by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The dedication of Los Angeles City Hall over ninety years ago was a reflection of the rhetoric of the body politic in a metropolis that underwent tremendous transformations over the course of decades in ways that few cities in the country could match. The structure, exempt from the eleven-story height limit imposed to prevent the forest of skyscrapers that would mar the aesthetics of downtown, rose over 450 feet above Main Street on a site measuring 800 by 400 feet with over a half million square feet of usable floor space and cost nearly 5 million dollars.
It was a mirror of the ambitions of political and business leaders in the City of Angels, who were brimming with confidence in their ability to continue the relentless growth of the city and region and there is no better statement of these aims and attributes than tonight’s highlighted object from the Museum’s collection, the official souvenir program for the three-day dedication, which took place from 26-28 April 1928.
The festivities began with a morning parade on the first day, followed by a luncheon at the Biltmore Hotel, opened several years earlier next to Pershing Square. In the mid-afternoon, Mayor George Cryer, who was nearing the end of an administration that spanned nearly the entire 1920s, and his wife held a reception for visiting executives from other cities in the state and guests at the new edifice.
A thirty-minute period of band concerts was followed by an event titled “The Dedication” and organized under the leadership of film executive Joseph M. Schenck. It was composed of a flag rising; singing of “The Star Spangled Banner;” the presentation of the key to the building by Board of Public Works President Arthur Eldridge to Cryer; the mayor’s address; a “response” by his counterpart from San Francisco, James Rolph, Jr.; a “Historical Pageantry” directed by theater impresario Sid Grauman, and a choral rendition of “America.”
After a “retreat” by the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, three hours of music were provided by “visiting bands.” At 7 p.m., George Eastman, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, was introduced for the dedication of the Lindbergh Beacon, a light placed atop the structure and dedicated to the aviator who flew solo across the Atlantic in May 1927. Another rendition of “America” led to the lighting of the building and the opening of the doors for the first time for public viewing.
Over the next two days, the 27th and 28th, the city hall was open for “inspection . . . by the public” and, on the evening of that final day, a historical pageant and parade was offered by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, followed after a half-hour by a “Passing of the Flags” overseen by the head of the Native Sons.
The program’s “In Dedication!” page pulled out all the stops when it came to purple prose of praise for the building and warrants some lengthy quoting, starting with its opening words:
The Spirit of the dedication of this white monumental monolith which is the new City Hall is the spirit of Los Angeles—the spirit of a forward-looking people, determined to win a happy community Destiny. This monument symbolizes the soul of a struggling, fighting, building people, never knowing defeat and always climbing upward . . .
The city hall was deemed “a truly great edifice, symbolical of unyielding strength” and dedicated to many including “its builders, those who planned and those who builded [built]” as well as “to those hardy pioneers of another say who set their faces resolutely westward, with oxen and covered wagons . . . and fighting their way undaunted by danger and hardship, until they had traversed plains and mountains, deserts and forests, and came here to build a home.”
While the site was also dedicated to Governor Felipe de Neve, “who arrived here on September 4th, 1781, with eleven families—our first pioneers” and who “supplanted the ancient Indian village of Yang-na,” it was also dedicated
to the men of action who aroused the drowsing pueblo from its peaceful laziness, said “Let us build here a city!” and created a surge of ambition that in the brief span of three-quarters of a century the little town of 1600 souls became a mighty metropolis of nearly one and one-half millions of people.
Further honored were “those men who relentlessly urged onward the tide of progress, even when it seemed to be at top speed, the men who could not be satisfied.” Not to be forgotten were “loyal public officials who have served the City only to make it a greater city, who forgot personal aims to strive for civic betterment and for progress and prosperity for a community.”
Finally, however, the city hall was for “the citizens of Los Angeles today—the citizens who demonstrated their civic pride in voting the moneys with which to build this building as an expression of community faith and to the citizens who will use it during many decades to come.” With these expressions of abundant enthusiasm, the structure was dedicated “in Faith, Determination, Progress and Justice!”
A history of previous city halls was provided, but not before a quote was reprinted that was attributed to Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, as he spoke to the asemblea or legislature in its last session in 1846 as the American invasion loomed:
We find ourselves threatened by hordes of Yankee immigrants who have already begun to flock into our country and whose progress we cannot arrest . . . Whatever that astonishing people will next undertake I cannot say, but on whatever enterprise they embark they will be sure to be successful.
The admixture of a strange brew of historical memory, myth and messaging continued with the statement that the structure was “set in the heart of the historic district where once the Alcades of the Californians and the Mexican, Spanish and American military lords once held sway” and that it also “links the City of Los Angeles with its memorable and romantic origins.” The claim was that the decision in the early 1910s to choose the site for the complex “was made toward the preservation of our early California traditions,” though how exactly is not clear.
It was stated in the “Municipal Homes” page that there was no established city hall until 1853 when “the city and county governments joined interests in the purchase of the old Antonio Jose Rocha adobe home at Franklin and Spring Streets, just across the street from the new City Hall.” Notably, the purchase of the property was from Jonathan Temple. It was added that “this house, with the addition of a brick jail [actually, the first floor, used by the city, was adobe and the second, used by the county, was brick] and jail yard in the rear, served the City until 1884.”
The adobe also was the courthouse for several years during the Fifties, yet it is not mentioned that city offices were also briefly in the Market House, built by Jonathan Temple in 1859 in what was apparently a copy of Boston’s famed Fanueil Hall, and known as the Courthouse after it was leased from Temple by the city and county for that purpose from the early 1860s.
There were plenty of occasions between the early 1850s and the mid-1880s in which calls for a proper city hall were made, even as Los Angeles underwent its first significant and sustained period of growth after the Civil War and lasting for nearly a decade. But the woefully inadequate Rocha Adobe continued to be used until a two-story brick building was constructed at the northwest corner of Spring and Second streets for a new city hall and which structure still stood in 1928 and is now part of the Los Angeles Times complex.
The year after this new civic building was finished, though, the direct transcontinental railroad line to the city built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe ushered in the Boom of the 1880s, although what the publication trumpeted was the completion of the Southern Pacific line to the city from the Bay area a decade earlier. In any case, it didn’t take long for the city hall to be determined lacking and a new facility was built on the east side of Fort Street, so named Broadway, between Second and Third streets.
The sandstone Romanesque building was deemed “a proud structure for the ‘eighties,” but it was observed that “its abandonment will mark the passing of the outstanding landmark of the most important and interesting epoch in the City’s history,” this presumably being the untrammeled growth of Los Angeles in the preceding four decades.
Now, this section concluded, “the municipal home of the City of Los Angeles now returns to the cradle of its historical setting; returning almost, in fact, to the exact location where it was first established seventy-eight years ago following the American occupation. A series of photographs under the heading of “The Grandeur of Early Days” shows the Rocha Adobe as it looked in the 1880s, the 1884 city hall, the 1889 complex, and “the site of the new City Hall in the ‘sixties.”
This latter view actually doesn’t quite show the entirety of the City Hall site and, again, city offices, as well as county ones, were also in the Market House/Courthouse from the early Sixties onward. To the left of the two-story brick structure, the second floor of which was originally and briefly the first true theater in the city, the Temple Theater, is the 1857 two-story brick Temple Block.
Outside the photo to the left, Temple’s brother, F.P.F., added three more buildings to the block, including the one at the then-intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets where the Temple and Workman bank was situated. The Market House was torn down after a new courthouse was built in 1889 and the Temple Block remained standing until 1926, when the complex was razed for the city hall construction project.
As demolition took place, F.P.F. Temple’s son Walter, owner of the Homestead, acquired some bricks and the vault doors (these weren’t from the Temple and Workman bank, but from the Los Angeles County Bank which took over the quarters) from the bank space to use to build the Tepee office next to La Casa Nueva, in the basement of which the vault doors were placed.
A page is devoted to Cryer, giving a brief biographical sketch of the mayor, of whom it was said that “the new municipal home is the result of his efforts.” This is followed by a view of the newly finished city hall and several shots of its entrances and interior. Pages contain photos of the members of the Board of Public Works and of the City Council, whose president was William Bonelli, discussed in yesterday’s post.
It should be added that Boyle Workman, whose father William Henry Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman) was mayor during the great boom in 1887-88, was city council president for a few years of the eight years from 1919 to 1927 that he served on that body.
Some text under the Board of Public Works photos states that “today, on every hand expressions say heard of the efficient planning and the sincerity of construction of the City Hall.” Moreover, it was averred that the two year project involved the fact that “no question has been raised concerning any breach of public trust” and with no major delays, while the cost was below the $5 million voted for it.
A descriptive essay of the building begins with another paean to the project:
The new Los Angeles City Hall stands like a glistening white monolith—a monument in 1928 to the growth and community development of the last decade which has focused the attention of the world upon this city. A record has been set in city-community building that is not paralleled in the world’s modern history. For a century, at least, this edifice will stand as a marker for the municipal achievements of this period.
Interestingly, it was asserted that “there is no particularly style of architecture about the new municipal home; it is modern American; no attempt was made to follow the lines of any past or present master builder.” The architects were John C. Austin, Albert C. Martin and John Parkinson, prominent among the city’s fraternity of building designers and the height of the building, its surmounting tower, and the Lindbergh Beacon “that will blaze the way for future aerial travelers,” though it was soon shut off as distracting to planes was also highlighted.
It was added that “Los Angeles, always a happy pueblo [or was it drowsy and sleepy at one time as noted above?] of sunny days, pleasant nights and peaceful sea, has never tended toward skyscrapers nor lofty governmental structures.” Yet, an exception was made for “a monumental structure to herald to the world the pride that is Los Angeles'” made possible for an overwhelming voter approval to amend the city charter, a decision approved by the state supreme court.
After noting that the purchase of the site began nearly twenty years before, it was stated that “the planners made a wise decision in the selection of the site” because “the commercial, social and pioneering activities of past generations centered” on the parcel, where ground was broken two years prior, on 4 March 1926. There “the pueblo, town, city and metropolis—under three flags—came upon its Destiny.” There was some discussion of he use of granite and terra cotta, with local and native materials used when possible.
A list of the city’s American-era chief executives and a table of its population from census returns (the oft-quoted 1,610 for 1850 was definitely a significant undercount, however), including an estimate of 1,416,000 for 1928 is included as it a roster of the Citizens’ City Hall Dedication Committee, headed by Schenck, and which published the program. Among its vice-chairs was downtown developer William May Garland and John Steven McGroarty, highlighted in a recent post concerning his 1929 play, Osceola. Committee chairs included the city police and fire chiefs, the notorious James E. Davis and R.J. Scott, respectively and Mary Julia Workman, Boyle’s sister and daughter of the late mayor (and city treasurer), who headed the “Women’s Transportation” committee.
Not long after the opening of the City Hall, the unbridled optimism and enthusiasm for Los Angeles embodied in its construction was met by the stunning onset of the Great Depression, ushered forth by the collapse of the stock market in New York in late October 1929. The complex, however, has nearly fulfilled the prophecy uttered above and is approaching a century of use, including a major remodeling completed in 2001. The program is probably the ultimate summation of the expression of what the complex meant for boosters of the city during the end of the Roaring Twenties.