North America boasts plenty of auto museums, but in Green Bay, Wisconsin, an avid car collector has recast the automobile as art and opened The Automobile Gallery, an impressive 18,000-foot art museum and event space that showcases the artistry of cars. Unlike other car museums that focus on the history and function of classic cars, The Automobile Gallery, an uber-modern white, black, and red space, celebrates the color, the lines, the design, and the pure visual beauty of ‘accessible cars,’ those that many people remember from childhood.
The creative force behind one of downtown Green Bay’s newest attractions—and one that is breathing life back into a long-neglected area of the city–is William “Red” Lewis, a self-proclaimed ‘grease monkey’ and founder of the PDQ chain of car washes. Red, dapper, silver-haired and 80-something years young, has always been into cars. For more than 50 years, he worked in local gas stations, ran a tow company, and eventually invented the technology for touchless car washes. Along the way, he collected and restored cars. Today, he curates an impressive collection of nearly 50 cars ranging from a 1912 Maxwell, the oldest, to a low-slung, “Back to the Future” DeLorean with bat-wing doors.
“Dad’s always been into cars—cleaning them, restoring them, pulling them out of ditches,” says Becky Lewis, Red’s daughter and The Automobile Gallery spokesperson. Three years ago, Red suffered a stroke that with left him with aphasia, a condition that causes him to struggle to find the right words. Working in the auto gallery has improved his speech and Red can often be found chatting with Gallery guests.
“A while back, Red started saying he was going to retire,” Becky recalls. “He sold a manufacturing business he owned and started coming into the PDQ car wash offices. We love him, but we told him he really needed to find something else to do.”
Both he and Becky grin when she says this.
Red decided to plant apple trees and, being an irrepressible go-getter, he didn’t stop until he’d planted 1,100 of them. Then he made Hard Apple Cider, a crisp, fruit- forward cider they sell at the gallery’s bar. However, the fruit business didn’t offer him the allure of cars.
Always an avid collector, Red began buying and restoring cars at a lightening pace. Cars overflowed his yard. They filled his garage, so he built another. As his car collection grew, he began to wonder what would happen to all of these treasures after he was gone.
“He came to me and asked, “Becky, what are you going to do with all these cars when I go to the great car wash?” says his daughter, smiling broadly. “A month later, he told me he was going to refurbish this downtown building, donate the cars, and open a gallery so everyone could enjoy them like he does.”
The building, appropriately enough, was the site of the former Denil Cadillac dealership. It was also a mess. Becky recalls, “After Dad’s stroke, he’d say, ‘Finish the Gallery.’ I’d tell him, ‘This is something you need to finish.’”
The project became Red’s passion and his therapy. He didn’t want just another building with walls. He wanted a place that was open and light and bright; a showcase that would highlight the artistry of the automobile. He also wanted a unique event/meeting space like none the city of Green Bay had ever seen.
“We call it The Automobile Gallery because the cars are the art,” Red tells me, his speech showing few signs of his stroke. “We don’t have any car signs or gas pumps. We’ve got just the cars because that’s what it’s all about—the colors, the designs of the cars.”
Red has donated 35 of the nearly 50 cars in the collection. Others have been donated or are on loan from car buffs around the world. He insists all the cars be restored to original condition and be drivable. He keeps three independent contractors busy working on and restoring cars at an off-site location.
Red also wants to feature cars that are ‘relatable;’ cars that we or our parents or grandparents drove. He calls them “real people cars.”
There are lots of muscle cars—beefy Cameros, Chevy Supersports, Mustangs, a lime green Dodge Charger, a Buick Electra—all looking showroom new. There’s a low-slung race car, mounted on the wall at a dangerous, nearly impossible angle. “These are cars that come with stories and family histories,” explains daughter Becky.
One of the cars in the collection that holds a special place in her heart is the DeLorean. “Dad bought this car when I was 16,” she says. “He’d park it in the driveway and one day I backed Mom’s station wagon into it. It took months to get the parts from Europe to repair it and every week I had to pay off the insurance deductible. After it was fixed, Mom did the same thing and smashed into it. Dad learned to park it on one side of the drive way.”
Another is a Corvette that belonged to John Bergstrom, who owns a Green Bay car dealership and the local newspaper. The Corvette was John’s pride and joy, but, during a difficult period, he was forced to sell it to meet employee payroll. He’d love to buy it back. Red insists when he’s gone, John is welcome to buy car.
Meeting Space Like No Other
Located close to downtown hotels, The Automobile Gallery is a sleek, timeless space that opened January 1, 2016. Since then, it’s become one of city’s favorite venues. Nonprofit and corporate meetings and events are often held here. They’ve even hosted weddings and receptions. There’s a large gathering space between two auto galleries with a full bar and a $1.5 million catering kitchen that offers banquet seating for up to 128. Guests can hold events and meetings and meander amongst the classic cars with volunteer Gallery “pit crews” to guide them.
One of the coolest meeting spaces is the second story conference room with a half wall that overlooks the car collection. In addition to having one of the best views of the cars, it features all the latest integrated multi-media tools, including an 80” HD LED display, an HD 8500 lumen projector, touch panel controls, web conferencing with full HD camera, and video and audio conferencing capabilities.
And, of course, never satisfied with the status quo, Red has built two additional buildings to host more and even larger events. They recently hosted 600 guests and plan many more.
As Red Lewis strolls The Automobile Gallery, he pauses in front of a aqua Chevy Super Sport and lightly runs his hand along the car’s flawless front fender. He says softly, “It’s all about the art of the cars.” – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor