On a clear day, the 12-story County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works headquarters reflects the sky like a giant mirror, clouds slowly crawling across the face of the building. Known as the "cube" or the "tower," it sits atop four canted walls, like a serene turquoise block atop a pedestal. But what appears tranquil from the exterior, is anything but calm inside.
On a recent tour, I discovered a layer cake of the decades that have passed since Albert C. Martin & Associates built it for the Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1971. There’s a decommissioned fountain in the courtyard and an elevated garden that encircles the tower — relics from when the building was created. There are wood paneled conference rooms, a style typical of 1980s corporate America and the outer layers are the updated window panels, retrofitted in 2006 to earthquake proof the structure.
A blue tint from the windows washes over everything, including 1,500 workers who pack floors of cubicles and various other stations. The cafeteria is brightly colored with yellow and reds, while some stairwells and walkways are adorned with Spanish tiles. Near the top of the building is a command center for emergencies and a number of stations face towards a master screen and, yes, it is a little reminiscent of a spaceship.
“Sears was feeling strong in the 70s,” Edward Lifson, adjunct faculty at the USC School of Architecture, wrote in an e-mail. “Big business — manifest in the Sears Tower — world's tallest building, for their world headquarters in Chicago. [The Alhambra cube] is their western headquarters. Both are modern, boxy, steel and glass and lack ornament.” Lifson added that while back then it was considered modern, “today, we’d say ‘Madmen.’”
After 16 years with Sears, the building changed from private to public in the 1980s. In May 1987 the Department of Public Works made a bid to the Alexander Haagen Development Company, who were the current owners of the tower after Sears, Roebuck and Company had left their California headquarters and consolidated their staff to Chicago.
Originally the city of Alhambra did not want the county to move into the tower due to the hit the city would take from sales and property taxes. Sears was paying $570,000 yearly and with the County there would be none because it was exempt, according to the LA Times.
Former Alhambra City Manager Kevin Murphy told the L.A. Times in Feb. 1987 that the city's "position is one of adamant opposition.”
After some tense negotiations, the City of Alhambra decided that it would benefit from the sale in the long run because the County would pay $3 million for local infrastructure improvements.
"We'd kind of like to brag because we didn't give anything up," Murphy told the L.A. Times after the details of the sale were made public and it was clear that the city would be benefiting with the public works projects.
In 2006 the building was retrofitted to meet current earthquake standards and new window panels were installed to cut down on the amount of heat that was making its way into the building.
“I was here for a small earthquake – it was a good one, it really did jolt us,” Brian Schoenborn, departmental project manager at Public Works, told me during the tour.
Lifson compares the architecture to the work of French artist Étienne-Louis Boullée and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
Before I completed my tour, I took in the views from the windows on the tenth floor. All of the city seemed serene, blue and framed by the mountains. But inside the noise surrounded me, and I forgot that I was inside the tower. Then when I left the building, I took one more look and again it appeared so quiet, this blue cube, almost expressionless in its stance, hiding the inner clamor.