by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As any city grows, there are certain parts of it that reflect the aspirations and achievements of that community. It might be parks, schools, commercial buildings, monuments, religious structures, sports stadiums and arenas and public buildings, like libraries and city halls.
In the case of Los Angeles, the small frontier settlement did not have a dedicated city hall building for about its first 110 years of existence! About 1860, the city hall was located in the Market House, built by Jonathan Temple as a commercial structure inspired by Boston’s Fanueil Hall. The lackluster local economy, though, led the city and county to lease the building from Temple (and, after his death, to acquire it) as city hall, county offices and the courthouse.
By the Boom of the 1880s, which peaked in 1887 and 1888, Los Angeles grew rapidly and it was time for a structure specifically constructed for city hall. Arising on Broadway, the building was completed in 1889 just as the boom went bust. Still, it served its purpose well until another major growth period.
As early as the 1910s, community, business and civic leaders began working on an ambitious plan to create a large civic center, with the city hall as one of many elements. The original area was bounded on the north by Sunset Boulevard and on the south by First Street, with the western end being Broadway and the eastern being Main. City, county, and federal structures were anticipated along with some existing built and planned buildings incorporated into the concept. Plans were drafted and a bond measure for $7,500,000 was placed on the ballot in an early June 1923 election.
The measure carried easily and work began on remaking the area near Spring, Main, Temple and 1st streets to accommodate many civic structures, including city hall. A large broadside (flyer) in the Homestead collection, prepared the City Planning Association and promoting the “City Hall and Administrative Center,” was and mailed to prominent developer Sidney H. Woodruff of Hollywoodland (the famed Hollywood sign, minus the “land” was a sales gimmick for his tract) and Dana Point in Orange County. It is, for many reasons, a great document marshaling the arguments and providing compelling images of the proposed civic center to sway voters.
Members of the City Planning Commission included serious music impresario L.E. Behymer; railroad tycoon Eli P. Clark; architects Sumner P. Hunt, A.C. Martin and Paul Williams, listed also as from Los Angeles Forum of the NAACP; and several women from the Wednesday Morning Club, Friday Morning Club, Woman’s City Club, Ebell Club, the PTA for the Los Angeles School District; and more.
The overwhelming support in the election may well have been largely due to the carefully crafted campaign as embodied in the document. The importance of having a orderly, well laid-out, efficient civic center that befitted a city that was growing rapidly and becoming of national importance was clearly spelled out.
One panel asks, relating to the city hall, “shall it be isolated and unrelated, or shall it be a unit in a comprehensive, adequate administrative center worthy of [the] Los Angeles that is to be?” The city’s Planning Commission, it was added, was responsible for recommending a plan that identified “public buildings that in number, capacities and locations shall be adequate to the needs of [the] Greater Los Angeles of the future.”
Another panel implored readers to look at a map labeled as a “Metropolitan Mosaic” of greater Los Angeles and stated that the investment in the bonds would yield city, county and national administrative buildings, the Hall of Records and a new Hall of Justice. The highly centralized plan “effects Economy of Time, and means lowered Tax Burdens” proclaimed the piece.
A large inner panel forming “A Statement to the Citizens of Los Angeles” asked “shall Los Angeles continue its haphazard growth with its public buildings scattered to the four winds: or would there be an administrative center that combined “economy, efficiency and sightliness in its public buildings that can be secured only by intelligent grouping”?
The item stated that waiting a few years would triple or quadruple the cost and that “the present buildings are too small, antiquated, shabby, badly located.” Traffic would be great helped because the plan “opens the ‘neck of the bottle’ from which Los Angeles has suffered for twenty years.”
This appears to refer to the meeting of Spring and Main streets at Temple Street, which would be remedied by terminating Spring at First and having a mall-like plaza extend a new court house just south of Sunset. Strangely, one map stated that Spring was a “through street” that would direct traffic north, but the renderings clearly show it ending at First!
Existing structures, such as the existing court house, built in 1889, the Hall of Records from the 1910s, the Hall of Justice (secured by bonds at the previous election), the jail, post office, the federal building, and the Plaza Church (which seemed to have been added because it was historic) “will not be removed or disturbed.”
An emphasis on a “commanding location” was pointed out “because it is on a hill [italics original]” and, as such, “this site is on rising ground which allows great range in landscape and building effects, streets and roadways on different levels, great accessibility, no obstruction to through traffic” and so on. This argument concluded that
NATURE, and not man, has designated this as the best, and the only logical site for the Administrative Center of Los Angeles.”
This is more than a bit ironic, given that city planners a few decades later would recommend the razing of so many of the “commanding locations” in downtown, such as Bunker Hill, would be greatly altered for logical reasons!
The main inside panel featured large renderings of the center in a bird’s eye and block plan view and maps showing traffic accessibility and the publicly owned space that lent itself to the idea.
Once work began and reality set in, the grand aims of the civic center were curbed significantly. The center did not extend north of Temple and most of the projected structures, landscape elements, and other components were jettisoned. City Hall, finished in 1928, came out quite differently in appearance, though still impressive and commanding. It is true that, if the matter had been delayed a few years, the Great Depression might have put a halt to that structure or significantly affected the budget for its completion.
The “City Hall and Administrative Center” broadside is a testament to an unshakable belief, among many regional elites, in the idea of progressive, orderly, efficient and economical large-scale urban planning on a scale that proved to be ultimately unworkable. This is a common problem with such plans, be they for public buildings, highways, transportation projects and other public works. Even with a “watered down” final product, the process of designing and developing such a plan is interesting as a reflection of the thinking nearly a century ago about what the “Greater Los Angeles of the future” could be.