Restoring the Hall of Justice. Remembering Los Angeles.

Hall of Justice, 1939
| Photo by Burton O. Burt, from the WPA Collection of the USC Digital Archive

There are two sisters downtown on the rise that was once called Pound Cake Hill for its compact elevation. The Los Angeles City Hall is the younger, dedicated in April 1928. The older Hall of Justice replaced the county's 19th century courthouse in 1926.

Both City Hall and the Hall of Justice were built from white Sierra granite from the same quarry. And both were severely damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake; the Hall of Justice so badly that it was red tagged and emptied.

The priapic City Hall tower and the rectangular Hall of Justice share another likeness. Although called "beaux arts" in style, the Hall of Justice reflects the muscular classicism that the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition once popularized. The inspiration for the hall's tall base and upper stories of columned walls seems to have been the tomb of King Mausoleus at Halicarnassus. City Hall, although more properly Art Deco in style, is topped by a stepped pyramid just like the one that rose over the king's tomb.

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Hall of Records, the old City Hall, and the Hall of Justice (far right and partically obscured)
| Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive

The two buildings play complementary roles in the city's iconography, as well, photographed together as sentinels of the city's promise of triumph even as that promise grew more ambiguous.

The exterior of the Hall of Justice stood in for authority in all its forms in movies and later on TV. Inside, real authorities presided over the District Attorney's office, the county coroner's office, and the Sheriff's Department. Above their offices were the cellblocks of the Los Angeles County jail. Gangster "Bugsy" Siegel and actor Robert Mitchum (in 1947, for marijuana possession) did time there. So did Charles Manson, and Sirhan Sirhan.

Inmates of the Hall of Justice included generations of "addicted" mice that nibbled through the bricks of marijuana held as evidence in criminal trials.

Los Angeles Civic Center viewed from the Hollywood Freeway, ca. 1955
| Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive

Ghosts, it was said, and the occasional homeless person and graffiti vandal have been the only occupants to enjoy the hall's ornate lobby, its dark cells, and its imposing court rooms for nearly 20 years. The Board of Supervisors made plans to restore the building in 2002, but the plans were stalled until the end of 2010 when federal "Build America" funding was secured for seismic, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical upgrades.

Many of the county offices that relocated after the 1994 earthquake are making plans now to return to the Hall of Justice when it reopens, probably at the end of 2014.

Meanwhile, the walls and pillars of the Hall of Justice have been stripped down to concrete and steel. Terrazzo floors, wooden elevator cars, and iron-and-brass staircases have been covered or put in storage. The cells have been taken out (and sold as scrap for $450,000). Air conditioning ducts have been hung for the first time (all the offices once had windows that would be opened in the heat of autumn).

Cellblock in the Hall of Justice
| Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive

An original courtroom and the law library are being restored for conference and meeting facilities. A nine-level, 1,000-vehicle parking structure (half of it underground) is being excavated. A mildly abrasive scrubbing is underway to whiten the building's granite exterior.

The two sisters on Pound Cake Hill were built in the 1920s to confirm Los Angeles as the western outpost of an ascendency that gave white granite every shade of ironic meaning. The Jazz Age L.A. that did business behind those walls was as corrupt as humanly possible. District attorneys perjured themselves. Judges were bought. The innocent -- like the Sleepy Lagoon suspects -- were railroaded into prison.

A fashionable brothel was located conveniently across the street from the Hall of Justice. City Hall had an office in the mayor's suite set aside to receive kickbacks and bribes.

Cleaning up and reusing the Hall of Justice is needful. But just as necessary is a clear understanding of what we will remember when it reopens next year. Forgetfulness will smear again what we've so carefully whitened.

Hall of Justice
| Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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