City Hall Entrance

Historical Background

The entrance to the Los Angeles City Hall on Spring Street is one of the city's most majestic public places. Walking up the triumphal granite stairs from the street, past the columned portico through the enclosed forecourt and into the building's rotunda, the visitor moves through a sequence of spaces linked in a logical relationship and organized into a unified progression by Beaux-Arts principles.

A comprehensive art program was planned to embellish and intensify the symbolism of this ceremonial passage. However, only two components of the art program were finished, making the building--which has been occupied since 1928--incomplete. What follows is a description of the entire art plan.

The large granite pedestals framing the stairs and the entrance into the forecourt were designed to elevate two never-executed heroic statuary groups. A bas relief was scheduled to be installed in the frieze over the forecourt's columned entrance. The first of two important proposals for the space was made in 1931 by the noted American sculptor, William Zorach (1889-1966). Invited to submit a proposal by John Austin, one of the building's principal architects, Zorach designed a narrative on California history, which New York Times art critic Edward Jewell doubted "whether anything finer of this kind has been produced in centuries." Due to a lack of funds caused by the depression, the project did not proceed beyond a drawing Zorach exhibited at a New York City gallery. In 1940, the Los Angeles City Council commissioned Robert Paine (1869 - ?) to execute a panel for the frieze but Mayor Fletcher Bowron vetoed the appropriation. Paine proceeded to execute a 19 foot plaster of Paris model of his design, whose theme was "The Immemorial Migrations and Commingling of Peoples Are the Root Flowering in the Highest That Man Has Become." The design included a variety of settings, such as a Phoenician ship at port, ancient Egyptians and strangers being welcomed at a city gate. Exhibited just three weeks before Pearl Harbor, the work quickly faded from public view after America's entry into World War II.

In the tile walls of the forecourt, symbolic representations of the foundation of the city's wealth--labor, the port of Los Angeles, air transportation, machines, oil, movies, printing and manufacturing--were designed by an unknown artist at the tile manufacturer, Tropico Pottery in Glendale. A relief was planned, but never designed, for the frieze above the inscription "Righteousness Exalteth A People" over the doors to the City Hall.

Panels designed by Henry Lion for the two bronze doors in the Spring Street entrance may be compared in concept to the Ghiberti doors on the Baptistry in Florence, Italy. Rather than containing scenes from the Bible, however, the panels in each of the 4' x 12' doors depict events in the history of Los Angeles. In 1926, Arthur B. Benton, President of the Municipal Arts Commission, proposed that panels in the doors depict the discovery of the city, the founding of the city, the admission of California into the Union, the construction of the harbor and the opening of the aqueduct. The Commission accepted his proposal and added the 1932 Olympic games for the sixth panel. Later, the Commission substituted the theme of education for the Olympic games because of uncertainty in 1926 that the games would actually take place in Los Angeles.

The Municipal Arts Commission reviewed design proposals for the doors from a number of artists. One artist proposed that the education panel depict "Junipero Serra teaching the Indians," while W.A. Sharp, an artist who became involved in the project through his friendship with Benton, suggested the panel depict the city's first school. The Commission later approved Sharp's design for the panels on "The Founding," "American Occupation," "First School," and "Finding, Naming of Site". However, after Benton suddenly died, Sharp's connection with the project ended and Henry Lion was invited by the architects to submit a proposal for all six panels.

While Lion refined his design, the Commission argued over what year to put in the American occupation panel because they questioned when the occupation began. American troops briefly occupied the city in 1846, but their arrogance provoked a rebellion by the local population that succeeded in driving the American forces out. In January 1847, American troops under the command of General Stephen Watts Kearny, marched up from San Diego, defeated the local militia in a battle along the San Gabriel River, and reoccupied the city. Initially, the Municipal Arts Commission favored 1847 because that was the year in which America's unbroken occupation began. But after consulting original and secondary sources and seeking advice from historians, the Commission finally adopted 1846.

The top left panel, "Finding, Naming Site 1769," commemorates Gaspar de Portola's passage through the area by portraying a religious service celebrating the jubilee of Our Lady of Los Angeles de Porciuncula on August 1, 1769. The upper right panel, "Founding, 1781" shows Governor Felipe de Neve reading instructions to the settlers of the Pueblo on September 4, 1781. "American Occupation, 1846," the center left panel, depicts Commodore Stockton and Major Fremont saluting the United State flag when it was first raised in the Plaza on August 13, 1846. "Public School, Founded 1853," the middle right panel, portrays a male school teacher greeting a mother with her two children. In the bottom left panel, "Opening Aqueduct Headgate, Feb 13, 1913," William Mulholland is represented giving the command to open the headgate in the San Fernando Valley, which was the final act in bringing water from the Owens Valley to the city. The lower right panel, "Placing Last Stone on Breakwater, Sept 30, 1913," depicts the completion of the breakwater at the Port of Los Angeles.

In general, the six scenes ignore the presence of Native Americans, compress the Spanish and Mexican periods into one, and emphasize events that speak of cultural and material progress as the measure of civilization. In particular, the education panel is deceptive by ignoring the teachers hired in the 1830s during the Mexican period and by suggesting that formal education began in Los Angeles only after the American conquest. In addition to winning the commission for the doors, Lion also designed an octagonal chandelier for the City Hall's rotunda depicting people in California history. For unknown reasons, the chandelier was later removed, bundled up and placed in storage. Funds are currently being sought to restore the fixture.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, February 1998.

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