Touring Hall of Justice, by flashlight

November 3, 2010 

The temperature outside was pushing 90, but when the padlock came off the chained doors of the Hall of Justice, the air rushed out like a chilly blast from the crypt.

Inside, though, the legendary 1925 building looks like it’s starting to wake up from its big sleep.

The Hall of Justice—where Charles Manson, Bugsy Siegel, Sirhan Sirhan and a host of other big- and small-time criminals once cooled their heels, where Marilyn Monroe’s body ended up after her suicide and where Robert Mitchum once did time for marijuana possession—is one of downtown’s Los Angeles’ most striking landmarks.

Red-tagged and vacant since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Hall not so long ago was rat-infested, debris-ridden and home to the occasional transient.

Now its interior has been cleaned out and virtually gutted.

Later this month, the county Board of Supervisors will be asked to approve the selection of a firm to undertake the historic rehabilitation and retrofitting that will turn the site into the new headquarters for the Sheriff’s Department. Staff from the District Attorney, Public Defender and Alternate Public Defender also will be stationed in the building, located at Spring and Temple, across from the criminal courts building.

Work on the three-year project is expected to begin early next year. The approximately $244 million Hall of Justice rehabilitation, along with other capital projects, will be funded in part by “Build America” bonds whose issuance was approved by supervisors on Wednesday. The project’s cost is expected to be partly offset by lease savings for the departments that will be relocating to the building.

Alicia Ramos, who has been overseeing the Hall of Justice project for the county Department of Public Works since 2004, said that years of advance work have been devoted to “trying to create the cleanest slate we can” for the new office space interior.

On Tuesday, Ramos led a writer for Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s website and a county photographer on a flashlight-illuminated tour that started in the building’s basement and ended on its rooftop. A gallery of photos from the tour, below, offers an unusual glimpse inside the building as it awaits its transformation.

To get to this point, tons of debris—including about a half million dollars’ worth of recycled jail cell bars—have been hauled away and reams of once-confidential documents have been incinerated and sent to that great repository in the sky. (See update below.) Elevator shafts now stand empty, their vintage wood-and-brass cabs sidelined until they can be pressed back into service with a modern operating system.

All of the building’s jail cells have been ripped out. One cell block, said to have housed Manson, has been preserved and relocated to the first floor, where it eventually will be opened to the public as part of a new museum/interactive center focused on the history of the building and the sheriff’s department.

The building’s courtrooms, once the site of trials that included the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, have all been demolished except for one, which is being preserved right down to its embellished plaster corbels and will be restored and used as a sheriff’s conference room. The same goes for a wood-paneled law library nearby. Both are located on the building’s 8th floor, where the sheriff will have his office.

The plan to bring the Hall of Justice back to life includes seismic reinforcement; new electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems; a 1st floor cafeteria that will be open to the public; and a nine-level, 1,000-vehicle parking structure, half of it underground.

The building’s open lobby, or loggia—which Ramos calls “the crowning glory of the Hall of Justice’—also is awaiting restoration. Even in its current state, the loggia exudes glamour and gravitas, from its marble columns to its elaborate ceiling and chandeliers. Covered up for the moment are its terrazzo floors and historic iron-and-brass stairs.

“It’s dramatic. It’s the scale, it’s the materials,” said Ramos, 37, an architect and Cal Poly Pomona grad. “It really can take you back to a period.”

Even in its current state, the Hall—whose architectural style is variously described as Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance or Federalist—holds no terrors for Ramos, despite its sometimes macabre past.

“I haven’t gotten any ghost stories out of this building,” she said. Those she’s heard from others can be logically explained. (Voices in the basement, for instance, are more likely coming via a closed-up tunnel from an adjoining county building, not from the spirit world beyond.)

“They’re all stories to me. I’ve never seen anything wicked or sinister,” Ramos said.

She even ventured inside the Hall alone occasionally, like the time she came inside to photograph a judicial seal inside the law library.

Later, she was there when a transient who’d been caught living in the building was escorted away by police.

The man looked at Ramos. “He said, ‘I know you. I’ve seen you walking through here.’ The hair went up on my neck.”

Nowadays, she said, “I don’t go through the building by myself.”

Up on the building’s roof—once a prison yard-style exercise area for inmates that may be turned into a jogging track for employees—Ramos reflected on everyone and everything these walls have seen.

“Between Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Manson,” she said, “it’s kind of the good and the bad that come through these kinds of facilities.”

Photos by Scott Harms/Los Angeles County

Posted 11/3/10

Updated 11/4: Regarding questions about the destruction of documents, sheriff’s officials said Thursday that they removed all records from the Hall of Justice and left behind only trash or outdated forms. Department of Public Works officials said they exercised an abundance of caution and treated all papers left behind as confidential because they were not in a position to evaluate them. They said all documents were destroyed in accordance with the county’s policy.

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