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Building Los Angeles

Los Angeles City Hall

Photo by Uniphoto

APRIL 26, 1928. THE WHITE HOUSE… President Calvin Coolidge stands poised to push a telegraph key that will signal the lighting of a beacon atop the bunting-festooned, gleaming granite and terra-cotta-clad tower of the new Los Angeles City Hall. Once lit, the rotating beacon flashes “LA” in Morse code across the city. The night sky dazzles with such an exuberant display of fireworks that several of the new building’s windows are broken.

Amid the downtown throng of automobile traffic, busy newsstands, coffee shops and rushing passengers, Los Angeles, now the fifth-largest city in the nation and with ambitions to rival New York and Chicago, was toasting its future with the inauguration of its new city hall.

Erected by a community that saw itself as the epitome of the 20th century, the new building was an icon of power. It rose a monolithic 452 feet above the city – a testament to modernity and ambition and, with a distinct nod to D.W. Griffith, a whiff of Babylon. It embodied the city’s self image and future dreams.

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners

NOW, NEARLY 70 YEARS LATER, the landmark Los Angeles City Hall is the centerpiece of a new master plan which envisions a revitalized downtown that is well-served by public transportation, bringing employees to the largest concentration of government offices outside of Washington, D.C.

It is fitting that one of the moving forces behind this plan is Christopher C. Martin, grandson of one of the creators of the city’s original landmark. He and his cousin David C. Martin, who head the firm of AC Martin Partners (until recently Albert C. Martin and Associates), are the third generation of a family of Los Angeles architects who have helped shape the metropolitan skyline since the turn of the century.

“You can’t envision Los Angeles without their work,” notes Kevin Starr, California State Librarian and a professor in USC’s School of Urban Planning and Development. “They are among the half dozen architectural firms that over the last 100 years have given us the major buildings of Los Angeles, the city in its public dimension. Their involvement in the civic center master plan carries on that tradition.”

The impetus for the plan came from a contradiction Chris Martin observed in how the city was functioning.

“Our government offices were quietly decentralizing away from our historic civic center while at the same time a movement was afoot to bring redline [Metrorail] systems and modern transportation into downtown,” he says.

“One side was saying we’re going to make downtown easily accessible, and at the same time they were saying we’re not going to be there.”

The firm had been hired in 1992 by the State of California to do a study called “The State Consolidation Plan, Los Angeles Basin,” in which they advocated shared-use facilities for government buildings – shared conference rooms, three vehicle maintenance facilities instead of 13, one child care center rather than 10 – in a revitalized downtown served by mass transit. They published their findings the following year in a study called “Completing the Vision.”

Under the auspices of the Central City Association, whose executive board he headed in 1995, Chris asked federal, state, county and city agencies to consider developing a master plan for the Los Angeles Government Center.

“Our study had found that there was as much as a 20 percent savings if you consolidated government office space into one location and created shared-use facilities,” he says. “We encouraged the Los Angeles Civic Center Authority to reconvene, which it did, for the first time in, I believe, 15 years!”

To Chris’s satisfaction, the Civic Center Authority then commissioned the study towards the master plan.

“The Martin study formed the conceptual foundation for the Civic Center Master Plan,” says Doug Suisman, a contributing designer to the plan (which was recently completed by a team of architects and urban planners – Melendrez Associates, Johnson Fain Partners, RAW Architecture, Public Works Design and Landmark Partners).

Chris Martin is quick to point out that the effort leading up to the Master Plan was not just that of AC Martin. “Many individuals, such as Jerry Epstein [president of the State Building Authority, Los Angeles], Joanne Kosberg [secretary of the California State and Consumer Services Agency], Tom Moran [USC’s vice president for business affairs] and a wonderful collection of government agencies working together” made it happen, he says.

The Martins occupy a special niche in the city, however.

“A lot of people can dream about the future,” says USC School of Architecture Dean Robert Timme, “but it takes almost a family environment to get things accomplished.

“The Martins are close to the center of this community. When something needs to be done, they know who to call.

The Martins are a strong Los Angeles family and a strong USC family.”

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners
Albert C. Martin, center above with sons Al (left) and Ed in 1947, was one of a trio of architects who designed and built Los Angeles City Hall in 1928. A.C. Martin’s grandsons are now in charge of a $273 million seismic restoration of the building.

COMMITMENT TO BUILDING A BETTER Los Angeles has been a family tradition with the Martins for nearly a century, since the firm’s founding father moved to town. Albert Carey Martin arrived in Los Angeles in 1904, two years after graduating from the University of Illinois as an architectural engineer. He was 25 years old. By 1906, he had established his own firm and soon became known to the city’s foremost architect, John Parkinson, who had preceded him a decade earlier. When the city of Los Angeles anticipated a new City Hall, theirs was an easy collaboration.

The firm – and family – he founded has had a long association with Los Angeles and with USC. A.C., as he is known, had six children – Albert C. Jr., Evelyn, Margaret, Carolyn, Lucille and Edward – all of whom attended the university.

Two of his sons, Al Jr. and Ed, studied in the School of Architecture; Al graduating with a B.A. in 1936 and Ed studying there for two years before moving on to the University of Illinois. It is said that A.C. was determined to have two sons to carry on the dynasty, one to be an architect and one to be a structural engineer. “I was 35 years old before I found out that people chose their careers,” quips Ed. “My brother was going to be an architect and I was going to be a structural engineer.”

A.C. Martin’s grandsons, David Martin ’66 and Chris Martin ’74, sons of Al and Ed Martin, respectively, are now in charge. David’s brother, Albert C. Martin III, and sister, Mary Martin Marquardt, also attended USC, as did Chris’s brother, Nicholas Martin, and sister, Elizabeth Martin Ferguson.

(A fourth generation, Chris Martin’s son Patrick, is currently enrolled in the School of Architecture, prompting Al Martin to quip that the firm doesn’t hire new partners, it breeds them!)

The three generations of AC Martin Partners have been responsible for an astounding number of landmark buildings in Los Angeles and Southern California, including:

•The May Company building downtown (1906, formerly known as the Hamburger Building),

•Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre (1917) at Third and Broadway,

•St. Vincent de Paul Church (1925),

•The Los Angeles City Hall (1928),

•The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Headquarters (1965),

•Arco Plaza (1972),

•444 South Flower (1982, formerly the Wells Fargo Building),

•The Sanwa Bank Plaza (1990) on Figueroa at Wilshire,

•The Padre Serra Parish Church in Camarillo (1996 AIA Religious Architecture Award).

In addition to commissions in the countries of the Pacific Rim, the firm is currently at work on USC’s 55,000-square-foot Jane Hoffman Popovich and J. Kristoffer Popovich Hall for the Marshall School of Business, due to be completed in late 1998, and recently completed the Tyler Environmental Prize Pavilion in USC’s Von KleinSmid Center.

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners
Left to right: A.C. Martin; Ed (left) and Al Martin; Chris (left) and David Martin

IN 1928 THE NEW CITY HALL was by far the tallest building in Los Angeles, and it would remain so for another 30 years. (A.C. Martin told his sons it had to be high so he could show his buddies what he’d done from the fourth hole of the golf course at the Los Angeles Country Club.) Begun in March 1926, it had taken only 22 months to complete, at a cost of $5 million. Its trio of architects – the politically savvy John Austin, the innovative structural engineer A.C. Martin and the “dean” of Los Angeles architects, John Parkinson – had delivered a city hall worthy of its aspirations.

The building – declared a Historic-Cultural Monument of the City of Los Angeles on March 24, 1976 – has suffered from decades of decline. Now, however, Los Angeles is restoring the historic edifice it has so long taken for granted. With Project Restore, which is refurbishing the interior spaces, as well as a $273 million seismic rehabilitation by Albert C. Martin’s grandsons, the city is bringing its most recognized civic structure – and a piece of its history – full circle.

Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, all of Los Angeles had watched the skeletal frame of the building take shape above the city, its 8,167 tons of steel held together with 900,000 rivets. To withstand high winds, the tower was designed as an independent structure anchored to a solid mat of reinforced concrete resting on stiff blue clay. In the tower, an elastic joint is provided by the outer wall at each story to allow for expansion, contraction and oscillation. It is 1928 state-of-the-art architectural technology.

On trips to New York and Chicago, A.C. Martin’s wife, Carolyn, had held fast to her husband’s belt as he leaned out of the windows of high-rise buildings to examine their skin. Noting that they had cracked with the stress of high winds, he isolated the terra-cotta skin of City Hall from the base. His intuition is being expanded upon 70 years later with the base isolation system now being installed by his grandsons.

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners
AC Martin Partners’ rendering (left) of the City Hall restoration. With Project Restore, which is refurbishing the interior spaces, as well as a $273 million seismic rehabilitation by Albert C. Martin’s grandsons, the city is bringing its most recognized civic structure-and a peice of its history-full circle. (right) In addition to their work on developing a Civic Center master plan, AC Martin Partners developed this rendering of a proposed new sports arena complex to be built downtown near the convention center.

City Hall has weathered hundreds of earthquakes, yet its foundation, base and structural steel frame remain remarkably strong. In the wake of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, however, the same cannot be said for its masonry walls. Exterior terra-cotta tiles are cracked and broken and the interior plaster displays characteristic “X-pattern” quake cracks. When the Martins put a black “armband” over the top of the building to prevent some of the terra-cotta from spilling off, Los Angeles seemed to be in mourning.

Delighted to be working on the building their grandfather had a hand in creating, the third generation of Martins are determined to see that City Hall thrives for another 70 years. To strengthen the building against future earthquake damage, over 400 base isolators are being inserted underneath it, one into each footing. In essence, the isolators (vulcanized rubber laminated between steel sheets) form a flexible suspension system which acts similarly to a car’s springs and shock absorbers. The system proved itself in Japan’s Kobe quake. Los Angeles City Hall will benefit from one of the largest base isolation systems in the world.

The building’s interiors are also being renovated through the efforts of Project Restore, born some nine years ago when Ed Avila was president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. Ordering some tattered drapes to be removed from the windows of the Board’s Session Room, he was struck by how magnificent the room appeared in the natural light. He asked Al Martin (now the project’s chairman emeritus) to head a committee dedicated to restoring the building’s public areas.

Greek-born Georgía Rosenberry, City Hall’s staunchest advocate and president of Project Restore, likens the much-filmed and photographed building to the Statue of Lib-erty or the Greek Parthenon. Al Martin thinks his father would be pleased at the comparison.

“City Hall was the biggest and most important project of Dad’s life up to that time,” he says. “I would think it was the one he was most proud of.”

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners

BEING SONS OF A.C. MARTIN, there was no question about the future of Albert C., Jr. and J. Edward Martin, who formed the second generation of the Martin firm, taking over after World War II (although A.C. stayed involved until his death in 1960). The brothers complemented each other. Ed was the management and business brains of the outfit; Al, the design genius. A client’s remark during their tenure sums up their collaboration, according to Ed: “He said, ‘These guys are so lucky to have one another. If Al didn’t have Ed, he’d be broke on his first job.’ ”
The senior Martins are still very much part of the family firm, located in the renovated Fine Arts Building on Seventh Street. With its magnificent two-story, tiled entryway, mezzanine and frescoed ceiling, the building reflects its former use as an art school. Al Martin, at 84, is there about once a week; 80-year-old Ed Martin, most afternoons. A portrait of the firm’s founder, flanked by those of his sons, dominates one wall. His presence is a constant motivator.

Albert C. Martin Jr. was a USC student in the early ’30s when Dean Arthur Clauson Weatherhead was introducing the new concepts of Bauhaus design. Al’s preference, however, has always been for a richer, more classical aesthetic. He worked summers as a carpenter’s helper on projects his father had designed and entered his father’s design department on graduation.

This was a hard period for the firm. During the lean years of the Depression, with six children to educate, A.C. Martin was struggling compared to the heady years of the ’20s.

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners
(left and center) When Ed Avila of the Board of Public Works ordered some tattered drapes removed from the windows of the Board’s Session Room, he was struck by how magnificent the room appeared in the natural light. Thus was born Project Restore, which is renovating the interiors of LOs Angeles City Hall. (right) The Tyler Environmental Prize Pavilion in USC’s Von KlienSmid Center is reflective of the prize itself in its sensative use of materials such as eucalyptus wood and recycled carpeting.

After World War II, however, with Al and Ed at the helm and a post-war building boom, things picked up again. With Al’s design talent and Ed’s head for business and knowledge of contemporary seismic systems, their success was such that in 1979 the Los Angeles Times credited the firm with “more than 50 percent of all the major buildings erected in downtown Los Angeles since World War II.”

Al Martin has been active in city and community affairs for almost five decades. Robert Harris, former dean of the USC School of Architecture and an active participant in Los Angeles’ city planning, characterizes the man he regards as his mentor as “a model of good citizenship, a booster of important things for the city all his life.

“From the 1979 Bicentennial Celebration, L.A. Beautiful and now with Project Restore, he’s been involved in all sorts of public efforts,” Harris says. “He has contributed enormously to the quality of life in Los Angeles, not just through the design of major buildings but through his ability to influence public policy.”

Al Martin was awarded the School of Architecture’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1990 and the General Alumni Association’s Asa V. Call Award in 1984.

From an early age, J. Edward Martin was drawn to the special problems of building in earthquake country. He had just graduated from high school when he heard a Caltech expert report on the Long Beach Shaker to the Structural Engineers Association, sparking his life’s study. One of his first jobs was as a tracer on the design of the Lincoln High School Gymnasium in 1936, the first statically indeterminate building in the LAUSD, then a unique engineering system of design. “The job really needed a computer but, of course, we didn’t have one,” he remembers.

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners
Left to right: St. Vincent de Paul Church, 1925; Arco Plaza, 1972; Security Pacific National Headquarters, 1975; 444 South Flower (formerly Wells Fargo Building), 1982; Sanwa Bank Building, 1990.

Ed Martin cites Caltech seismologist Charles Francis Richter as the man without whom there’d be no bridges and no high-rises in the Southland.

“The first building in the world designed using a computer model incorporating Richter’s earthquake data was the Union Bank Building on Fifth and Figueroa,” he says. “Dr. Richter changed the world. All computer-designed buildings are a consequence of that building.”

Ed is proud of the firm’s seismic record. “We’ve done over 10,000 buildings and we’ve had only maybe two or three that we’ve had a call back on. That’s incredible.”

Not surprisingly, the firm pioneered the use of computers to analyze earthquake movements and the stresses they put on buildings. The Structural Engineers Association of Southern California awarded J. Edward Martin its lifetime achievement award in 1996.

LIKE THEIR FATHERS BEFORE THEM, David and Chris Martin knew from an early age that they were destined for architecture. For David, the realization came the moment he set foot in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Morris Store in San Francisco.

Built in 1949 for V.C. Morris for the sale of fine crystal and china, the building has a windowless facade and a round arched entrance recessed from the sidewalk at one corner. A two-story spiraling ramp nearly fills the interior, echoing Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was designed in 1946 though not completed until 1959.

“It’s a wonderful building for a child, with a door that you almost fall into from the sidewalk, a sort of mousehole leading into a labyrinth – absolutely useless as a store but very exciting to be in,” recalls David, who shares with his father Al an admiration for Wright’s work.

David acknowledges his admiration for Wright in his award-garnering Sanwa Bank Building, which pays homage to Wright’s Prairie Style in the glasswork in the entryway.

Both David and Chris count Italian-born Sal Merendino, who headed the industrial design program in the USC School of Architecture, among their mentors. “He excited a whole generation of young designers,” recalls David, for whom USC in the ’60s was an exciting place to be studying architecture, with faculty of the caliber of Craig Ellwood, Carl Maston and Ralph Knowles.

Although cousins Chris and David Martin picked up a considerable baton from the second generation of Martins, it was not always an easy run. The booming ’80s were followed by the downsizing ’90s, and A.C. Martin and Associates underwent a painful overhaul. They had to lay off over 100 employees, and the firm shrunk from over 200 people to 69 over a period of four years, from 1989 to 1993.

Recent years, however, have seen an improvement, as the firm has focused on government-related and international assignments, and on master plans for universities and city centers (with, of course, a special interest in their hometown). They have also seen a return to the firm’s roots with the seismic restoration of Los Angeles City Hall.

In the current firm, AC Martin Partners, the cousins’ roles parallel those of their fathers in the generation before.

David, partner-in-charge of design, is the artistic one, the design talent. At 54, slim and fit, an accomplished musician, he has been known to work out of his home office in a classic Airstream trailer.

Managing partner Chris, at 46, has a head for business and teamwork. “I enjoy working with clients, identifying and meeting their needs,” says Chris, who sees the firm as a catalyst for the City of Los Angeles in the 21st century.

More at home with 3-D computer models and drafting programs with names like Form Z and Microstation than with the ink-on-linen drawings of their grandfather, both admit to being “gearheads.”

In their high-tech design studio, young architects such as recent USC graduate Tammy Jow no longer sweat over scale drawings on drafting boards. Form Z can whip up a three-dimensional figure with the touch of a few selection keys. Tap for coordinates, tap for cone, box or cylinder, tap for height and voilá, a structure appears, ready to be overlaid with steel frame, wired for sound and megabits. Even the lengthening shadows of a summer’s eve can be simulated by choosing the appropriate longitude and latitude of your global location, the time of year and hour of day. Hence a new building in Singapore can be made to exist on computer screen long before a shovel of dirt is moved.

Computers have altered the business of architecture, allowing designers to visualize rapidly and facilitating a consolidation of the disparate facets of design and construction by means of an electronic database. Hence, the dialogue between designer, civil engineer and client is no longer encumbered by how long it takes to do a set of drawings. When the firm submitted their design ideas to USC Marshall School of Business, for example, “we plugged right into their equipment to show them what we had in mind,” David says.

Robert Timme, dean of the School of Architecture, acknowledges the firm as being at the forefront of the use of computers in the design process.

“The Martins discovered and used Form Z visualization design software very early on,” he says. “We educate the students they hire, and we are now training students in CAD (Computer Aided Design) because that’s what the marketplace requires.”

The Martins maintain a close relationship with their alma mater. David Martin taught at the School of Architecture in the fall of 1996 and has been part of the school’s Visiting Critic studio. When the school recently asked the Martins to demonstrate their use of computers in design, the cousins put on such a successful show that other universities have requested it.

“The Martins don’t do anything halfway,” Timme says. “If you ask them to go a mile, they go 200!

“And,” he adds, “they did it for us pro bono.”

Photo courtesy of AC Martin Partners
USC’s 55,000-square-foot Jane Hoffman Popovich and J. Kristoffer Popovich Hall for the Marshall School of Business, which is due to be completed in late 1998.

IN THE LIGHT OF THE MANY SIGNIFICANT architectural projects going on in Los Angeles – from Exposition Park to City Hall, including the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Disney Hall, the new Colburn School of Performing Arts, the Convention Center Sports Arena, and so on – the Martins areoptimistic about the city’s future. “If you combine those kind of high-profile projects with an economic recovery and the expansion of the transportation system, you’ve got the beginnings of an interesting city,” says David.

Chris is equally enthusiastic. “Los Angeles is at an interesting turning point,” he says. “Southern California is the Ellis Island of the next century. With immigration into the area, the changing ethnicity of the city and the dynamic business environment, the question is, ‘how does the city evolve to reflect and to serve this population?’

“I find it awe-inspiring to be playing a part in this,” he adds. “We are able to achieve change. Atlas does shrug! As architects, engineers and planners, our role and mission is to build a better environment.

“That’s the real measure of our contribution. Have we made the world a better place?”

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