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You Can Fete City Hall : Although It Shows Wear and Tear, Landmark Is Honored on 65th Birthday

April 24, 1993|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As proud as ever but a little worse for the wear, Los Angeles City Hall has reached its golden years with some grunts and groans but no desire to give up its day job.

The landmark municipal building, which will undergo a major face lift to bring back its past splendor, celebrated its 65th birthday Friday with a subdued celebration appropriate for such a dignified edifice.

"Sixty five is young," said Councilman Ernani Bernardi, 81, who has had an office in City Hall for 32 years. "I've seen a lot of beautiful 65-year-old women--and older. Age has nothing to do with beauty."

The building has had an action-packed life so far--the scene of bombings, riots, suicides and shouting matches. Heads of state and the homeless have spent time inside.

When not fulfilling official city business, the building has moonlighted as a Hollywood extra. It was the Daily Planet in the old "Superman" television series, was destroyed by Martian invaders in the movie "War of the Worlds," and has been transformed into the Vatican and the U.S. Capitol.

Despite its glamorous past, age has taken its toll on the Byzantine-style, 28-floor building that is the city's fourth City Hall.

The air-conditioning system is a wreck. The plumbing is vastly out of date. An exterminator comes by every Saturday to take care of the ants, carpet fleas, mites, cockroaches and other pests that have taken over its hallowed halls.

The striking murals and tile work that cover walls and ceilings have been soiled with grime--a combination of built-up wax, cigarette smoke (now banned in the building) and smog. In addition, the hallways have been worn by years of foot traffic.

"I hear people say: 'Tear it down,' but I don't agree," said Ed Hunter, the superintendent who heads all maintenance in the building. "It's not as efficient as a modern building, but it represents a different era and the technology they had back then impresses me. It takes more effort to keep it running, but it's worth it."

Crafted with painstaking care at a cost of $4.8 million, City Hall's building materials included sand from every California county and water from each of the state's 21 missions. The domed rotunda, where Police Chief William H. Parker lay in state in 1966, features elaborate marble mosaics and, in the center of the floor, a brass design of an old Spanish ship.

The city long ago outgrew City Hall's 20 acres of floor area, but it never turned its back on the building. Instead, it constructed more modern, though less attractive, additions nearby--known as City Hall East and City Hall South.

Bringing back the building's original glow is the goal of Project Restore, a public-private partnership that has started sprucing up the building's Main Street lobby.

"We're giving this building a face lift," said Georgia Rosenberry, president of the group that has raised more than $2 million toward the effort. "We intend to bring back the appearance it had back then."

The group intends to restore the building's original light fixtures and install replicas of the original elevator cabs. A gift shop will be built on the second floor to sell City Hall souvenirs.

Along with the renovation, a major structural reinforcement is under way to make the building earthquake safe. Cracks can be seen on many walls, the result of past temblors, and the top of the stepped, pyramidal tower has been closed to the public because of safety concerns.

On Friday, the song "Happy Birthday to You" rang out in the building as students from Mar Vista Elementary School gathered in the cathedral-like council chambers, where marble columns are decorated with the seals of the first 48 states.

Politicians paid tribute to the building, a place where they have spent a good chunk of their lives, and Rosenberry received a proclamation honoring the city's most famous structure.

"At a time when our communities are besieged by violence and hopelessness," the proclamation said, "while our sense of identity appears to be shaken, our treasured civic landmarks such as City Hall can become the beacons of hope, unity and optimism."

The staid gathering was a far cry from the bashes the building held as a youth--starting with City Hall's inauguration on April 26, 1928. Irving Berlin sang, President Calvin Coolidge pushed a telegraph key in the White House that lit a beacon atop the building, and 32,000 marchers and 34 bands passed by.

Still, the pride that surrounded the building's opening lives on. For many--including the regular crush of tourists and nearby workers who take the time to look around--City Hall is not just another suite of offices.

"It stood alone on the city's horizon at 480 feet for years--until we built all those skyscrapers around it," said Albert C. Martin Jr., son of one of the three architects who designed the building. "This building will always be special to me."

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