“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. Credit: Courtesy Arthur Drooker
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.
“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. Credit: Courtesy Arthur Drooker
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. Credit: Courtesy Arthur Drooker
“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. 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.”