The completion of the 8-year-long restoration of City Hall confirms something many have long suspected: Preservation is no longer a dirty word in Los Angeles.
Designed by Levin & Associates Architects in collaboration with Albert C. Martin Partners, the project undoes 70-odd years of neglect and careless additions, reviving the building's former luster. It includes carefully detailed restoration of all major public spaces and exterior cladding, a new entry floor to the observation deck as well as major structural work at a cost of $299 million.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 7, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Architecture review--A story in Friday's Calendar about the renovation of City Hall incorrectly stated the location of the Alhambra in Spain. It is near Granada.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday July 20, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Clarification--A July 6 Calendar review of the renovation of Los Angeles City Hall stated that the project was designed by Brenda Levin & Associates Architects in collaboration with Albert C. Martin Partners. Albert C. Martin was the prime consultant for project management, architectural design and engineering, and Brenda Levin was the historic preservation architect.
As in all such projects, the architect's task was not to conceive a bold new vision, but to re-create a past that has been washed away by time and neglect. It is painstaking work. Here, it is beautifully resolved.
As important, however, the effort to save City Hall is a testament to the city's growing sensitivity to its architectural history. In a city known for public buildings that often have the ephemerality of Hollywood sets, the restoration of City Hall revives a powerful image from an alternate past--a time of unchecked real estate speculation and muscular public works projects. As such, it is a critical component of the city's cultural identity.
Designed in 1925 and completed in 1928 by the architectural team of John Austin, John and Donald Parkinson and Albert C. Martin, the building served as an apt symbol for a city built on ephemeral illusions. Loosely modeled on the Beaux Arts style of Bertram G. Goodhue, whose downtown library was designed three years earlier and completed in 1926, its architecture is a seemingly loose blend of competing styles.
Approached from Spring Street, for example, the building is a model of Beaux Arts classicism. A ceremonial grand stair leads up to an imposing forecourt, flanked by two symmetrical wings. The Italianate court is framed on three sides by open arcades that are supported on Corinthian columns. A model of civic openness, the court is one of the city's most welcoming civic spaces. The building's 28-story tower rises behind it, its slightly tapered silhouette a bluntly phallic representation of the rising power of the city's business elite, capped with a pyramid-shaped, Egyptianoid tip.
Once inside, the architecture takes on a more Byzantine quality. The rotunda's dome is supported on a ring of heavy, marble-clad columns, with a cast-bronze chandelier hanging from its center. The marble floor looks as if it could have been torn right out of the Alhambra in Seville. That main space is flanked by two elegant barrel-vaulted corridors.
Other highlights include the bronze elevator cabs, whose reflective ceilings and frilly metalwork are Victorian in spirit, and the council chambers, whose timber ceilings and wood gallery have a slight Hearstian quality.
But despite that clash of styles, the design's strong formal symmetry gives it an unexpected sense of cohesion. The building was laid out in a simple cruciform plan. Its main formal axis runs west to east, from the exterior grand staircase, through the arcaded court and main rotunda to a secondary entry in back. A second axis runs north-south, linking the rotunda to the two wings. The result is a powerful architectural composition.
Yet the importance of the building--symbolic and aesthetic--wasn't apparent to everyone at first. Soon after City Hall was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, city officials began looking into the cost of the structural retrofitting. When the initial projections came in higher than expected, city officials briefly discussed building an entirely new structure. When they decided not to, some supporters of the Valley secession movement attacked the project as an example of downtown empire building.
Had the earthquake hit a few decades earlier, in fact, such arguments might have packed more punch, and one of the city's most important historic monuments could have been blasted into a heap of dust. But by the 1990s, that sort of callous indifference to the past was on the wane, and once it became clear that major work would have to be done to make the building structurally sound, city officials began to see the value of a conscientious restoration plan. Eventually, they decided to invest in first-rate work.
Under such circumstances, the project would seem to deserve unconditional praise. But the renovation has one critical flaw: A.C. Martin's awkward handling of the clash between past and present. The first and most glaring instance of that failure is in the forecourt, where an elevator for the physically disabled is brutally crammed into one corner of the arcade. The elevator's steel I-beam frame, painted a gray-green, is remarkably heavy-handed and destroys the symmetry of the court.