City Hall Renovation Nears Completion, Takes Future Shape

If you've looked up and a little north recently, maybe you've noticed City Hall looking more like her old self.

Her historic self, that is. With the shroud and scaffolding that had veiled the top of the building from view now gone, it is beginning to gleam with its original terra cotta elegance. In fact, renovation is so far along that one can actually catch a glimpse of what the finished product will look like, inside and out. Seismic retrofitting was completed in late October, and restoration officials say interior renovation will be completed by its original target date of July, 2001. And, with the annual gala last month hosted by Project Restore, a non-profit organization founded to renovate City Hall, the $2.4 million needed to complete the project has been raised, said Ed Avila, founder and president of Project Restore.

Project Restore held its 14th annual fundraiser October 14 at the Civic Center Courtyard, where they raised $300,000, "the best ever," Avila said. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner received the organization's Los Angeles Heritage Award, given each year to a major contributor to Downtown preservation.

And with the money raised, the project is well on its way to completion.

Last month, construction crews removed the shroud and scaffolding from the top of the building after the effects of 70 years of smog and weathering were repaired

And at $300 million, the city Bureau of Engineering has finished installing all seismic retrofittings, some of which have never before been placed on a building of this height or design. The fittings include an interior brace of solid, steel-reinforced concrete rising from the basement to the 25th floor, designed and engineered by AC Martin Partners, whose founder was one of the building's original architects. In the basement, 532 base isolators of rubber and steel and side-to-side motion dampers, which look like four-foot automotive struts, have been installed. City engineers say City Hall is the tallest building in the world using this technology.

But inside, City Hall remains a work in progress, hinting at the promises that the work will fulfill in summer 2001. Following a master plan designed by architects at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, crews are just beginning polish every inch of trim and molding, including marble columns and brass castings. Cracked plaster will be filled and repainted, peeling paint replaced. Using already cleaned portions of walls and fixtures as a guide, the contrast will be stark.

"If you haven't been in here before, you won't see the difference after it's complete," Avila said during a tour of the Council Chamber and third-floor public space. "But if you look at those [column] capitals you can see their brilliance," he added, pointing at the large columns straddling the council president's podium.

One column stood gray and uninspiring, darkened by dust and tobacco residue from years of indoor smoking, said Kevin Jew, Project Restore chief operating officer. But a polished column gleamed with the allure of fresh white marble.

"Once we got started," Avila said, "we found that restoration meant a lot more than just painting over. It meant recovering the original."

And that is exactly the route the project has taken with one of Los Angeles' most beloved and recognized landmarks. As much as possible, original fixtures or appliances have been preserved. The structure's eight 1928 elevators were recreated in detail from an original elevator that was recovered from a city warehouse. The Lindbergh Torch, an aviation beacon removed in 1950, was presumed lost until found in a crate in basement storage, Jew said.

No original paint has been removed. Instead, peeling paint has been in-painted, cracked or falling plaster filled and in-painted to match original surrounding colors, existing paint gently cleaned by restorers.

And, an example of good intentions gone awry, Avila said, someone tried many years ago to compensate for poor acoustics in the Public Works hearing room by covering the pumice tile with cork, which Avila said violated existing city preservation codes. "We don't expect anyone to confess to it," he said.

But given all the time and expense to return City Hall to its original state since the project began in spring, 1998, Jew says it could not have happened without one dramatic event-the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

"The earthquake really had a silver lining as far as City Hall is concerned," Jew said. "Before the earthquake, Avila and Project Restore could only work on one room at a time, but the earthquake caused the city to clear everyone out, and that gave everybody the golden opportunity to come in and do everything. So without the earthquake, we wouldn't be doing all this work."

A portion of the engineering budget went to repair earthquake damage, most of which occurred on the building's south side, where terra cotta blocks cracked and began to fall away. Those blocks will be replaced soon, Jew said.

When all is done, Avila said, City Hall will have a grand reopening, possibly on the scale of the original opening in 1928, on the front steps.

Avila said the public will see a few changes, not just a perfect recreation. A new staircase has been installed on the 27th floor leading to the observation deck, making the deck more accessible. Where City Council members once sat in session with their backs to the public, facing the president, their desks will be turned around to face the audience. The infrastructure is also being updated, with a new communications system.

Project Restore's Future

Project Restore was founded in 1986 to restore City Hall, beginning with the Public Works hearing room. But it has since begun work on other projects. Avila said Project Restore has much lined up after completion of City Hall.

After completing funding for City Hall, money from the gala will fund a Los Angeles City Museum, possibly to be located on Olvera Street or near the International Airport, and a store selling Los Angeles memorabilia, Avila noted.

Reprinting items retrieved from the archives are for personal use only. They may not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission. If you would like to re-distribute anything from the Archives, please call our permissions department at (213) 481-1448.