AKA: Oakland City Hall #5, Oakland, CA

Structure Type: built works - public buildings - city halls

Designers: Donovan, John J., Architect (firm); Palmer, Hornbostel and Jones, Architects (firm); Turner Construction Company (firm); VBN Corporation (firm); John Joseph Donovan Sr. (architect); Henry Frederick Hornbostel (architect); Sullivan Williams Jones Sr. (architect); Eli Naor (architect); George Carnegie Palmer (architect); Kevin de Freitas (architect)

Dates: constructed 1912-1914

18 stories

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1 Frank Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA 94612-1932

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The City of Oakland grew rapidly after 1906, and by the end of the decade sought to establish itself as a top-tier cultural and economic center, on par with its rival across the Bay. In fact, Oakland's growth was spurred by many refugees who fled San Francisco following the Great Earthquake of 04/18/1906. Reflecting its economic and physical expansion, the city's ambitious governmental and business leadership embarked on a national competition to build a tall, modern office skyscraper for its city hall. This competition was won by a prominent New York-based firm, Palmer, Hornbostel and Jones, who produced a tall tower 335 feet high, one of the tallest structures west of the Mississippi River at the time. The new city hall would become an important civic symbol of progress for city inhabitants, even appearing in the logos of private companies, such as the Pacific Abstract and Title Company.

Building History

The City of Oakland, like many communities of the East Bay, served as a haven for many San Franciscans fleeing the fires that followed the cataclysmic Earthquake of 04/18/1906. Oakland's population following the quake greatly increased as many San Francisco refugees chose to stay in the East Bay, thereby magnifying the size and office space needs of the municipal government. In this post-quake environment, Oakland wanted to redefine its stature vis-à-vis its rival across the bay, which was rapidly rebuilding. One way to do this was to erect a modern, capacious and grand seat of city government. In 1909, Oakland voters passed a $1.5 million bond issue to finance the city's new governmental center and symbol of civic growth. With this money in hand, the city staged a highly publicized, nation-wide competition for the design of its City Hall in 1910 and 1911. Not surprisingly, San Francisco, too, held an eleaborate architectural competition for the redesign of its city hall not long after.

The Berkeley architect, John Galen Howard (1864-1931) supervised the competitive process. Howard, an academically-trained Boston architect with many connections nationwide, publicized the contest effectively. The winning firm, Palmer, Hornbostel and Jones, had offices in New York, NY, and Pittsburgh, PA, in 1910, with another branch office operating in Albany, NY, where the firm was designing the elaborate, Beaux-Arts Classical New York State Education Department Building (1908-1911). The firm's prime designer was the New York and Pittsburgh-based architect Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961), who by this time, had developed a reputation for winning competitions with his meticulously rendered designs. Palmer, Hornbostel and Jones created several governmental buildings after the Oakland commission, including the Hartford, CT, Municipal Building (done in association with Davis and Wood, Architects, 1911-1914), Wilmington, DE, City Hall (1914-1917), and the City and County Building in Pittsburgh, PA, (1915-1917).

Building Notes

The Oakland City Hall #5 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983; the building has 18 stories (320 feet), and a tri-partite structure; a three-story base rises on a ten-floor office shaft, tapering to an ornamental clock tower; Hornbostel's design's with offices unified into a single tall shaft, was the first city hall to adopt the modern skyscraper plan type. Previous city halls, such as those in Philadelphia (1871-1901) or Milwaukee, WI, (1895) contained very tall towers, but they were appended on top of over-scaled, traditional urban palaces, Second Empire or German Renaissance Revival, respectively. Ex-Oakland Mayor Dr. Samuel Merritt (1822–1890) donated funds for the clock tower's completion. The architects spent a great deal of time considering the impact of electric lighting on how the tower could be viewed. The Architect and Engineer of California stated in its 10/1910 issue: "A suggestion of the architects which has met with the approval of the members of the Board of Public Works is that the tower of the new city hall be fitted out with appliances for its illumination on gala or festival nights. They propose to equip the entire exterior with permanent sockets in which can be screwed electric light globes, which when illuminated, will make the tower a blaze of light that can be seen for miles. Four searchlights will be located on the corners of the smaller ornamental building which is to serve as the base of the new structure. These will be so situated as to allow for the throwing of the strong light on the tower and the huge clock." Hornbostel, familiar with the latest trends in skyscraper design and architectural lighting on the East Coast, successfully lobbied the Oakland Board to pay for an elaborate illumination system in order to emphasize the city hall's towering presence. This kind of special lighting was becoming common for commercial office buildings, but was new for municipal towers.


The City Hall underwent significant seismic alterations after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that caused considerable damage in Oakland. VBN Architects collaborated with Turner Construction to undertake the $85 million repair and restoration. (Seventy-two per cent of the cost was covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], while city taxpayers contributed 22% and the Oakland Redevelopment Agency chipped in rest.) Steel reinforcing members and 113 Elastomeric Base Isolators were added to the building to enable it to withstand a 7.5-magnitude earthquake along the nearby Hayward Fault. Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris (born 1947) reopened the repaired civic facility on 09/15/1995.

Oakland Historic Landmark (Listed 1979-06-19): LM 79-131

National Register of Historic Places (1983-09-15): 83001170 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

PCAD id: 4380