What happens on the upper floors of LA City Hall?

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On a grey Friday afternoon in late spring, the observation deck at L.A. City Hall was packed. Hordes of teenagers from a nearby high school roamed the deck’s open-air periphery, pausing intermittently to gaze out over the wraparound railing, which stands a lofty 27 floors up from the sidewalk below.

The City Hall observation deck doubles as the building’s uppermost public-accessible floor and proffers staggering panoramic views of the city —  even on a cloudy day. That’s thanks, in part, to the building’s towering height, relative to most of its neighbors.

As most SoCal natives know, around here, a 28-floor building is equivalent to a bona fide Manhattan skyscraper. Back in the day, the tower was actually L.A.’s tallest building, though it lost its title to the nearby Union Bank Building in 1960 . (If you’re wondering what happens on the last floor above City Hall’s observation deck, the answer basically boils down to: not much; and, the public isn’t allowed up there, anyway.)

KCRW listener Fabian Mejia who asked Curious Coast about City Hall’s upper floors, has never been to the observation deck. Still, having grown up in South Central just a few miles away, Mejia says City Hall “has always piqued my interest, just because of how it looks.”

As a teenager, he skateboarded past the building, looking up at the tower and thinking, “Man, is that thing going to fall?” Mejia chalks up that particular musing to his own “morbidity,” but a quick Google search reveals his younger self actually might have been onto something.

Though initial construction on the building finished up in 1928, its tower — which, at 454 feet off the ground, might very well be an earthquake phobic’s worst nightmare — underwent what’s called a “seismic retrofit” in 1998. This ensured the tower would remain standing even in the face of an exceedingly grave natural disaster. Per an archived statement from the construction company that worked on the retrofit , the tower’s “seismic upgrade” should protect City Hall after a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. Today, the tower remains the world’s tallest structure to have undergone a retrofit of that scope.

If its views aren’t enough of a draw — though the panorama is truly not one to miss —  the observation deck’s accessibility factor might be.

The observation deck is open for public access during pretty much any and all regular work hours, completely free of charge. History buffs can also opt for a docent-led tour, which winds through the tower’s upper floors over the course of 45 minutes or so, herding visitors through the iconic Tom Bradley Room (via its inordinately stately staircase entrance on the 26th floor) and culminating at the observation deck.

Los Angeles City Hall building in 1931, shortly after its completion. (Wikimedia Commons) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

After witnessing the tangible awe that its views must instill in most everyone who’s visited, the observation deck’s sole usage as a sight-seeing opportunity for the general public seemed a little bizarre, given how grand it is.  But a question about the deck’s “original use” during a conversation with author and City Hall expert, Stephen Gee, he explained that the architects who constructed the tower quite literally designed it to serve this very purpose — the one it continues to serve today.

The observation deck has always been open to the public, Gee said, although making the trek up to the 27th floor hasn’t always been quite as comfortable as it is today. “It’s much easier now for the public to get up there,” Gee said, explaining that the seismic retrofit effort of the late-90s spurred a wider effort to restore different elements of the building. One of those elements was the Tom Bradley Room’s sweeping granite staircase, which allows visitors convenient (not to mention scenic) access to the deck. Prior to the restoration effort, the uppermost floor was exclusively accessible via what Gee referred to as “a fairly cramped elevator.”

Gee has been doing his own investigating into the ins and outs of the City Hall building for years now. He recently wrote a book , Los Angeles City Hall: An American Icon, which celebrates the building’s architecture as well as its colorful history .  Gee said the building’s public access has been an integral part of City Hall’s community outreach model since the building first opened nearly a century ago.

“[The observation deck] was one of the real selling points of getting people in the city  interested.” he explained, “that you could go up to the top of it and have these incredible views of Los Angeles.”

According to Gee the views offered by the observation deck are unparalleled. “It’s really the best view of the city,” he said, citing the 360-degree perspective as one of its most distinctive qualities. “You’re effectively outside.”

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