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60-Plus Years Later, Burbank City Hall in Spit-Shine Condition

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Times Staff Writer

World War II put Americans in a practical mood, with women taking the place of men on production lines and families growing victory gardens.

Although many cities were unable to cover the cost of building in that time of scarcity, Burbank got lucky. A New Deal-era Works Progress Administration grant enabled the town to build a new City Hall. More than six decades later, it looks much the same as the day it opened.

Moreover, the Olive Avenue building has gained praise as one of Southern California’s most distinctive examples of Art Deco design.

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“When it was built, it was so classy for little podunk Burbank,” recalls 80-year-old Mary Jane Strickland, founder of the local historical society. “At that time, during the war, there was no other building going on. It was special from Day One.”

Today, profiled against the gentle Verdugo Mountains, the building’s gleaming-white 3 1/2 -story tower and fortress-like profile set it apart from blander, taller commercial buildings that have risen nearby.

“When people pass by, they see it as solid,” said Mayor Marsha R. Ramos. “I think it’s an important statement for City Hall because you want your government to come from a place of stability.”

The building, designed by William Allen and W. George Lutzi, is a mix of craftsmanship and practicality.

Outside, ornate sculpted panels depicting themes of peace, social order and technological progress soften the utilitarian concrete walls of two-story wings flanking a tower. Brass handrailings draw visitors up the steps and into an airy rotunda, brightly illuminated through a cast-concrete grill that forms a decorative facade for the tower.

“There’s a sense of history, of a time when people felt public buildings should be monumental and be the best,” said John Bowler, a city planner who works on Burbank heritage issues.

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Inside, sound bounces readily across the marble floors and walls, but visitors talk and tread softly, as if in a museum. A wing-adorned mosaic announcing “City of Burbank” sprawls underfoot. A grand staircase, inlaid with classic Art Deco medallions and fluted sunbursts, sweeps upward to the elegantly wood-paneled second floor.

And it’s all in spit-shine condition. “The city’s crews keep it looking like it was just built yesterday. We’re really proud of it,” said former Mayor Bob Kramer.

Still, “you probably couldn’t do this now,” said City Manager Mary J. Alvord. “Taxpayers wouldn’t stand for it.”

Burbank City Hall was completed in 1943 at a cost of $409,000. Some locals speculate that Burbank landed the WPA money, which covered much of the labor cost, because the city was home to Lockheed, the nation’s premier builder of military aircraft at the time.

Lockheed’s influence in Washington, D.C., and its importance to the war effort were well known to Burbank residents. Sentries and gun batteries were posted around town to guard the aviation giant from enemy attack.

One day, in an event old-timers remember vividly, Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr. motored grandly into town for a wartime pep rally on the steps of the just-opened City Hall.

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“He had a steel helmet on and a uniform with all his medals,” said resident Les Rosenberg, whose photo of the scene is in Burbank’s historical archives. “He looked really important.” Hundreds of people lined the streets to clap and cheer. The general gave a rousing speech reminding Burbank residents they were an important part of the war effort.

Ever since then, the building has enjoyed a privileged life, including a measure of stardom. Film crews needing a classic government-building backdrop visit so often that municipal employees shrug at all the lights, cameras and action. The building has played cameo roles in the movie “Crimson Tide” and the TV shows “ER,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and “The FBI,” among dozens of others, Bowler said.

Though the landmark’s status rests heavily on its artistic charm, past City Hall officials have not always exercised a hands-off reverence.

Strickland, a former City Hall employee, remembers a mayor years ago who had workers pull drapes across an 11-by-22-foot mural during City Council sessions. It was one of two paintings by Hugo Ballin, known for many murals in the Los Angeles area, including those at Griffith Observatory.

The mural behind the City Council dais depicted the “four freedoms” of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The scene included a donkey that was directly behind the mayor’s chair.

“It really bothered him because it made him have donkey ears,” Strickland said, chuckling. “That mural stayed behind those drapes most of the time for quite a few years.”

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In 1978, the mural suffered additional indignity. City engineers lowered the ceiling in council chambers to add air conditioning ducts. Even when the image-sensitive mayor left office and the mural could safely be viewed again, its top third depicting the deity-like “freedom” figures was obscured by the ceiling, leaving a seemingly purposeless throng of milling mortals.

In 2001, City Council approved a restoration project to raise the ceiling and remove years of grime.

“Some days, the workers were in there using Q-Tips,” Alvord said.

The mural is now one of the featured stops on tours for schoolchildren and visiting dignitaries.

And the building’s allure continues, even as new generations walk its halls.

“You get a sense of continuity,” Bowler said. “You sense that people have walked here before who were doing things, and now you’re taking your turn.”

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