HOJ 1926

The Hall of Justice, In the Beginning

The Hall of Justice, In the Beginning

It was supposed to be a day of optimism and new beginnings. On the morning of March 9th, 1921, William I. Traeger was sworn in as the twenty-second man to serve as Sheriff of Los Angeles County. By days end however, the Los Angeles county jail experienced the largest riot in its history and Traeger was forced to intervene to bring it to an end. This riot, and an even larger one at the end of the month, accelerated movement for an undertaking that was long overdue. A new county jail was needed, as was a new way to manage the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County.

The 1903 county jail was built downtown on the corner of Temple Street and Buena Vista Street. This building was located roughly at the southeast corner of where the Hall of Justice currently stands (see before and after photos of the area attached.) The 1903 jail was rated to hold approximately 230 inmates. When it was proposed in 1901, then Sheriff William “Billy” Hammel wanted a jail that could house 350 prisoners. He was overruled. In 1904, the County Grand Jury affirmed Hammel’s original vision when they determined that the new jail was indeed too small.

And, no wonder; the county’s population expanded at a breathtaking pace as the nineteenth century surrendered the stage to the twentieth. This dramatic increase also led to an explosion in the crime rate and inmate population as well. In 1900, the total number of prisoners in the county jail was 1,160. Only four years later, the population had nearly tripled. An immediate expansion of the 1903 jail was recommended, as was the construction of a two-story building and basement annex just north of it. This annex would house courtrooms and would subsequently be called the Hall of Justice. Approval for the project was granted by the Board of Supervisors in May, 1908. The two buildings were connected by an enclosed bridge that traversed an alley between them. Inmates who were marched back and forth to court referred to this as the “bridge of sighs." An additional floor was added to the jail. It contained 32 new cells, but this quick fix only delayed the inevitable.

In 1908, the county’s population was nearing half a million people and by the time of the 1921 jail riots, it was over 1 million. The jail count was over 400, almost double what it was originally rated to hold. Members of the Federal Grand Jury toured the jail with Sheriff Traeger and wrote a short but harsh letter to the Board of Supervisors that concluded, “Therefore, it is the sense of your Federal Grand Jury that steps be taken to alleviate these distressing state of affairs.”

The Board of Supervisors responded immediately. A construction committee was formed and plans for a new jail and Hall of Justice were advanced. This was not to be the sole effort of the county, however. The city of Los Angeles was approached as a partner. The city jail, managed by the police department, was also overcrowded, and it was even more decrepit than the county jail. The city attorney and the police department also needed a new headquarters.

This was not the first time that the county and city went into a building project together. The county’s first project in 1853 was a jail. The City of Los Angeles remained tenants at “the old adobe on the county jail lot” until the city’s auditor and tax collector finally moved out in October, 1885. Unfortunately, the City Council and County Board of Supervisors in the 1920s were led by men less collegial than were their counterparts in the 1850s. Although the partnership began with goodwill, the relationship quickly soured. The supervisors proposed that the Hall of Justice be built on its present site, but city officials had different ideas. The first crack in the relationship occurred when the council suggested a site of its own closer to the plaza.

When the first discussions for a new county jail were raised, it was thought the building could be built for one million dollars. This cost escalated quickly, however, when the conversation shifted toward a much more ambitious structure that would include a combined county/city jail, the headquarters for both the Sheriffs Department and Police Department, as well as the District and City Attorneys. It would also house the Coroner’s Office, morgue, a receiving hospital and numerous new courtrooms for the Superior Court. The jail was to occupy the building’s top floors. In theory, locating this ‘jail in the air’ was thought to make it escape proof. By the end of 1921, construction costs were estimated at $2.25 million dollars. The new Hall of Justice was to be a county building with office space leased by the city; initial lease rates were based on the $2.25 million dollar figure. In December 1921, the Allied Architects firm was hired to draw up plans for the new justice center.

While plans were being drawn up and the Board of Supervisors, supported by the City Council, were proposing construction bonds to build the new Hall of Justice, Sheriff Traeger had to deal with the ever increasing inmate population. Traeger was one of the Department’s greatest visionaries. He created most of today’s modern bureaus. He decentralized responses for calls for service and implemented the local patrol station concept. But perhaps his most overlooked accomplishment was in the area of penology. To alleviate jail overcrowding, Traeger proposed the establishment of inmate work camps for sentenced prisoners. Chain gangs were common in America, but work camps were something completely new. Traeger proposed that sentenced inmates would live in lightly guarded camps where they would be paid to build roads through the hills of Los Angeles County. Traeger wanted to give inmates something meaningful to do with hopes of leading them to reform. As with so many of the ideas he advanced during his time as Sheriff, Bill Traeger proposed actions and his Undersheriff Gene Biscailuz implemented them. Under Biscailuz’ oversight, the work camp program was a success. Unfortunately, the sentenced inmates available for the work camps comprised barely fifteen percent of the total prisoner population. The number of inmates awaiting trial continued to increase despite all efforts to expedite trials.

The Board of Supervisors, supported by the City Council, placed two bond initiatives on the 1922 November ballot to pay for new construction. Despite the narrow defeat of the measures, the supervisors pushed ahead with their efforts to build the Hall of Justice anyway. Construction bonds were ultimately approved by voters in May, 1923. 1923 was also the year when discussions began in earnest about the development of a great County/City Civic Center. Once again the Board of Supervisors and City Council had different visions of what this should look like and where to locate it. Discussions also began at Los Angeles City Hall on Broadway for the construction of this building’s successor. As the attention of the City Council turned toward this new project, their relationship with the Board of Supervisors worsened. Another source of consternation between the county and city was the ever increasing cost of the Hall of Justice project. By October, 1923, it was feared the Hall might cost as much as five million dollars. This did not bode well, as the initial estimate for the proposed City Hall on Main Street was also five million dollars.

Work began to clear the ground for the Hall of Justice in January, 1923. A number of existing structures had to be razed and one significant act of engineering needed to be undertaken. It was decided that the rather than tearing down the six-story Alhambra Hotel on Broadway, it was to be moved to the north. An elaborate plan was concocted by the Kress House Moving Company, using rows of parallel railroad tracks to drag the hotel out of harm’s way. During its move, a sign on the side of the hotel heralded the endeavor reading "This 6-story re-enforced concrete building 60 x 123 feet, weighing 11,000 tons - was moved 130 feet sideways by the Kress House Moving Company of Los Angeles." The Alhambra Hotel served a variety of purposes and housed an assortment of tenants, including many county bureaus, during its existence. As buildings were torn down around it, the Alhambra remained the Hall of Justice’s faithful companion until it too finally succumbed to the wrecking ball in the 1970s.

Supervisor J.H. Bean, a builder himself, was regarded by his peers as the board’s construction expert. As such, he spearheaded the Hall of Justice project and was given the unofficial title the “Father of the Hall of Justice.” Bean was present in February 1924 when the first steel beam for the Hall was riveted into place and acted as the board’s spokesman during construction.

Remarkably, assembly of the building proceeded at such a rapid rate that on December 28, 1924, with Supervisor Bean’s approval, Los Angeles Times reporter Raymond L. Jones was given a tour of the largely completed structure. Jones took an elevator to the building’s 14th floor and described it from the top down. The city and the county were still full partners at this time and Jones listed the intended occupants for each floor. The new jail was to occupy the 10th through 14th floors. The 9th floor was reserved for court reporters and deliberating rooms for juries. The 8th floor was to contain six Departments of the Superior Court and three Justice Courts. The 7th floor contained eight courtrooms of the Justice or Police Courts (later Municipal Courts). The District Attorney, grand jury, criminal record department and County Clerk were on the 6th floor. The Public Defender’s offices, county telephone exchange and City Prosecutor were on the 5th floor. The 4th and 3rd floors were reserved for the Los Angeles Police Department. 
The Sheriff’s Department was to occupy the 2nd and Main Floors. What was called the 1st floor contained a receiving hospital as well as the Coroner’s Offices and the morgue.

The basement housed the refrigeration plant and transformer room. A 600 foot long 12 foot by 12 foot tunnel ran south from the basement under Temple Street ending at the Hall of Records. This tunnel contained steam and electric lines and was also a means of escorting inmates to courtrooms in the Hall of Records. It was thought that this tunnel would be the first of a larger complex of tunnels connecting all the Civic Center buildings. In future years, inmates who traveled back and forth to court would refer to this passageway as “the tunnel of doom.” While passing through the basement, Jones learned that underground artesian springs leaked
into the space, flooding the area, threatening to compromise the structure’s integrity. Fortunately, engineers managed to find a way to hold the water at bay. Interestingly, when excavation was done in 2013 for the subterranean portion of the new parking structure north of the Hall of Justice, this same underground water source was struck again.

On January 26, 1925, in an elaborate ceremony, the cornerstone was laid and the Hall of Justice was formally dedicated. The Times heralded the event as the act that “marks the beginning of the Los Angeles Civic Center.” There was still a great deal of work remaining, however, before the building would be ready for occupancy. The cutting, shaping and installing of the granite façade would take the balance of the year. The granite was mined by the Raymond Granite Company from a quarry near the town of Knowles in Madera County at the foot of the Sierras. It took 185 railroad cars to transport the granite to make the 13,000 different blocks and 56 columns on the building. Almost one dollar in six spent on the Hall of Justice went to pay for its granite exterior. This task was completed in November. Granite from this same quarry was also used for the façade of City Hall.

By 1925, it was clear that costs for the Hall of Justice would likely exceed six million dollars. To help offset this financial burden, the Board of Supervisors informed the City Council that their proposed lease rates would be tripled. The council balked and officially withdrew from the project in April. In May, the supervisors reassigned the space previously allotted to the city. The Sheriff was given half of the third floor with the remainder split between the Probation and Juvenile Departments. The fourth floor was designated for the newly created Municipal Court and its marshals.

Just as the District Attorney and her staff preceded the Sheriff in reentering the building in 2015, it was members of the District Attorney’s Office who were the Hall of Justice’s first tenants as it opened. The first members of the D.A.’s staff moved into the building on December 19, 1925. Inmates from the old jail were escorted into the new building under heavy guard on February 7, 1926. By this time there were 936 men and 39 women in the old bastille. The inmates were so fond of the old jail that just after midnight on the day of the move, approximately 130 of them decided to say goodbye by rioting and starting fires. The fires were extinguished and the rioters subdued and the carefully staged transfer moved forward. According to the Times, “More than 5,000 men, women and children gathered on the lawn of the Courthouse to watch the removal of the prisoners.” Unarmed deputies escorted inmates in groups of 26 from the old jail to the new. A further two hundred armed deputies and police officers oversaw the transfer. Many of these were positioned in places of advantage with rifles if any inmate tried to escape. Apparently, the early morning riot took all the energy out of the prisoners and the transfer to the new jail went off without incident. The final tenants on the lower floors moved into their offices in March.

Supervisor Bean filed his closing report on the cost of the Hall of Justice in1926. The number was just over $6 million. The construction cost was $5 million. Equipment costs and furniture was another million. Engineering work, which included plans and inspection, cost close to $200,000. Adjusted for inflation, the total cost to erect and furnish the building would be around $85 million. That seems extraordinary when you consider that the expense to complete the recent renovation was $231 million.
While the new building was a success in many ways, it did have its downfalls. The new jail proved to be far from the escape proof lockup its designers proclaimed. Having a “jail in the air” made little difference if inmates could defeat the gate locking mechanisms with ease, and the absence of screens over windows meant that access to the exterior of the building was simple. Barely five weeks after HOJJ opened, thirteen inmates escaped in four separate incidents. One, a sixteen-year-old boy, fell to his death when the makeshift rope he was using broke. Some took to referring to the new jail as the County sieve.

Sheriff Traeger and Supervisor Bean entered into a bitter debate about the cause of the escapes. Traeger blamed poor construction. Bean, poor supervision. A special grand jury investigation was launched. Head Jailer David E. Croushorn tendered his resignation in early March, but Traeger refused it, then reversed himself two weeks later and replaced Croushorn with future Undersheriff Frank Dewar. Dewar did a quick study of the jail and recommended 14 structural changes. These were approved on March 29th by the Board of Supervisors over Supervisor Bean’s strong objections. Bean still thought it was jail staff and not jail infrastructure that was to blame for the escapes. In the end, Dewar proved to be right. The escapes stopped after the suggested changes were made. For this accomplishment, Sheriff Traeger presented Dewar with a diamond studded badge.

Though its jail may be gone, there can be no doubt that the remodeled Hall of Justice now fully occupied by the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department is once again the hub of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County. Known by her nickname, the Grand Old Dame, she has enjoyed a proud ninety year history. May she enjoy ninety more.

By John Stanley