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L.A. City Hall is one of painter's masterpieces

Joe Nicoletti has painted a lot of historic buildings and celebrity homes over the years, but City Hall remains a favorite subject.

December 23, 2012|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Joe Nicoletti applies the final touches of gold leaf to a frieze on the ceiling of City Hall's Main Street lobby originally painted more than 80 years ago. He first restored it 18 years ago.
Joe Nicoletti applies the final touches of gold leaf to a frieze on the ceiling… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Joe Nicoletti started out painting houses in New Jersey. These days, he paints Los Angeles City Hall.

Since a major renovation of the historic building began nearly 20 years ago, Nicoletti has been the city's go-to guy when a skilled hand is needed to restore a frieze or touch up a mural.

His most recent assignment — repainting the elaborately decorated ceiling of the Main Street lobby — took the 50-year-old Santa Monica resident two weeks and eight assistants to complete. His crew toiled at night, the better to stay out of the way of city bureaucrats, and Nicoletti livened the work space with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and the like. Around midnight, they would break for "lunch," usually takeout from downtown eateries such as Pete's Cafe or Cole's French Dip.

The last night of the job, Nicoletti and some members of his crew were finishing up a few final details. Some cracked plaster needed repairing, and a small section of gold didn't look quite rich enough. Nicoletti had brought several sheets of gold leaf that he hoped would do the trick.

"It's $1,700 an ounce," he said, waving the sheets like little flags. The gold is also edible, he added. "You can sprinkle it on some souffle."

He was standing atop precarious-looking scaffolding. An assistant, Luke Adkins, steadied the apparatus down below as Nicoletti excitedly pointed out noteworthy patterns in the ceiling's design. "This is a medallion, that's a ziggurat, and I think this is a cartouche," he said.

Then he dabbed some glue, pressed the gold leaf into place and gently peeled off the backing, as if applying a temporary tattoo.

"That is sweet," Adkins called up. "That is very nice. Man, you nailed it."

Nicoletti smiled.

His company, Chameleon Paintworks, has done custom jobs at downtown's Millennium Biltmore Hotel, an 89-year-old historic landmark, and for celebrity clients including Quentin Tarantino and Sting.

But there's something special about City Hall, he said. Over the years he has painted its hallways, ceilings and even the City Council chambers. He plans to bid on future contracts for restoration work in the building's rotunda and other areas.

"I'm really proud of this building," he said. "I like it a lot."

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