How does civic architecture reflect an institution’s importance to a city?
How did the construction of institutions help make California “modern”?
What features do the buildings in these images share?
These images of civic architecture are from cities throughout California. They include missions, courthouses, city halls, and the state capitol building — important sites for city development and management. These buildings connect towns and cities to the state, and provide places for community members to seek legal redress, submit building plans, apply for permits, and engage in local government.
Civic architecture — from missions to skyscrapers — embodies the way a community wants others to see it. These buildings were designed to broadcast their institutional importance to the city. They were built to endure, providing a legacy to the area’s growth and development.
In order to become a state, California had to show that it had the capability of legally upholding the nation’s laws, moving away from its earlier reputation for “murder and mayhem.” Building and maintaining institutions showed eastern lawmakers that California was ready to be part of a modern, civilized nation.So, in the mid-1800s, counties throughout the state wanted to symbolize law and order. They built impressive courthouses in places as far north as Eureka.
The early 20th century was an era of great change, new technologies, and increased professionalization. Larger and more vertical structures were built to house the growing number of institutions needed to successfully run California’s growing cities.
Oakland’s new city hall was completed in 1914, after the previous building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. At nearly 320 feet, it was the first high-rise government building in the United States. It was also the tallest building west of the Mississippi when it was completed. In the wake of disaster, much of the Bay Area rebuilt itself using modern architecture, staking California’s claim as a center of 20th century innovation.
The 1928 Los Angeles City Hall is another example of modern architecture. With 32 floors, and at 454 feet high, it was huge for its time, and is still in use today.
The longevity of these institutions can be attributed to their modern construction and design, and their importance to a community’s image. Los Angeles City Hall is consciously symbolic; among other features, its concrete was composed of sand from all of California’s 58 counties and water from 21 missions. The building is an iconic emblem of city government, and its image has been on city police badges since 1940. And as recently as 1964, it was still the city’s tallest building.
How to use Local History Mapped (PDF): ideas and activities for the classroom
K-6 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities (PDF) (Source: Geographic Education National Implementation Project)
Five Themes of Geography (Source: Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the NCGE/AAG)