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Modesto's new American Graffiti museum will ‘build an actual city inside these buildings’

The museum is a celebration of the classic cars, sights, and characters that laid the foundation of George Lucas' "American Graffiti," which was based on Modesto.

MODESTO, Calif. — An immersive throwback to the classic cars and rock n’ roll of the 1960s might only be months away, and the journey to this throwback culminates in Modesto.

The designs of the Graffiti USA Classic Car Museum highlight a completely immersive experience, designed to taxi people from the modern day and drop them off at downtown 10th Street in the 1960s.  

It's an ambitious but simple goal. 

“We are going to build an actual city inside these buildings,” said Chris Murphy, a member of Graffiti USA Classic Car Museum.

The group hopes to feature classic radio stations, replicas of 10th and 11th Streets, a drive-in showing "American Graffiti," tributes to rockabilly, rotating classic car collections, a custom car shop, a George Lucas career history exhibit, and even a functional diner inside the museum. 

RELATED: George Lucas’ Modesto masterpiece | How American Graffiti got the city ‘right’

It’s meant to celebrate the classic cars, downtown drag strips, and characters that formed the foundation of George Lucas’s American Graffiti, a movie he made about growing up in Modesto.

The movie itself memorializes a big part of Modesto culture and history that changed as the city grew. 

“Modesto’s got a great history, although we don’t recognize it a lot… We’re trying to bring back to our true history, and this is a huge part of it,” said Doug Ridenour, another group member.

While the city has said goodbye over the years to historic landmarks like the Hotel Hughson, Strand Theater, and Hotel Covell, the celebration of “graffiti culture” has lived on for more than two decades with the Graffiti Festival, a more than 1,000 classic car cruise in the city.

“There’s an awareness in the community now that there probably wasn’t 10 - even 15 years ago - and the American Graffiti Festival has become the preeminent annual festival,” Murphy said.

RELATED: 'A way of life' | Modesto classic car lovers pay tribute to American Graffiti

The museum is a high ambition project that the group has intentionally kept low-key. 

“There’s been so many attempts over the last couple of years to do this. We just didn’t want this to be one of those things that didn’t make it,” Murphy said.

While the Graffiti Festival is a proven draw for crowds, Murphy said there’s a lack of elements outside of downtown and Lucas Plaza to show visitors coming to the big show.

“This is going to be one of these kinds of things that you can go to… half a dozen times a year with the family and probably see something new each time,” Ridenour said.

In a very literal sense, the group is hoping the new museum can put Modesto on the map for travelers. It could be a destination location along Highway 99 as people head to Yosemite National Park.

“I just see this as a huge opportunity for us as a city to showcase a big part of our city’s history, the 'graffiti' history of Modesto and what Modesto is about,” said Ted Brandvold, Modesto mayor and project architect.

Instead of Modesto's "graffiti culture" only being on display during the summer, the museum enshrines it as a year-round draw.

According to Cecil Russell, another group member, they’ve been making strides by investing out of their own pockets. They’ve laid a down payment on a building and done environmental studies. Along the way, they’ve even had help from a pro-bono architect, pro-bono engineers, and a pro-bono attorney. 

He said, with another $1.5 million, this project becomes real, and the first phase might become real in as soon as two to six months. 

“Our goal is to have the first phase open by the Graffiti Parade on the first of June,” Russell said.

The first phase is a welcome center highlighting their grand plans for the museum with the wings of the museum rolling later. The “Graffiti USA Welcome Center" will also have a space for education, a new a diner facade, show room, and gift shop.

Phase 2 rolls out the 10th and 11th Streets Downtown experience with radio history exhibit, retail building facades, Legends of the Cruise exhibit, and Classic Car Exhibits. 

Phase 3 is the roll out of the Modesto Classic Car Experience, a restoration garage, educational center, event and meeting space, performance stage, and drive-in theater space.

The group is in the process of getting a 41,000 square foot building at Coldwell and North 9 Street. While the museum roll out will happen in phases, the group is expecting a quick pace, possibly as soon as 2020, 2021, or 2022.

“We fundamentally believe that great cities of the future are only great if they celebrate their past... with our history of 'American Graffiti,' we’re the only city in the galaxy that can claim to be home of 'American Graffiti,'” said Murphy.

If you're interested in participating or donating, you can visit graffitiusamuseum.com to learn more on how to help the museum.

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