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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Burbank City Hall - About This Commission

Burbank grows as Hollywood expands
At the time of its incorporation in 1911, the city of Burbank was home to some 500 residents, most of whom lived on farms raising wheat, melons, or livestock. Like many of county's subdivisions, the area that comprised Burbank had once been owned by one man, Dr. David Burbank. A successful dentist, he in capitalized on California’s transition to American rule by purchasing almost 10,000 acres of rancho land at the eastern end of the San Fernando Valley for less than $1 an acre in 1867. Burbank grew wheat and raised sheep on his acreage and sold a right-of-way through his property to the Southern Pacific Railroad, wisely anticipating the growth of the region that would result from the extension of the company’s lines. As visitors and settlers began flooding the region in the 1880s, interest in Burbank's property increased, and in 1887, he sold most of his holdings to the Providencia Land, Water and Development Company at a healthy profit. Calling their new town Burbank, the company began selling subdivided farm lots. Residents eventually developed their own independent water and irrigation district, volunteer fire department, and city charter and raised funds to build an extension of the Pacific Electric Streetcar to the area and a city hall building in 1915.

Burbank’s growth accelerated tremendously in the 1920s when industrial investors began purchasing large tracts of undeveloped land in the area to expand their operations. Among the first was the Andrew Jergens Company, makers of soap and other beauty products, which purchased a lot near the railroad tracks in 1920. Soon Hollywood studios followed, beginning with First National Pictures' purchase of a 78-acre lot near Olive Ave that later became Warner Brothers Studios. In 1928, Allan and Malcolm Loughead opened a massive new plant for their Lockheed Aircraft Company in Burbank and their competitor, aviation designer Jack Northop, erected his own plant nearby. The City of Burbank built its own airport to serve the budding aviation industry in the area in 1930 and within five years it became the third-largest terminal in the nation. Despite the impacts of the Great Depression, Burbank continued to prosper throughout the 1930s, fueled by the growth of Hollywood and increased production for the war in Europe. Burbank became the center of the aviation industry in Southern California, the Lockheed facility there alone employing almost 100,000 people. Dozens of new businesses emerged to serve workers in the area and the local real estate market boomed as farmers subdivided their properties to erect new housing developments. By 1940, the city was one of the fastest growing suburbs in Southern California and home to almost 35,000 residents.

A prosperous present and dynamic future
In 1941, city leaders decided to build a new city hall to reflect Burbank’s growth and prosperity. Mayor Frank Tillson secured initial funding for construction from the Southern California Works Progress Administration, a program of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and hired architects William Allen and W. George Lutzi to design a cutting-edge, ultra-modern structure that would reflect the city’s increasing prominence in the region. Like the corporate construction projects of the 1920s, the new Burbank City Hall would serve as a monument to the city’s historic strength while offering a dazzling spectacle that captured its vitality, its dynamic energy and its potential for growth in the future. 

Allen and Lutzi designed a streamlined concrete structure centered on a 77-foot square tower with two-story wings extending from either side. Above the front entrance on the exterior of the tower, they designed a recessed cast-concrete grill extended vertically towards the roof and placed a large granite statue of an eagle at the top. Allen also carved two large bas-relief sculptures on the exterior of the east and west wings, one that included a war scene and symbolic figures carrying the body of Peace, the other featuring the Goddess of Plenty and a young family. 

The architects decorated the interior of the tower with a large, ornamental staircase with brass handrails and bronze medallions, covered the walls of the meeting rooms in carved wood paneling, and used more than twenty types of marble to craft a large city seal and floors throughout the building. Construction slowed after the WPA was discontinued when the U.S. entered the Second World War, but the city covered the rest of building’s $409,000 cost and the new City Hall opened February 12th, 1943.13

The City of Burbank also commissioned art to decorate the interior and exterior of the building. Artist De Mako carved a large bas relief sculpture he called “A Tribute to Craftsmen” to adorn the entrance to the building on Third Street that featured workers in construction, metal working and the aviation industry, and painted a large portrait of "Justice" surrounded by workers, a student, and a preacher for the building’s main courtroom. In keeping with building’s public purpose, De Mako made the people of Burbank the focus of both pieces, honoring the contributions of the workers to the city’s growing industrial might.

Ballin's "Four Freedoms" reflect the spirit of the building
Hugo Ballin was hired to paint murals in the central tower and the City Council Chamber of the building, and like De Mako, created pieces that, in his words, reflected the “spirit of the building.”14 In the stairwell of the central tower, Ballin painted a history of “Burbank Industry,” drawing strongly on his experience as a set designer. He created a painting with multiple planes that marked the passage of time, each layer representing a phase in Burbank’s transformation from a small community of farmers to a center of film production to the capitol of the aviation industry. Although Burbank’s indigenous and Mexican past is notably absent from Ballin’s history, in each layer of the mural he featured everyday people and workers in Burbank’s various industries as his subjects. Similarly, in his murals in the City Council Chamber, Ballin used everyday people to illustrate President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – values outlined in his 1941 State of the Union address as those fundamental to democracy, and values that the United States should fight for at home and abroad. Norman Rockwell famously depicted the Four Freedoms in a series of paintings published in the Saturday Evening Post in February 1943, which the U.S. Department of Treasury then used to promote the war effort and sell over $130 million of war bonds.15 

Ballin painted his version of the Four Freedoms at the very same time as Rockwell but offered a decidedly different representation that better reflected the diversity of Southern California. For example, in depicting the “Freedom of Worship,” Ballin included a Catholic pontiff and a monk, Jews holding a Torah and blowing a shofar, and even a Native American “protecting the flame,” while Rockwell’s painting featured only white figures engaged in Christian prayers.16 Like Rockwell, Ballin’s depiction of "Freedom from Fear" featured white parents nurturing and protecting their young children. But Ballin also included an African American figure, indicating that black Americans were just as deserving of that freedom even though many, particular those in the Jim Crow South, lived in constant fear of racial violence at the time.

Eclectic public modernism + allegorical figures
Ballin’s murals at Burbank City Hall reflect the influence that the “eclectic public modernism” of his fellow muralists in Los Angeles had on his artistic style. In the murals, Ballin made a concerted effort to celebrate the contributions of everyday people to Burbank’s development and to represent all of the people who lived and worked there. As he wrote in a letter to the city in 1948, the "Four Freedoms" murals were intended “to illustrate the spirit of democracy” by “incorporating the modern tendency as influenced by the spirit of the past.”17 Each of the murals included prominent allegorical figures as embodiments of broader concepts – a defining feature of Ballin’s previous works - and he employed many of the same techniques and motifs as in his other paintings. But in these paintings, particularly the “Four Freedoms,” Ballin showed a new interest in the struggles of everyday people, and the diversity and social complexities of life in Southern California at the time. Although in keeping with his vocal criticism of his peers, he insisted that using “an extreme modern trend” would have made his murals “aesthetically irrelevant,” his works at Burbank City Hall show that “eclectic public modernism” had some influence on his work and his ideas about art and representation.

A hidden history restored (2001)
Although well received upon their debut, for many years, the Ballin murals at Burbank City Hall were hidden from public view. In the early 1960s, Mayor Charlie Compton ordered that the “Four Freedoms” mural be covered during Council meetings. The donkey in the section of the mural behind the Mayor’s seat made it appear that the mayor had the ears of a jackass when he addressed the council.18 Subsequent renovations to the building then obscured both murals: the installation of a new dropped ceiling in the Council Chambers prompted the city to cover the “Four Freedoms” mural and the city removed the bottom third of the “Burbank Industry” mural during the construction of a bridge walkway to the Municipal Services Building behind City Hall. Fortunately, for admirers of Ballin’s work, the City of Burbank restored the Ballin murals as part of their renovation of City Hall in 2001 and they are again visible for all visitors to enjoy.
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