An Open-or-Shut Case

Can City Hall Be Saved?

The bandaged tower of City Hall, the city’s first skyscraper, is arguably the most recognized visual landmark of Los Angeles. Seen in countless movies and TV shows, its future is now clouded by damage from the Northridge earthquake and the huge cost to make the building safe for the next quake.

The Problem: The Northridge earthquake two years ago heavily damaged the building. Extensive retrofitting is needed before the building can be considered safe. Costs have been estimated between $240 million and $300 million.

Observation Level: The outside viewing deck might be open only to escorted groups if retrofitting plans are scaled back. The entire tower is now closed.

Black Band: A girdle of black netting to catch falling debris was placed near the top of the tower after the earthquake. It will remain until work is completed.

Upper Tower: To save on retrofitting costs, tower floors may be left vacant, reducing the extent of needed strengthening. City workers displaced from offices already are scattered in leased space downtown.


Lower Floors: The first four floors--housing the mayor, the City Council and other key officials--would be protected by any retrofitting work. Still undecided is how many other floors will be strengthened enough to be occupied by city workers and public.

Foundation: A complex base isolation system has been proposed to help the building withstand an 8.1 magnitude quake on the San Andreas fault or a 6.8 quake nearby on the Elysian Park fault.

A Little History

* Erected 1926-28

* Architects: John C. Austin, John and Donald Parkinson and Albert C. Martin Sr.

* Height: 454 feet, or 28 stories.

* Mortar for the cornerstone was mixed with water from each of California’s 21 original missions and sand from every county.

* The dedication ceremony on April 26, 1928 featured 34 bands and 32,000 marchers, was billed as the largest civic procession ever west of Chicago. Several windows were broken by aerial bombs detonated for the event.

* A rotating beacon atop the tower used to flash “L.A.” in Morse code.

* Cuspidors were provided for each city councilman when the building opened.

* Leading screen roles: police headquarters in “Dragnet” TV series; Clark Kent’s Daily Planet in the old “Superman” series; attacked by Martians in “War of the Worlds”; U.S. Capitol in “The Jimmy Hoffa Story”; the Vatican in “The Thornbirds.”