Editor's Note: Long Beach's city government will begin doing business Tuesday, July 30, in its new City Hall. To mark the occasion, Hayley Munguia chronicles the history of our seat of government.
It was an inauspicious beginning:
Long Beach’s birth, in 1888, an official designation that belied its modest identity as a seaside village. It was contained within 6 square miles, its 500 or so residents traversing the land — in the age before the automobile — with horses and buggies.
The nascent government, meanwhile, was scattershot. It operated out of rented storefronts in a few of the town’s 59 buildings.
That village, 131 years later, is now a metropolis. Its population is 1,000 times larger. Its territory is eight times what is once was. The government here employs about 6,500 people: It’s long since outgrown those ground-level shops.
Long Beach’s growth, throughout its history, has been continual, challenging and empowering its officials and residents — and infusing the town with an ambition that, at times, seemed peculiar for a beachside haven long in the shadows of Los Angeles. Long Beach’s growth, though, has also forced its officials to periodically re-envision the government’s seat: There have been three different City Halls during that time, and one substantial 1934 remodel that changed the face of the municipal headquarters.
But each new City Hall, including the Depression-era facelift, has reflected the images of how Long Beach sees itself — and its aspirations for the future.
“At any given moment, the City Hall in Long Beach has sort of represented where the city is at that moment,” local historian Craig Hendricks said in a recent interview. “The City Hall, in many ways, represents the change over time in the city of Long Beach and its concerns about its government.”
For the past 42 years, that government has been housed in an imposing 14-story, Brutalist structure on Ocean Boulevard. But on Friday, July 26, Mayor Robert Garcia and City Manager Pat West exited the building for the final time, marking an end to one more moment in the city’s history.
On Monday, Long Beach will christen a gleaming, glass-plated $533 million structure, also along Ocean Boulevard, a new entry on a short list of City Hall transitions — underpinning yet another step in the town’s evolution.
Long Beach’s First City Hall
The local sheep population, at roughly 30,000, far outnumbered the people.
But that didn’t stop William Willmore, a London transplant, from trying, in the 1880s, to tout the southwestern sliver of Ranchos Los Cerritos, which would eventually become Long Beach, as “a healthful seaside resort,” according to city records.
Willmore had a few failed starts. But then an 1887 rate war broke out between the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, both of which had cross-country lines to Los Angeles. Fares eventually dropped to $1 in the flurry — bringing a town’s worth of new arrivals to the former ranch.
Within 11 years of the city’s 1888 incorporation, those scattered storefronts proved insufficient for the government of a bustling village.
Voters approved a $9,000 City Hall bond in January 1899, according to Walter Case’s 1927 book, “History of Long Beach and Vicinity.” Construction was completed in the same year.
That two-story building on Pacific Avenue, between Third and Second (now Broadway) streets, with its pediment and Neo-classical columns — hearkening to ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy — marked an august, if diminutive, beginning to Long Beach’s life as a city with a hall.
“When we were a tiny seaside village,” Hendricks said, “we had a tiny, almost residential City Hall.”
At first, the ground floor was used for both the council chamber and the city library. The second floor, Case wrote, “was used for entertainments, being provided with a stage and a fairly large audience floor.”
But the sleepy village was rapidly becoming a city. And just as quickly, the modest City Hall proved inadequate for the government’s needs.
“There were only 2,000 people here in 1900,” Hendricks said. “The government was kind of loose, and there was not a lot of focus on it. But that changes over time.”
For the better part of the 20th Century’s first decade, in fact, Long Beach was the fastest-growing city in the country. In 1900, Census records show, the population stood at 2,252. By 1910, it swelled to 17,809.
The city’s government did its best to hire more staff to keep up with the population surge — leaving its small quarters increasingly cramped.
Within five years, the library moved into the upstairs space. Five years after that, in 1909, the city built a separate library facility, leaving the entire 1899 structure strictly for municipal oversight.
Then, the old practice of renting random rooms returned, costing about $7,800 per year in taxpayer money. The Water Department and the Public Service Department, among others, were pushed outside of City Hall.
Finally, in 1919, after years of yearning, officials persuaded voters to approve more bonds. A new City Hall was on its way.
As City Grows, City Hall Grows
Dynamite blew a hole in the ground. Airbomb fireworks erupted overhead.
Long Beach officials had physically moved the 1899 City Hall 125 feet across Pacific Avenue to make way for its successor.
In 1921, the city celebrated the groundbreaking for the new structure, clearing the way for its basement during a special ceremony.
Mayor W.T. Lisenby gave an address to the thousands gathered.
In it, he touched upon what would become a never-ending mission for each successive generation of mayors.
Long Beach, Lisenby said, was “destined to be the chief city on the Pacific Coast.
“Our accomplishments have not been great, but this building will be a monument,” he continued, according to Case’s book. “We have a population from 65,000 to 70,000 and the end is not yet.”
One month later, oil would be discovered in Signal Hill, which had not yet become its own enclave of a city. The revelation quickly brought millions of dollars per month to Long Beach.
Lisenby’s vision for the city, it seemed, was manifesting before his eyes.
But even as cash poured into local coffers, more taxpayer funds were needed to push the City Hall project to the finish line.
A year after the groundbreaking, city and business leaders led a 14-block parade, raising scores of banners arguing for a second bond and mocking those who opposed it.
The next day, voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.
The eight-story Renaissance Revival building was completed in 1923. Its red terra-cotta roof and four white cupolas gave the building a much showier display of gravitas than its forebear.
Blueprints from the time show a well-intended scheme, with space for each department, and extra rooms on the second, third and fourth floors dedicated for women’s recreation, a patriotic hall and a doctor’s office.
And yet, the city’s booming population, spurred this time by newfound oil, once again foiled planners.
That 1923 building “is already inadequate,” Case wrote in his book, published just four years after the new facility opened, “and the old city hall has been remodeled and put into use again for municipal departments.”
The 1899 building, according to Case, was used to house the Harbor Department, the City Engineer, the Sanitation Department and part of the Gas Department, among others, until it was razed in 1931.
But while the lack of space didn’t force significant changes in the newer structure, Mother Nature did.
The earth shook, violently.
Poly High and Jefferson Junior High crumbled. The 6.4-magnitude earthquake of 1933 has struck Long Beach on a Friday evening in March.
But City Hall, though beaten, stood firm.
City Hall’s roof suffered the worst of the structure’s damage. The terra cotta caved in and its four small domes collapsed.
But the interior could still be occupied, according to Cara Mullio and Jennifer Volland’s 2004 book, “Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis.”
So, rather than start fresh on yet another ground-up construction project, officials opted to remodel the old building. The architect, Cecil Schilling, updated the exterior in the Streamline Moderne style, inspired by aerodynamic design and characterized by clean, horizontal lines.
The facelift flattened the roofline. It reshaped the arcade’s originally rounded, semicircular archways into box-like arches, called lintels. And it covered the brick exterior with concrete painted a bright white.
The difference was so stark that historians and Long Beach officials have quibbled over whether the modernized facade constituted an entirely new City Hall.
Then, when World War II broke out, the building’s mission as a democratic beacon intensified.
The hall doubled as a training center for its residents, teaching them skills — such as how to identify a bomb — they hoped to never use.
And so the government’s Sisyphean nightmare returned: City Hall, once again, was overloaded.
Over the course of the war, the Harbor Department, Tax Collection, Public Utilities, Civil Service Commission, Health Department and the City Treasurer, among others, all dispersed elsewhere.
In 1947, the Police Department moved into a former garage.
By then, city officials told the Press-Telegram at the time, “more municipal business is transacted outside the City Hall than inside it.”
During the post-war boom, after rationing and the war economy went away, city officials began circling a potential solution to a problem as old as the town itself: a civic center, a single location encompassing multiple buildings in which all of Long Beach’s services could be found.
No more storefronts.
But, in a sequel to the political fights for the 1923 City Hall, it would take a few failed attempts to persuade the public to build a new one. Long Beach ultimately won voters’ support for a new City Hall in 1968.
City Hall Grows Up
Don Gibbs had a simple idea:
To emphasize the public’s role in a growing city.
Gibbs, one member on the team of architects chosen to design Long Beach’s next City Hall, wanted to flip the traditional council chamber on its head.
In this new City Hall, Gibbs decided, the room where the City Council would make decisions impacting all of Long Beach would be designed like an amphitheater: The audience would be seated above the City Council — a nod to the notion that elected officials worked for the people, not the other way around.
“I didn’t like that a lot of council chambers had the council people sitting above, elevated above the audience,” Gibbs said in a recent interview. “So we reversed that, and put the audience above the City Council seats, as some kind of a symbolic measure.”
Another symbolic measure would be the building’s imposing stance, towering over everything in its vicinity.
The idea, Gibbs said, was to make an “identifiable icon” for Long Beach’s skyline.
The architects succeeded. The 14-story Brutalist City Hall, with its concrete wings protruding from each corner of the dark, square, steel-and-glass building, is unmistakable.
The building’s dedication was July 4, 1976, a few months before its final completion, to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial. It was, by all accounts from the time, a hit. Hundreds attended the afternoon ceremony, which included marching bands and choirs. Officials buried a time capsule, set to be opened in 2026.
Guests received souvenir programs that dubbed the project, “The Bicentennial Gift to the Future.”
“That was so much fun,” Gibbs, now 85, said.
“As a young guy, I had a chance to design the City Hall for our city,” he added. “That was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
But, Gibbs said, some of his ideas for the new building — creating a contrast between the towering City Hall and the flatter, two-story library, and leaving plenty of open space — turned out, years later, to be the project’s “Achilles’ heel.”
The lofty building has become increasingly dwarfed by new neighbors, skyscrapers reaching 24 stories, 29 stories, 30 stories.
The sparsely populated slice of Ocean Boulevard real estate, home to what was once one of Long Beach’s tallest towers, has since become a lot more valuable.
“It was so lacking in density that developers could find a way to offer a new city hall and other things to trade for some of the land,” he said, “which was originally part of that institutional notion of less density and more contrast.”
The land’s appeal to outside developers may have made new construction easier to facilitate. But the official reason for the facility’s shutdown was something else entirely.
The city that’s always eyed the future was once again reminded of its past. This time, though, it was not the government outgrowing its offices — but the 1933 earthquake: A series of seismic studies found City Hall may not survive a major temblor.
But regardless of the reason, Gibbs said, it will be hard to watch the preeminent project of his life torn down.
“It is kind of sad for me,” he said. “I hate to see the things I’ve designed disappear.”
A New Era
And yet, Long Beach is now a town that can snag a statewide Democratic convention. It will welcome global leaders in the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. It may, officials believe, woo the Angels away from their longtime home in Anaheim.
Like those buildings newer to the City Hall’s downtown neighborhood, Long Beach’s profile has skyrocketed.
Now, it’s time for the seat of municipal government to send a different message about its place in the city.
“We believe that architecture is at its best when it is both of its place and of its time,” Paul Danna, design lead for the new Civic Center project, said Thursday, July 25. “In terms of what (the buildings) represent, there’s a strong interest in the recognition of the importance of energy efficiency and sustainability and resiliency, as well as a real focus on the importance of the workplace for those who work in the building and those who visit.”
Employees will get more sunlight in the new office, which research says can both improve their daily lives and cut down on energy costs. About 25% of the energy that is used will come from the building’s solar panels.
The windows, meanwhile, are thick enough to prevent the office space from overheating.
“Obviously, that’s a direction that Long Beach is very enthusiastic about taking,” Jennifer Carey, a spokeswoman for the city’s Public Works Department, said. “We are making a huge effort to improve sustainability citywide.”
The minimalist building may be less distinctive from afar — and 36,000 square feet smaller — but that in itself says something about where Long Beach is headed.
When asked about the new building’s less identifiable nature, both Danna and Carey said its outline — and its place among neighboring towers — was far less of a consideration than the way it will serve the public.
“I think it was mostly just about function for city residents and function for employees,” Carey said, “having a space that residents would want to come to and spend time in.”
No longer, it seems, does Long Beach need to send an adorned, imposing message with its headquarters.
Emerging out of the shadow of Los Angeles, forever the little brother, the new, sleeker and more compact structure conveys a subtler sense of confidence.
That self-assuredness is a quality officials foresee defining the city for the long haul.
They hope, after all, this new home will endure.
“It’s going to be the new center of democracy for the community,” Garcia said as he bid his final farewell to the 1976 building. “I think the building represents, not just a building, but really, where the community is going and where the city is going in the future.”
As Long Beach embarks on this new moment, the city stakes its identity to a City Hall that embodies efficiency, sustainability, and above all, public service.
They are values that, officials hope, will live on.