Local Government

City Hall Has Compelling History

Fullerton’s City Hall hasn’t always been in the same building as it is today. In fact, before it was even built, “city offices were located in rented offices in the downtown area,” according to Bob Ziebell’s book, Fullerton: A Pictorial History. According to the Fullerton News Tribune, the City’s administrative offices have “moved from location to location since 1904, the year of Fullerton’s incorporation, but actually, the City has had only two ‘homes of its own’ in that time.” In 1923, the town hall was going to be built just north of the California Hotel (now Villa del Sol), but a bond measure, which was supposed to help fund the building, hadn’t been approved by voters at the time, so the site never did house the structure. The first Fullerton City Hall was located in the Head & Marks Building in the 100 block on Commonwealth. In the early forties, a Spanish Colonial Revival-style building, which now houses the Police Station, was completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and was home to city hall from 1942 until 1963, when the current city hall was opened across Highland Avenue at 303 West Commonwealth.

The current City Hall is in the foreground and the old City Hall (now the Police Station) is in the background.

In 1913, the City fathers used room in the Fullerton Improvement Company building to house offices, according to an April 11, 1961 Fullerton News Tribune. By the 1920s, City officials were aware of population growth and debated the idea of having a city hall, “first on a City-owned site just north of the California Hotel and then on City property that was part of the park grounds on W. Commonwealth Ave.”

According to Bob Ziebell’s book, the original city hall was to be positioned on the west side of Spadra (now Harbor) between Wilshire and Whiting avenues. A part of the land had been sold to the California Hotel, but what remained was owned by the City. There was a bond election that took place in October 1923, and at the time, officials reported that “voters had given the necessary two thirds majority to the two principal issues, i.e., $160,000 in bonds for the city hall and $25,000 in bonds for a new firehouse.” This allowed the City fathers to get the equipment and furnishings they needed and to advertise and sell the bonds, before ordering excavation of the site that was supposed to be City Hall.

On November 7, 1923, there was a heading for an article in the Fullerton News Tribune that read “Fullerton’s City Hall Will Rank with Best.” The article included an architect’s version of the building, which was described as a beautiful structure “of modified Mission architecture and modeled with distinctive lines.” The photo caption underneath read, “excavation of the site…practically completed…actual construction will be under way within the next few weeks.”

However, that city hall structure would never be finished. There was a miscalculation, and it turned out that the bonds hadn’t actually been approved by the voters. A recount of votes showed that they had not gotten the necessary two-thirds majority.

“Fullerton’s immediate prospects for a new city hall are gone aglimmering,” wrote the Tribune. “The big hole on the city hall site, which had been dug in readiness for the foundations, will continue to yawn for some time.”

In August 1926, City offices could be found upstairs above the old Fire Station on the north side of the 100 block of West Wilshire and would continue to occupy that space for the next 16 years.

At the time, City meetings took place in different buildings around the main business district, including the present day location of the main fire station.

Growth in the City continued, and by 1940, the City’s administrators realized that they needed another home for their offices. Constructing Fullerton’s first city hall was a difficult process, even when federal funds became available. There was a lot of debate about where it should go. Eventually, it was decided that City Hall would be constructed at the corner of Highland and Commonwealth, where the Police Station is today.

However, many residents protested the site, some complaining the price was too high, while others grumbling that “the distance…appeared to be too great for people to walk…to pay their water bill,” according to Keith C. Terry’s book, Walter M. Muckenthaler. Other people objected to the light-colored exterior of the building, and some objected “to the 18 cents per $100 [assessed value] tax increase proposed.”

Interestingly, the idea of walking distance was put to the test at a City Council meeting, according to Keith Terry. He explained that councilmen Muckenthaler and Tom Gowen had gotten into a tense debate, and the men suggested “that august body take a hike to west Commonwealth and test the dispute. They did in short order.” In the end, the location of the city hall was put up to a vote by the people, who decided that Fullerton was going to have its first City Hall.

The Spanish-style building at 237 West Commonwealth was designed by architect G. Stanley Wilson and constructed by the “Federal Works Progress Administration” under the direction of H. Russell Amory, Southern California Administrator. Construction started on September 28, 1939. A bone from an Indigenous person was found buried at the site. Periodicals and statistical data from the time were also found there.

The foundation was laid on June 21, 1941, and City officials began occupying the space in 1942. “One of the premier tile companies of the era – Gladding, McBean, and Company – produced all the colorful and noteworthy ceramic and terra cotta tiles that decorate both the interior and exterior of the building,” according to Fullerton Heritage.

Dedication ceremonies happened in July 1942 and the final words of the program read, “This City Hall has been built to endure. It has been built to serve. It has been built to carry on civic enterprises in war and in peace.” The building served those purposes as City Hall until 1963, when Fullerton’s 48,000 square foot modern New Formalist styled City Hall opened just across the street from its former location.

According to then City Administrator Herman Hiltscher, the old city hall took three years to build, while the current city hall only took a year. The project, which cost roughly $1,977,085 according to a document obtained from the Fullerton Public Library Local History Room, was described at the time as “functional, flexible, and a once-in-a-century project” by City fathers in a Fullerton News Tribune dated April 30, 1963.

The site location was chosen by a 25-member citizens committee, who recommended it to the City Council.

“Though modern in design, the new building has architectural features which tie it to the former City Hall with its predominant Spanish architecture. Blending of tile colors, a carry-over of arches in the façade, and tie-in through walkways at the two buildings are among these features,” wrote the Fullerton News Tribune.

Driving by City Hall, it’s hard not to notice the structure’s three-story tall white columns of pre-cast concrete. The terrazzo-floored main lobby, with its two automatic elevators on the east side and central cashier on the west side, has been a major part of the building since it first opened.

At the time, the east wing of the first floor belonged to the administrative section, starting with the city clerk’s office immediately off the lobby. This area also included the office of the mayor and city administrator. The City Council Chamber had 140-seats and a smaller conference room to the rear of it. On the second floor was the building, engineering, and planning departments, with engineering to the east and building and planning in the west wings. The west wing of the third floor housed the licensing and finance departments, along with the City Treasurer’s office. Offices of the city attorney, municipal utilities, personnel, and purchasing were on the third floor of the building.

This building is only the second City Hall to be constructed by the city of Fullerton. To see my video about the history of City Hall click HERE.

1 reply »

  1. It wasn’t that long ago that the Fullerton City Council wanted to appropriate tax dollar revenue to build another City Hall location. The current building isn’t dilapidated, so why did they want to replace it?