948 Tucker. Tunes from the early 1900s are played on an old phonograph while you browse.

"It's so wonderful to go back in time like this," says a woman in her 70s. "This brings back memories."

A few minutes later, curator Byron Matson, a handsome middle-aged man in a stylish navy blue suit, introduces himself to the morning's guests. He gives a brief history of the facility and leads the group of about 20 up to the Grand Salon, where the highlight of the car collection is housed.

"As you can see, this is sheer elegance," Matson tells the group.

He's right. The room is breathtaking, with black and dark green marble floors, long marble columns, crystal chandeliers and gold-trimmed railings. It looks more like a grand palace ballroom than an automobile showroom.

At the top of the staircase is a 1927 piano and a mahogany Tiffany clock that stands 10 feet tall.

The cars below are amazing, especially since they're in such fine condition. There's a 1906 Franklin, a 1912 Cadillac equipped with a mother-in-law seat, and a 1934 Packard Dietrich convertible sedan.

The most valuable automobile in the collection is a 1933 Duesenberg Arlington Torpedo sedan worth an estimated $5 million.

"None of the cars are for rent or for sale," Matson says. "And you won't see any of them in the movies either."

Up the stairs, on the third-floor mezzanine, is a collection of 18th century French furniture made of polished wood. One of the more interesting pieces is a large, hand-chiseled desk with gold trim and bronze casting, a replica of a 1769 desk made for French King Louis XV.

Nearby are large glass cases with Boehm porcelain, fine art and hundreds of radiator ornaments. Some of the ornaments are made of French crystal.

At the end of the mezzanine is a 1915 abstract silver sculpture standing 5 feet high and 6 feet long. It weighs 659 pounds and had to be repaired after being damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The walls of the next staircase are decorated with musical notes and clouds. They lead to the top floor, which houses a variety of vintage mechanical musical instruments, music boxes, orchestrions and a 1917 Wurlitzer theater pipe organ. "Orchestrions were used in ballrooms in place of an orchestra," Matson says. "There is an entire orchestra in there--a piano, accordion, percussion."

All the orchestrions are functional, and visitors sitting on antique chairs and couches that dot the huge room are treated to music.

There's a 1923 music box with a built-in violin, a 1929 hand-carved walnut piano and seven orchestrions from the 1850s.

Adjacent to the music room is an elaborate Louis XV-style dining room. Although the building was never their home, the Nethercutts often entertained there. They're both 83 now and haven't used the dining room in years, Matson says.

There's a large crystal chandelier similar to those in the palace at Versailles, a 160-year-old grandfather clock and a fancy antique wooden table and chairs to seat 16.

The tour ends with a musical sample from the Wurlitzer organ and a piano piece from an orchestrion.

"This is a real toe-tapper," Matson warns the group. "So get ready."

All of this in the heart of Sylmar.


San Sylmar tours, showcasing vintage cars and mechanical musical instruments, 15200 Bledsoe St. in Sylmar. Free tours Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. (818) 367-2251.

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