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America's most eye-catching city halls

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Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Architectural photographer Arthur Drooker is well aware of the reputation held by America’s city halls. After all, the subjects of his latest project are so closely associated with bureaucracy they have inspired the despairing aphorism, “You can’t fight city hall.”

“Most people have probably never gone into their city hall unless they absolutely had to, whether that was to pay a tax bill, pull permits for construction, vote on election day or attend a hearing,” Drooker said in a video interview. “But the more memorable ones are beautiful buildings you just want to visit just for their own sake.”

Over the course of four years, Drooker traveled to around 40 of America’s 300-plus city halls. Often spending days at each, he documented their grand exteriors, explored long-forgotten corners and spoke to local politicians and architects about how the institutions operate. The resulting images reveal a surprisingly rich variety of styles, from Flemish Renaissance Revival in Milwaukee to Art Deco in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Los Angeles City Hall as seen from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, another of the city's architectural icons.

Los Angeles City Hall as seen from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, another of the city’s architectural icons. Credit: Courtesy Arthur Drooker

Unlike many federal buildings, city halls were often designed to reflect the places they represent. For instance, in California’s Palm Springs, famous for its Modernist villas, Drooker found a low-rise mid-century city hall complete with palm trees growing through a circular opening in the canopy above its entranceway.

In New York state, meanwhile, the halls of Buffalo’s soaring Art Deco city hall are painted with murals nodding to the region’s industries and decorative tiles inspired by Native American motifs.

By choosing just 15 of the country’s most architecturally eye-catching examples, the photographer’s new book “City Hall” is neither exhaustive nor strictly representative. (He filtered out buildings he found dull during his research, and some of the shortlisted buildings he visited proved “disappointing” in person.) Yet, as a selective survey, the photos instead show what cities can achieve when political will, financial resources and visionary design converge.

“Those three things, working together, can make a building that transcends its function,” Drooker said.

Changing face of power

Despite the buildings’ apparent diversity, Neoclassicism has, historically, reigned large in American civic life. It has always been the “default architecture,” of government, Drooker said.

“They have the Greek-style columns, the pediments and the steps leading up to it because it conveys, very quickly, that this is an important building — there’s power in this building.”

Milwaukee City Hall was build in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style at the end of the 19th century.

Milwaukee City Hall was build in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style at the end of the 19th century. Credit: Courtesy Arthur Drooker

As such, the Neoclassical movement still resonates with many in politics today. Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order requiring all new federal buildings to be built on “the forms, principles and vocabulary of the architecture of Greek and Roman antiquity” may have been overturned by his successor — and would not, in any case, have applied to city halls — but it exposed a disdain for contemporary architecture that exists in parts of government and elsewhere.

For Drooker, however, modern city halls not only reflect evolving tastes but changing expressions of power. Their designs suggest that the way rulers present themselves to the ruled has shifted in the 200 years between his book’s oldest case study, New York’s Federal-style city hall, and its most recent, Las Vegas City Hall, which was completed less than a decade ago and is wrapped in an LED-enabled glass facade.

“City halls are now consciously designed to be more open and more welcoming,” Drooker said, offering San Jose’s, completed in 2005, as an example. “It has a plaza that’s open to the street, and the architects of the building wanted to think of it as the city’s living room.”

San José City Hall, opened in 2005, features a modern take on the classic rotunda seens in many of America's historic civic buildings.

San José City Hall, opened in 2005, features a modern take on the classic rotunda seens in many of America’s historic civic buildings. Credit: Courtesy Arthur Drooker

The photographer’s inclusion of two Brutalist buildings — namely the seemingly austere Boston City Hall and Dallas’ inverted concrete pyramid by late architect I.M. Pei — might appear to contradict this correlation between modernity and openness. Brutalism, which was singled out for criticism by Trump’s aforementioned executive order, is often maligned for being cold and uncaring. Yet, for Drooker, there is an unexpected transparency to these designs.

“A lot of people — I dare say including me — don’t think of Brutalism as especially welcoming,” he admitted. “But the architects of Boston City Hall were very clear that they wanted this building to be open to the people, because Boston was coming out of a very corrupt period, politically.

“It was basically a stripped-down concrete building, as if to say: ‘We have nothing to hide, it is what it is.’ It is a very permeable building that is very open to the street, so this (reflects the idea of) consciously designing buildings that are open and available to the people they serve.”

Local democracy at work

The photographer’s personal fascination with city halls began with his local one, in San Francisco. “I would visit two or three times a week, and just take photos with my iPhone then post them on Instagram,” Drooker recalled.

Rebuilt after its predecessor was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco City Hall is a notable remnant of the City Beautiful movement, which sought to reimagine America’s cities at the turn of the 20th century. The striking Beaux-Arts design features a pink Tennessee marble staircase leading to an ornate rotunda and a 307-foot dome — the nation’s tallest — painted with gold leaf.

Local references feature prominently in Buffalo's Art Deco design, opened in 1932.

Local references feature prominently in Buffalo’s Art Deco design, opened in 1932. Credit: Courtesy Arthur Drooker

The famous dome’s illuminated interior graces the cover of Drooker’s book. But the photographer reveals lesser-seen details, too. In one image, a crack is seen running along the rotunda’s marble floor, a reminder of the 1989 earthquake that almost threatened to repeat history.

Indeed, while the photographer is primarily concerned with architecture, his images are often acts of symbolism, too, whether focusing on a Los Angeles ceiling panel that alludes to the city’s moviemaking heritage or a gavel in New York council chamber, worn from years of passing judgement. It is a fitting approach a project that, according to Drooker, was not just about documenting the buildings but checking the pulse of local government.

“Part of me felt like I was on a mission to create a manifesto for democracy,” he said. “Because democratic ideals are baked into these buildings, whether it’s a quote on the wall or a city council chamber designed to be welcoming to the general public.”

City Hall,” published by Schiffer Publishing, is available now.
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