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Quintessentially California

Project: Pasadena City Hall, Pasadena, CA

Architects: Architectural Resources Group, San Francisco, CA; Susan McDonald, project architect

Historic Preservation Monitor: Historic Resources Group, Los Angeles, CA

By Eve M. Kahn

Pasadena was a somewhat provincial yet ambitious community of some 40,000 people in 1924, when it commissioned a new city hall via competition. The brief called for "an official building of imposing beauty, massive yet graceful, and suited to a land of flowers and sunshine." The winning design, by the San Francisco firm of Bakewell & Brown, laid out a five-domed, reinforced-concrete landmark towering over a streetscape of mostly shingled cottages and low-slung commercial buildings.

The government spent $1.3 million realizing most of Bakewell & Brown's vision (except for one wing of the cloister-like footprint, which fell victim to cost cutting). The city has since lived up to its auspicious, glamorous city hall, quadrupling in population and developing a reputation for fostering high culture, whether in museum exhibits, college curricula or movie making. There's only been one lingering flaw in Bakewell & Brown's skyline-defining spire: 1990s studies showed that it would collapse during the kind of 7.0 or 8.0 earthquakes that have struck elsewhere in the region.

In 2005, the City of Pasadena shuttered the building for $117.5 million worth of seismic overhaul and exterior and interior refurbishment, orchestrated by the San Francisco firm of Architectural Resources Group. The resulting smooth concrete skin utterly conceals some state-of-the-art quake reinforcements, along with what ARG project architect Susan McDonald calls "absolutely, completely, all-new M/E/P throughout."

Arthur Brown Jr., the city hall's original principal designer, would no doubt have appreciated ARG's bold re-engineering. According to historian Jeffrey T. Tilman's recent monograph about Brown (W.W. Norton, 2006, reviewed in Traditional Building, August 2007, page 167) at the Pasadena structure, Brown pioneered "the use of concrete in traditional building." He demonstrated, Tilman adds, that refined cast concrete could resemble venerable stucco "but with the strength and permanence of the industrial age." Brown slathered the 374-ft.-long building with delicate or dramatic cast ornament. He forged something "quintessentially Californian," Tilman writes, out of design precedents like El Escorial's church towers and the gatehouse at Paris's Jardin du Luxembourg. Over a rusticated base ribbed in paired Doric columns, tier after tier rises of paired Ionic columns, obelisks, urns and breezy open pavilions. Along the rims of the cake layers lie cartouches, lions' heads and fruit and flower swags (symbolizing California's agricultural abundance).

In the flowery courtyard, gargoyles spout water into clamshell basins on a 22-ft.-tall fountain. Inside, the 235 rooms have vaulted, coffered or beam-striped ceilings and are trimmed in white oak and Alaskan marble. In 1965, one historian gushed that Brown's opus "might be the dwelling place of Renaissance royalty costumed as Apollo or Aphrodite."

The domed profile has appeared on the likes of calendars, key chains, t-shirts and mugs, and Pasadenans have voted city hall their favorite historic building. The locals have also continually worried about its long-term soundness. In 1982, the city brought on Architectural Resources Group to start analyzing and giving advice about cracks, leaks, lost or loose ornament and vintage wiring systems.

"It's an incredibly popular building," explains ARG co-founder Bruce Judd. "To restore it has involved enormous community involvement from citizens on many different commissions and committees."

ARG gradually persuaded Pasadenans to fund the costliest but least obtrusive form of seismic protection: excavating the basement, removing the foundation slab and installing 240 friction-pendulum base isolators either attached to existing columns or mid-bay. The isolators, Judd notes, "can convert an earthquake's high-frequency shaking into a gentle swaying." A moat at the building's perimeter leaves room for that swaying. Conventional shear walls would not only have obscured Brown's domes but also left the building susceptible to some expensive quake damage – not to mention the cost of temporarily re-quartering the city's staff. The government voted enthusiastically to support ARG's base-isolator plan, with funding from sources including bond sales, FEMA, and the city's share of the regional power company's revenue.

During city hall's two-year closure, the government website posted frequent progress reports with scores of photos. Locals were reassured, for instance, that the courtyard's live oaks were well fenced off and protected from construction machinery. Citizens were also informed that a terra-cotta arcade along one avenue was too quake-vulnerable to preserve, but would instead be lovingly replicated in steel-reinforced concrete. Construction crews in the end spent a total of 541,000 person-hours on the project, which came in on time and within budget. The structural engineer firm for the project was Forell/Elsesser Engineers of San Francisco, and the Clark Construction Group of Costa Mesa, CA, was the contractor.

Some 450 city staffers returned to their desks last summer. "They'd been scattered in temporary quarters, and everyone was so relieved to finally get back in," says McDonald. Yet for all the internet construction updates, she adds, "some people still didn't quite realize how much had been done, how much is new or newly rethought." Judd says that his firm "worked very hard to make it look like not that much had been changed. Some people think we just repainted." After 25 years of pondering the building's workings and fate, he says, "We do miss working there sometimes. But our Pasadena office is only two blocks away, so we can always visit. And the dome is always a delight to see on the skyline." TB

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