Pasadena’s Historic City Hall to Reveal Its Secrets in Renovation

Times Staff Writer

Secrets may lurk inside Pasadena City Hall.

Some say its historic halls and walls abound with hidden architectural features, unknown nooks and, perhaps, sealed passageways.

After 76 years, the landmark structure, topped by a Roman-style dome familiar to many television and film viewers, is poised to tell all.

This summer, a three-year project begins at Pasadena City Hall to make the building earthquake-safe while also reviving one of Southern California’s premier architectural accomplishments, esteemed for blending Beaux Arts classicism with Spanish Mission elements.


“I can’t give a guarantee, but I’m confident we’ll find something,” Mayor Bill Bogaard said last month as he reviewed plans inside his second-story City Hall office.

Bogaard recalled the time he and his wife, Claire, longtime Pasadena residents, remodeled their century-old Victorian house. When the couple removed a bathroom wall, they discovered an extra door. When they painted their porch, they uncovered redwood pillars.

Similar discoveries may occur during City Hall’s retrofit, which comes with a $93.3-million price, considered too high by some of Pasadena’s 142,200 residents.

“I hope we’ll find many good surprises,” said the mayor of five years. The construction is expected to reveal City Hall in its entirety. So, unpleasant -- or costly -- discoveries may also arise.

“To some degree, it’s like rehabbing a house,” said Paul C. Jennings, a professor emeritus of civil engineering and applied mechanics at Caltech who chairs the 13-member restoration oversight committee. “You have to prepare for unexpected problems.”

Jennings has tried to anticipate all the pitfalls. The city’s exhaustive research has determined that the building has a troubled foundation, water damage and peeling paint.

About one-third of the project’s budget goes toward retrofitting and restoration, he said. Remaining funds cover moving about 380 employees to temporary offices for three years and revamping outdated infrastructure.

That Pasadena City Hall has endured major Southern California quakes, experts say, speaks to custom craftsmanship using good materials, including Alaskan marble, cast stone, wrought iron, copper, vertical-grained white oak and Cordova clay tiles.


But seismic research conducted more than five years ago found that a major earthquake could destroy the building and lead to death and injury. Engineers hope to prevent a tragedy by installing shock absorbers, called base isolators, under the building’s 272 columns.

Despite City Hall’s attractive appearance, its interior has been known to frighten seasoned maintenance workers. Its 52 separate air-conditioning systems are confounding. Its maze of wiring can make installing a computer an all-day ordeal, sometimes with little success.

Every few years, an electrical fire erupts. “We all know the drill,” said Ann Erdman, Pasadena’s spokeswoman and a 13-year city employee.

And the all-original plumbing?


“Let’s just say it can be quite an adventure for all of us,” Erdman said, shuddering. “Those are surprises we’ll be glad not to have.”

Fixing those problems will conserve energy and reduce maintenance costs, officials said.

Still, pinching pennies is a must. Cost overruns had topped $5 million until late last month, when the project’s oversight committee eliminated items such as reflecting ponds and cast-stone urns in the courtyard, which together saved $84,000.

At the time the edifice was built in 1927, city leaders envisioned it rising beside the San Gabriel Mountains with boldness and beauty, grandeur and grace, the crowning centerpiece of the Pasadena Civic Center.


Andrea Palladio, a 16th century Italian architect who favored Renaissance classicism, influenced City Hall’s design, with its six-story circular tower. A dome topped by a lantern and 41-foot-high, column-supported cupola pay homage to domes gracing St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Hotel des Invalides in Paris and the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice.

City Hall’s rectangular structure contains 170,000 square feet of passageways. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has a one-story arcade flanking the east side, a gardenia-scented Spanish Colonial courtyard, a Baroque fountain and seven oak trees, which will be preserved during the renovation.

Approximately 450 people visit the building each day, according to city figures. Many attend meetings in the City Council’s chambers, register to vote, obtain permits or scour public records.

Others go for inspiration, with writers, painters and pontificators basking in the gardens and architectural details, including concrete and metal designs of artichokes, lions, castles, dolphins, shells, flowers, fruits and flaming torches.


Hollywood has a long history of visiting City Hall, from shooting movies such as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop” and the recent “House of Sand and Fog” to current television series “Judging Amy” and “C.S.I.” In 2003, City Hall rentals for filming brought in $23,621 -- a sum that will dramatically decrease during the retrofit.

In the weeks ahead, the city will consider fundraising efforts, including a garage sale, to pay for aesthetic improvements. To raise money for restoring the barrel-vaulted ceiling at the building’s main entrance, officials are selling City Hall memorabilia T-shirts for $10, tote bags for $7 and 25-cent postcards.

City workers are hoping for good surprises too, like the recent discovery that the dome’s red, fish-scale tiles did not need replacing, saving $287,000.

Mayor Bogaard suspects that the dank basement might reveal covert crannies.


Susan Mossman, executive director of the nonprofit Pasadena Heritage and an oversight committee member, is curious about what’s above the acoustic ceilings that cover parts of large old windows, “although I’m not expecting rare gold leafing or any big surprises

Erdman wonders about secret passageways, including a tunnel rumored to run between City Hall and Caltech, almost two miles away.

“It’s an old urban myth,” Erdman said. “Or is it?”