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City Hall History and  Architecture



front view of City Hall

Pasadena City Hall is one of the finest examples of the California Mediterranean style. It is the dominant building in the Pasadena Civic Center, a complex of government, institutional and cultural buildings that epitomizes the City Beautiful movement.

Since its opening on December 27, 1927,  80-year old Pasadena City Hall has remained one of the most distinctive public buildings in the United States and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"An official building of imposing beauty, massive yet graceful, and suited to a land of flowers and sunshine" is what the Pasadena Board of Directors (called the City Council in modern times) had in mind when they undertook to build the present City Hall.

The way had been prepared in 1923, when the people of Pasadena passed a bond issue of $3.5 million to establish a civic center. The Chicago firm of Bennett, Parsons and Frost was commissioned to draw up a civic center plan. The planners established Garfield Avenue as an axis, on which City Hall was to be the central element, with the Pasadena Public Library to the north and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to the south. Also included in the original design were the Pasadena Police Department, Pasadena Municipal Court, YMCA, YWCA, Southern California Gas Company and United States Post Office. Over the years the new police building and county court house have been added. The YMCA building is now Centennial Place, a single-room-occupancy residential complex, and the Southern California Gas Company building now serves as the city's Permit Center. The YWCA building is unoccupied because of seismic and other issues.

Pasadena City Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 28, 1980, (listing number is 80-000813) as a contributor to the Pasadena Civic Center District; the listed significance is at the national level. As quoted from the National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination form: “The district, a Civic Center designed by Bennett, Parsons and Frost, “is a nationally significant example of civic art in the 'City Beautiful' style of the 1920’s. The main features of the plan were actually executed, and the key buildings (including City Hall) actually built, by nationally recognized architects in a homogeneous style.”


Lion motif

The original cost for building Pasadena City Hall was $1.3 million. For the final design, the San Francisco architectural firm of Bakewell and Brown turned to the style of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, who had studied and admired the Roman architect Vitruvius, as did the California mission-building padres. Palladio represented the simple, serene, classical style of the early Renaissance, in contrast to the Gothic style of medieval times and the rococo style of the later Renaissance.

Three famous European domed structures show Palladio’s influence: the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, the Hotel des Invalides in Paris and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Without being a direct imitation, Pasadena City Hall is related to them all.

Bakewell and Brown had a Palladian purity of taste but approached the style freely when designing Pasadena City Hall, gracing the walls with a moderate amount of ornamentation in the form of lion heads and garlands – symbolizing strength and abundance – as well as scrolls bearing the official crown and key. The dome is solidly based and commanding yet graceful and airy in appearance. Bakewell and Brown thought in terms of sun-warmed buff against blue skies and greenery with an accent of red tiles and shady, cloistered walks, a garden and splashing fountain. They also planned for all the rooms that would be needed by a busy city administration many years to come. Pasadena City Hall is a rectangular edifice outlining a spacious court. On the outside it measures 351 feet north and south and 242 feet east and west. The east side is a one-story arcade. The other three sides are three stories high with small towers at each corner and the main dome over the west entrance. The 235 rooms and passageways cover 170,000 square feet.

The massive circular tower structure rises perpendicularly for six stories. The fifth story is 41 feet high and pierced with four huge, round arches and four smaller ones. The next story, set back a little, is 30 feet high and is also pierced with arches. Above rises the dome, 26 feet high and 54 feet across. On top of the dome is the lantern, a column-supported cupola 41 feet high, surmounted by an urn and ball. The highest point is 206 feet above the ground.

The stairways have treads of Alaskan marble, with wrought iron balustrades. Cast stone is used for the fountain and wall ornaments. The roof is red Cordova clay tile and the dome is covered with fish-scale tile, originally multicolored but now red. The lanterns of the stair towers and the big dome are sheathed in copper. The floor of the main lobby and corridors is Padre tile and the interior woodwork is of vertical-grained white oak.

The courtyard has a strong Spanish Colonial atmosphere. The focal point is the cast stone Baroque fountain. 22.5 feet tall with a basin 25 feet in diameter. Paths of crushed granite define the flower beds and cloistered arches paved with red Padre tile surround the courtyard. California live oak trees provide shade for the azaleas, hydrangeas, rhododendron and beds of annuals that are planted on a rotational basis.   To see original construction pictures of City Hall please click on Photographs link below.


One of the primary reasons for the seismic retrofit of Pasadena City Hall was that r studies in the 1990's indicated that major earthquakes in the future could destroy several parts of the building completely and result in loss of life. 

The exterior of the building was virtually the same as it was built in 1927.  Although portions of the interior had been modified over the years, the primary public spaces and some of the offices retained their historic character.  Despite major earthquakes since 1927, very little rehabilitation of the exterior façade and architectural details was undertaken, with the exception of the restoration of two stair towers and one cupola  in the 1980s and repair of the finial on top of the large dome in 1991 following the Sierra Madre earthquake the same year.. 

While the building appeared to be aging gracefully to the lay observer, it suffered notably with a large number of deep cracks and considerable damage to two of the stair towers and the lantern in the large dome.  The building had extensive water damage due to inclement weather and temporary repairs that were never completed.  Aging art stone exterior features would have been lost without timely restoration.  Repairs to many architectural elements as well as original brick sidewalk were required to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In addition, outdated mechanical, electrical and life safety systems sorely needed replacement. 

Pasadena City Hall is regionally, nationally and internationally recognized and is a source of pride for its residents. Pasadena has a wealth of historic structures, yet City Hall assumes a greater significance than most because, and until closed for restoration in 2004, it had served for 77 years as the seat of Pasadena’s government. It provides a tangible connection with the past while having functioned admirably for most of today’s municipal needs. And it is, literally, a symbol of the City which Pasadena’s citizens universally speak of with a warm interest and pride. In a poll conducted in 2004 by Pasadena Heritage, a local, non-profit preservation organization, Pasadena City Hall was identified by both visitors and residents alike at their “…favorite historic building in Pasadena.”                                                                                                            

For photographs showing the original construction of Pasadena City Hall, pre-2004 building conditions and monthly photos showing construction activity from 2007-2007Hall construction, please click on the link below.