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Los Angeles City Hall and Civic Center

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Picture of Los Angeles City Hall from Temple Street Sister city sign near City Hall Top of City Hall with fan palms Picture of steps outside the original entrance to Los Angeles City Hall City Hall and Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain Top of City Hall, with trees Picture of bronze doors of the Spring Street entrance to City Hall Corridor on third floor of City Hall City Hall rotunda Picture of Los Angeles City Hall rotunda Vaulted ceiling of corridor in City Hall Photograph of chandelier in the Los Angeles City Hall rotunda

Los Angeles has a reputation as a place where the past is eagerly discarded whenever it gets in the way of something new and glitzy. And where history is relevant only to real estate developers who need romantic-sounding or cryptically distinctive names for strip malls and housing tracts.

As with many snarky stereotypes, that reputation is at least somewhat deserved, particularly in the sprawling suburbs. But Los Angeles City Hall proves that Los Angeles officialdom can take history very seriously when they want to. And along with two 21st-century palaces of bureaucracy across the street from it, City Hall also proves that Los Angeles officialdom take themselves even more seriously.

The iconic top of City Hall’s tower, with its stepped pyramid and multi-level colonnades, was supposedly inspired by the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. That grandiose fourth century BCE tomb of the Persian governor Mausolus was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. The overall design of the building also seems to owe an uncredited debt to Bertram Goodhue, designer of the Nebraska State Capitol (which has a similar plan of a tower on a base, and was considered an exemplary modern monumental design) and the Los Angeles Central Library (which features a pyramid rising from the center of its roof). The Library had recently opened when architects John Parkinson, John Austin, and Albert Martin began designing City Hall.

To further burnish City Hall’s historical credentials (and perhaps to further enhance its pretentiousness), the architects mixed water from all 21 of California’s Spanish-era missions, and sand from each of the state’s 58 counties, into the concrete they used for construction. When the building was finished, City officials honored their new home (and themselves) with a three-day dedication festival beginning on 26 April 1928.

138 meters high with 32 floors, City Hall was the tallest building in Los Angeles until 1964. For over three decades, planning officials resolutely refused to approve any building taller than 46 meters. Concern about seismic safety was the official reason. City Hall uniquely merited an exception because of a state-of-the-art, earthquake-resistant design that included base isolation and special compressible units on each floor. (Renovations after the major earthquakes of 1987 and 1994 were designed to withstand a magnitude 8.2 earthquake.) But it’s tempting to speculate that the real purpose of that restriction was the desire of City Hall’s political and bureaucratic nobility to prevent commoners from eclipsing the grandeur (and hauteur) of their palace. Though it’s no longer the tallest building, it remains a visible presence throughout much of Downtown.

City Hall is just as grandiose on the inside, beginning with the original main entrance. Granite steps lead from Spring Street to a majestic colonnaded forecourt. The actual building entrance is a pair of bronze doors decorated with six bas-relief carvings depicting events in Los Angeles history. Those doors lead to the appropriately imposing rotunda on the third floor, which contains the Mayor’s offices. Unfortunately, this almost-ceremonial entry is now a privilege reserved for City officials and employees.

Visitors must now enter on the other side of the building (Main Street) through a first-floor lobby that can accommodate a metal detector and x-ray scanner— the security (theatre) screening that’s been a prerequisite for entry into any major government building in the United States ever since “9/11 changed everything.” City Hall adds one more more “layer” of security after that. You’ll need to show your picture ID to a police officer at a desk, who records your name and ID number in a logbook. (When I asked the officer who recorded my information what they did with it, he made the sort of disapproving face a teacher might give a misbehaving third-grader, shook his head, and said “I can’t tell you.”) You can then take an elevator to the third floor entrance.

Entering the third floor from an elevator lacks the impact City Hall’s designers intended. (I later found out that I could exit through the bronze doors; and nobody stopped me from glancing back at the rotunda when I did that.) But it’s still impressive. Ten columns, each made of a different type of marble surround the central rotunda, 41 meters across and inlaid with Byzantine-inspired mosaic decoration. A chandelier with octagonal cutouts depicting California historical figures hangs from the center of the rotunda.

A corridor leading east, from the rotunda to the Mayor’s offices, has decorated barrel vaulting that recalls European cathedrals. Corridors leading north and south from the rotunda are lined with reflective polished French limestone, inlaid with California redwood beams. Nobility indeed deserves the finest trappings!

Many visitors to City Hall bypass the third floor as they ride a rather confusing series of express and local elevators to the observation deck circling the 27th floor. If you’re fortunate enough to visit on a rare clear day, the observation deck offers a wide-ranging view of the Los Angeles Basin— from the mountains to the north, the Hollywood Sign to the east, and the Palos Verdes Peninsula and even part of Catalina Island to the south.

Los Angeles City Hall should be familiar to anyone who remembers watching television in 1950s and 1960s. It was Dragnet’s police headquarters, and the offices of Clark Kent/Superman’s Daily Planet. An image of it is also embossed on Officer Reed and Malloy’s badges in Adam-12, just as it appears on the badges of actual Los Angeles police officers.


Picture of Los Angeles Police Department headquarters building Reflection of Los Angeles City Hall in LAPD Headquarters Detail of windows at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters

Although City Hall is embossed on those badges, the actual Los Angeles Police Department headquarters is the Police Administration Building across the street. Even in 1928, LAPD was too big to fit in City Hall. As its staff expanded over the years, the Department occupied a growing number of scattered Downtown locations. Police officials finally decided to consolidate them all into one facility in 1951. That Police Administration Building, two blocks from City Hall, opened in 1955. The City Council renamed it Parker Center in 1966, after the death of long-time Police Chief William H. Parker.

By the turn of the century, Parker Center needed expensive retrofits to comply with new building code requirements for seismic and fire safety. It also needed a lot of deferred basic maintenance. But for years the City Council had refused to appropriate funds for either purpose. Building inspectors and the Fire Department issued numerous citations. Exercising the special prerogative of police, the LAPD ignored the citations, to the chagrin of numerous private building owners who were forced to spend millions of dollars on upgrades. A Police Commission report unsurprisingly concluded that a new building would be more cost-efficient than upgrading the old one.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) was moving out of their district headquarters, a building that had even more serious safety violations than Parker Center. In 2004 the City Council, which included former Police Chief Bernard Parks, decided that the Caltrans site would be ideal for a new police headquarters. Its location, at 1st and Main Streets directly across from City Hall, made it covetable for both practical and symbolic reasons. Detail of LAPD headquarters building

But there was one problem. A Downtown Master Plan approved by the City Council in 1997 called for the site to become a large public park. For two years the Council went through the motions of public hearings, apparently intended to give residents and others who wanted the planned park enough time to harmlessly dissipate their opposition and objections. Then in May 2006 they stealthily convened a special closed session to approve the police headquarters, a decision they likely had made two years before. That secret meeting may have had the more important agenda of reminding the opponents of the new headquarters that “you can’t fight City Hall.”

The $437 million, 46,500 square meter “PAB” was dedicated in October 2009. It is often informally known as “New Parker Center.” The old Parker Center still stands, as various agencies continue to debate what to do with it and how to pay for it.


Caltrans headquarters from City Hall observation deck Photograph of Caltrans headquarters Picture of Caltrans headquarters Picture of aluminum panel at Caltrans headquarters Reflection of City Hall in windows of Caltrans headquarters
Picture of the entry atrium at Caltrans District 7 Headquarters Photograph of skylight at the entrance to Caltrans headquarters
Picture of bike racks in front of Caltrans headquarters Picture of Eli and Edyth Broad Plaza at Caltrans headquarters

So where did Caltrans move their District 7 Headquarters? One block east to 2nd and Main, across the street from the old location (and from the visitor entrance to City Hall).

Caltrans, the state agency that builds freeways and manages traffic jams, shares its building with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT). LADOT is the city agency that manages Los Angeles International Airport (consistently rated among the world’s worst airports in annual surveys of frequent fliers), the Port of Los Angeles, a mass-transit system with 400 buses, and the City’s network of traffic lights. LADOT is also in charge of parking meters (which in 2012 generated $21 million in annual revenue) and parking enforcement (that year, their hard-working officers contributed $120 million to the City budget).

The combined workforce of 2,350 functionaries needs (and undeniably deserves) an appropriately magnificent and commodious edifice. Caltrans headquarters occupies an entire city block, with 13 stories providing 6.7 hectares of interior space.

To design it, Caltrans chose Thom Mayne, an architect known for buildings that look like modern sculptures. From a distance the building is a giant rectangular fortress clad in battleship gray, with seemingly random openings. (For gun emplacements? Or windows of favored managers’ offices?) A closer look reveals that that the gray facade is actually made of perforated aluminum panels. Some of the panels move to follow the sun, while others are covered with solar cells that provide some 5% of the building’s electricity needs.

The entrance is an enormous outdoor atrium rising a full 13 stories, with a skylight on top. It seems intended to properly humble any visitors who might seek an audience with Caltrans or LADOT officials. After being dwarfed by the sheer scale and majesty of the entrance, a visitor is sure to get a cramped neck from looking up at the skylight.

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters has won accolades from architectural connoisseurs, who praised its aesthetics, environmental sensitivity, and sheer creative excellence. It most notably won Thom Mayne the 2005 Pritzker Prize, the architect’s equivalent of an Academy Award or a Pulitzer.

Some people who aren’t architectural connoisseurs criticize Caltrans District 7 Headquarters as a pompous, oppressive, dehumanizing, and even ugly monument to bureaucratic haughtiness. When I first saw it, what immediately came to mind was the Ministry of Love in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Of course, it’s possible that the disdain many people have for the agencies that occupy the building may color their perception of it. Caltrans has a well-deserved reputation for cost and schedule overruns on freeway construction projects that regularly snarl traffic and lengthen commutes, but too often provide no noticeable improvement when they’re finally done. When the headquarters building opened on schedule in 2004, journalists and bloggers marveled at the miracle of a Caltrans project actually completed on time and within budget. And an agency that boasts on its Web site about the revenue its parking enforcement officers generate, as LADOT does, would seem to encourage a perception of arrogance.

Like many Downtown buildings, Caltrans headquarters provides adjacent outdoor space for the public as well as for its authorized personnel. Eli and Edythe Broad Plaza along Main Street is a place for people to gather, eat lunch, or sunbathe while enraptured in the prize-winning architectural splendor. The plaza is named for real estate and insurance billionaire-turned-philanthropist Eli Broad (it rhymes with “toad”). He and his wife earned the naming rights by donating $2 million of the building’s $165 million price tag.


Los Angeles County Hall reflected Photograph of Los Angeles Country Hall of Records
Black and white picture of Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain in Grand Park Color picture of Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain in Grand Park
Detail of a wooden bench in Grand Park Pink chairs at a snack bar in Grand Park Detail of the playground in Grand Park

Grand Park is another nearby public gathering space with connections to Eli Broad. Its 4.9 hectares of lawns, trees, plazas, and fountains occupy three blocks between City Hall on Spring Street and the Music Center on Grand Avenue. It was originally the Civic Center Mall, a pedestrian mall surrounded by a collection of Los Angeles County official buildings: The Hall of Administration (the headquarters of County government), the Hall of Records, two courthouses, and a law library.

Eli Broad and a consortium of real estate developers launched what they called the “Grand Avenue Project” in 2000. The project included upscale private redevelopment (luxury condominium towers, a hotel, and an art museum), along with a public component to improve the Civic Center Mall into a full-scale urban park.

The original plan for the park called for demolishing the main courthouse and the Hall of Administration. The recession that began in 2007 stalled the condominium development and made replacing the County buildings infeasible; but the other park improvements proceeded on schedule. Grand Park opened in July 2012, amid scattered protests about low-income residents and the homeless being shoved aside yet again in the continuing gentrification of Downtown.

Advocates in the County government enthusiastically compare Grand Park with New York’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Union Square, and even the Champs-Élysées in Paris. That seems to be wishful thinking, at least for now. But “the park for everyone”— the official slogan proclaimed on colorful multilingual signs around the park— has many appreciative visitors and a regular schedule of events and concerts (managed by the organization in charge of the Music Center).

Beginning in 2013, the park has hosted a public New Year’s Eve celebration that its backers hope will become an annual event rivaling the famous ball-dropping ceremony in New York. Even if it’s not (yet?) a world-class urban park, Grand Park is undeniably a pleasant, architecturally accessible, pedestrian-friendly place to escape the traffic congestion that otherwise defines Los Angeles.


Downtown Los Angeles

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