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Design Notes

Masters of Renovation

City Hall's $299-million upgrade involved light, stone and paint experts.

July 12, 2001|CANDACE A. WEDLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The $299-million renovation of City Hall is nearly complete, and it's time to recognize some of the craftspeople who did the work. The public spaces of the 1928 building house extensive mural paintings, iron, stone and tile work, all of which was painstakingly retouched, preserved or redone. To give a sense of the process, we talked to painting, lighting and stonework conservators.

The painting work areas included the decorative wood panel ceilings around the edge of the rotunda, as well as decorative panels and murals on the walls and vaulted ceilings along two central corridors. The painters, on scaffolding or scissor lifts, had to clean the original pigment, much of it 25 to 30 feet up. Ray Kraves oversaw the painting restoration for Patrinos Painting's Playa del Rey office. He said they cleaned all painted surfaces by hand, using soft cotton cloths, cotton balls and distilled water. "This place was filthy. Really dingy," he said. The crew of 10 included two decorative painters--Evan Wilson and Armand Herreras.

Once the surfaces were clean, the delicate operation of matching the original paint and design began. "The decorative painters are artists," Kraves said. He described how they worked with a palette of colors, mixing and matching, sometimes adding pigment to a glaze, filling in and touching up to match the original paint and design. Using artists' brushes, they matched the original strokes, and when done, applied two coats of reversible varnish.

Kraves said the north and south corridors were in terrible shape when they started. A mural of an angel had a peeled segment the size of a football.

About 10% of the time, murals turned out to be canvas attached to the walls. Where the canvas had formed bubbles, conservators used a hypodermic needle filled with glue to reattach it..

In many places, paint came off down to the plaster. Sometimes a conservator had to paint a single spot a half-dozen times to achieve the desired effect. It took three months to complete the project.

The same amount of time was needed to repair the stonework, according to Oscar Alanis, who works for the Carrara Marble Company of America Inc. based in Rosemead.

Marble and other stonework had to be removed and then the same slabs reinstalled after the building's walls were retrofitted for earthquakes. The workers also did some resurfacing, including taking off built-up wax. They also polished the marble floors, walls and columns.

Alanis mentioned that they found old bottles (one of Jack Daniels) and newspapers from the 1920s behind the walls. L.A.'s City Hall was designed in 1925 and completed in 1928, during Prohibition.

Alanis said extracting the marble to expose the walls required "very minute, very fine" work. The marble slabs, he explained, were tight at the joints. "We had to extract without any joints because the stones were so tight together. The challenge was not to chip." They had to cut the copper anchors to release the interior marble and then pull out sections with suction cups where one could not grab a joint. The average chunk of marble was 3 by 3 feet, 3/4 of an inch thick and 150 pounds. Some were as big as 4 by 8 feet, 21/2 inches thick and 1,200 pounds. For blueprint purposes, every piece was numbered and photographed.

One of the primary features in City Hall's restoration is the reinstallation of the rotunda's elegant chandelier. It was one of the 350 lights either worked on or replicated by ELA Lighting in the City of Industry. Clark Scott, vice president of custom division, said nearly 115 fixtures were restored and the rest are exact replicas.

The chandelier, which had been stored in a City Hall basement since the 1970s, was in pretty decent shape, Scott said.

"These fixtures had a gorgeous aging look. What is pretty typical of its time--you find different types of metals on one fixture." Even though the majority of the chandelier is bronze, some of the panels were cast in aluminum. "The finish over the non-bronze metal was such high quality that most people were not aware of the mixed metals," Scott said. "We were amazed how the original artisans did an incredible job to match the paint to the actual natural patina bronze finish."

The chandelier had been stored in five crates, and some of the original glass had been broken. All of the old glass was replicated with hand-blown amber glass. The 2,000-pound light was retrofitted electrically, installed with fluorescent lights instead of incandescent, and a dimmer was added. It took three days to fully assemble and install the 30-foot chandelier in City Hall.

"The most amazing thing is the quality of the craftsmanship of the era," Scott marveled. "The chandelier would have cost over $200,000 today to replicate. That's the fun part of a restoring job--seeing the level of the craftsmanship and detail which is cost-prohibitive today."

Candace Wedlan's e-mail is candace.wedlan@latimes.com.

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