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34. Santa Monica City Hall, 1938 34. Santa Monica City Hall, 1938
1685 Main Street

Santa Monica City Hall, 1938
1685 Main Street

City Hall Main Entrance
photo by Michael Grandcolas

City Hall - seal in the floor
photo by Michael Grandcolas

City Hall Facade
photo by Michael Grandcolas

Historic Stanton Macdonald-Wright
murals - photo M Grandcolas

The previous City Hall, Santa Monica

President Franklin Roosevelt helped cure the country of “The Great Depression” by allocating several billion dollars to Public Works Administration (PWA) projects. Constructing public buildings was a means of providing employment, stabilizing purchasing power, improving public welfare, and contributing to a revival of American industry.

Santa Monica City Hall is a PWA project, and its architectural style has been dubbed WPA Moderne. This style of architecture was most widely used in building projects financed by the federal government and constructed by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works. Eventually known as the Public Works Administration (PWA), this government agency was created by Title II in the National Industrial Recovery Act of June 1933; it was the first national peacetime effort to create jobs. In the hope of promoting and stabilizing employment and purchasing power, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought about the creation of this agency to administer the construction of various public works, such as public buildings, bridges, dams, and housing developments, and to make loans to states and municipalities for similar projects. Under Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes' direction, the PWA constructed or refurbished highways, dams, low-cost housing, airports, warships, and other public projects. States and municipalities provided supervision in some cases, but all had to respect PWA guidelines. No PWA projects could use convict labor or work employees more than thirty hours a week. Congress required that human labor be used "in lieu of machinery whenever practicable" to maximize employment. By the close of 1933, thirteen thousand federal projects and twenty-five hundred locally supervised projects were under way.

Our City Hall was built in 1938-39 by architects Donald B. Parkinson and Joseph M. Estep, and is a fine example of Deco Moderne architecture. From Art Deco, City Hall borrows geometric and angular ornamentation in low relief, vertical projections and a sense of symmetry. From Art Moderne, it took faceted corners, a flat roof, continuous ribbons of windows and a horizontal flow.

As a young architect, Donald B. Parkinson collaborated first with his father, John Parkinson and, later, with Joseph M. Estep, to design many noteworthy structures around Los Angeles, including the original campus of the University of Southern California (1919-39), the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1923 and 1930-31), Los Angeles City Hall (1928), Bullocks-Wilshire (1929) and Union Station (1939).

Of primary historic interest is the grand entry lobby with high walls, grand stairways and artworks. Original Gladding McBean ceramic tiles are found around the west entrance doorway and throughout the building.

The California-based Gladding McBean Tile Company is now the only remaining major manufacturer of hand-sculpted, ornamental terra cotta tiles in the United States. In continuous operation since 1875, Gladding McBean developed a reputation for quality craftsmanship. In the early 20th century, Gladding McBean terra cotta ornamentation and wall tiles were featured in numerous public buildings, including the Wrigley Building in Chicago, the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C., Carnegie Hall in New York City, and the Bullock’s-Wilshire department store, Union Station and Los Angeles City Hall

The City Hall walls feature historic Stanton Macdonald-Wright murals documenting the city’s and the state’s history. MacDonald-Wright, is the founder of the Synchromism art movement. He pioneered a method called “Petrachrome,” painting murals with a liquid mixture of materials including crushed tile, marble and granite, then letting the work dry before polishing it. This technique was nationally recognized as an important contribution to the evolution of the medium. MacDonald-Wright evolved into the director of the WPA arts program for the western U.S.

The mural extending from the west wall onto the north wall depicts a group of five figures meeting on a beach rimmed by mountains, with rocks in the waves at the shoreline. A Spanish conquistador stands with a padre in a Franciscan robe holding a walking stick. They face two Native Americans, kneeling and sitting at a stream, drinking with their hands. Behind them is a standing, bearded figure who wears a blue hat and cloak, and behind him are two bridled horses. A timeline accompanying the mural indicates dates of historic significance for both the city and the state.

The mural extending from the west wall to the south portrays Santa Monica in the 1930s.

Inlaid in the floor, you will find the city seal encircled by the words, “City of Santa Monica, California. Founded 1875.” The seal features a mermaid and Spanish galleon on the bay, with sun, mountains, clouds and airplanes behind. A ribbon near the base of the seal carries the city’s motto, Populus Felix en Urbe Felice, Latin for “Fortunate People in a Fortunate Land.” Measuring 79 inches in diameter, the was created with the same “Petrachrome” method and a palette of colors, textures and elements similar to those used in the Macdonald-Wright murals.

Significant interior spaces on the second floor include the Council Chamber at the southwest corner, the original jail cells at the northeast corner and the city manager’s office on the east side.

In addition to being a local landmark, the contributions of so many great talents has earned the Santa Monica City Hall a place in the California Register of Historical Resources and eligibility for listing in the federal Register of Historic Places.