Seeking a Fair Fate for County Hall of Justice

Times Staff Writer

Mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel feasted on pheasant while under lockup there. Charles Manson, during his murder trial, unsuccessfully dangled string out his jail cell window to smuggle marijuana and a hacksaw. The bodies of Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Tate and Robert F. Kennedy were examined in its basement.

For decades, downtown’s Hall of Justice was the stage upon which many of the darker scenes of Los Angeles County history played out.

The one-stop justice hall, the first of its kind in the country when it opened in 1926, welcomed under its roof the district attorney, public defender, sheriff and coroner. Then it ushered in infamous prisoners and famous visitors, from the bad to the beautiful.

“The place just oozes history,” said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, who once worked out of the hall as a reporter for City News Service and whose first trial in the hall was that of Sirhan Sirhan.


Today, 12 years after the Northridge earthquake shut it down, the hall on West Temple Street is home to pigeons and vermin that pass through its broken windows. The crumbs of decaying ceilings and walls cover the floor, and elevator shafts sit feet-deep in stagnant water. Outside, the Italian Renaissance facade is dulled by dust.

Now, a $16-million federal grant to retrofit the building could slip through the county’s hands if it doesn’t approve construction contracts by the end of the year, according to a civil grand jury report. The county has already filed for an extension, but even with the grant -- a mere drop in the estimated $200-million fiscal bucket needed to revive the building -- the building may never reopen.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the grant after the 1994 earthquake, which convinced safety inspectors that the building should be sealed. But the money has not been released because the county has not made enough progress toward renovating the building, notes the report, titled “Hall of Justice: The Money Pit?”

The document, released last month, paints the road to restoring and reopening the hall as one marked by error, wasted money and delays. The building was not as badly damaged as originally thought, it notes, and may not have needed to close.


“Taxpayer dollars are being wasted,” the report states, because “the county has dragged its feet for 12 years.” Within that time, construction costs for retrofitting the building have ballooned from $80 million to $200 million, leaving the grant’s value “greatly diminished.”

“It’s true that it’s taken this long, so that’s fair,” David E. Janssen, the county’s chief administrative officer, said of the report. But “a money pit? A money pit is something you keep pouring money into. We’ve been doing just the opposite. We have been carefully trying to see what it would cost and how to renovate the building.”

John Edmisten, assistant administrative officer for the chief administrative office, said FEMA’s grant requires the county to pay out of its own pocket before being reimbursed. The problem is, he said, $16 million does not cover the cost of the seismic retrofitting and hazard mitigation -- about $30 million -- and the county has been in no position to approve the hundreds of millions of dollars more needed to restore the hall.

“You have $200 million you want to give the county?” he said. “We had no money in 1994. We were ... near broke. To expect us to drop everything and do an office renovation is probably unreasonable.”


Ensuring that the hall not be torn down has been a concern for the Los Angeles Conservancy ever since the building was closed, said Executive Director Linda Dishman, who called the hall a “monumental space” that belongs to the public.

“It’s an important building. It’s one of the early county buildings,” she said. “When it was built, it was the Hall of Justice because it had all the arms of justice -- the sheriff, the courts, the morgue -- the whole thing.

“That’s part of the reason this building is significant: It’s part of the Civic Center,” said Dishman, who praised the county’s recent moves to reopen the hall.

Last month the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, with an improved financial outlook, took the first steps toward securing the grant money and reopening the building by approving a final environmental impact review and asked the Public Works Department to find an interior demolition contractor. The board is expected to approve interior demolition in August, and a total project cost and finance plan should reach the board in 2007.


The board opted for a step-by-step approach to the project, Janssen said, because no developer, including the one who abandoned the job years ago, will renovate for a fixed price with unforeseen building conditions.

If restored, the hall would house some employees from the Sheriff’s Department, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the district attorney’s office and the chief administrative office, who now work out of leased office space.

The county could save $6.5 million a year in leases by moving those employees into the hall’s 425,000 square feet of office space, Edmisten said. As yet, the layout is not decided, nor is the number of employees who would return or when. The soonest that workers might move in is three years, he said.

Part of the renovation calls for preservation of the building, which is listed in the California Register of Historical Resources. Some of the hall’s steel-plated jail cells would be stored in the basement, and other historic features -- the stone and terra cotta exterior, marble lobby, iron stairs and hardwood-paneled courtroom -- would be restored.


“It’s going to be absolutely gorgeous when they’re done,” Dishman said.

Sheriff Lee Baca, who started his career at the Hall of Justice more than 40 years ago, said the hall is the symbol of the Sheriff’s Department and its rightful headquarters.

Even now, Baca marvels at the spectacles that passed through the hall’s doors -- or, in daredevil Evel Knievel’s case, out the door.

Chuckling, he recalled how Knievel, under lockup for attacking a TV exec with a baseball bat, left the hall in style: “He ordered 20 limousines for his other prisoner friends being released.”


It’s memories like those, Baca said, that make him and his department eager to return to the empty edifice.

“Everyone that has any history with the building is anxious to go back and have a chance to reexperience the excitement of being downtown,” Baca said. “The center of Los Angeles would not be complete without the Hall of Justice being open.”