After a 20-year odyssey to finance and build downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall, the bedazzling highlight of Los Angeles' skyline will finally return to county hands this week.
At one level, it will be a ministerial act, the signing of a deed that places title to the architecturally distinctive structure under county control. But at another, it symbolizes the extraordinary turnaround that Los Angeles itself has experienced in recent decades.
Once, Disney Hall was just a parking garage, and Los Angeles' inability to raise the money for construction was emblematic of a traumatized city, battered by riots and recession, with a disengaged leadership that had retreated from civic affairs and downtown generally.
The hall's prospects grew increasingly frail, and at one point county leaders were criticized for lending money to finish the project. Under the leadership of then-Mayor Richard Riordan and his billionaire friend Eli Broad, however, a civic elite once so wary of downtown crystallized around the challenge of building what would become a renowned monument to music.
County supervisors are expected to vote Tuesday to transfer ownership of the property from a Disney Hall nonprofit organization to the county, which plans to sublease it to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said the county's top administrator, David E. Janssen. With that, county officials — who all too often must wring their hands over bad news — get a welcome opportunity to relish an unqualified success: Disney Hall has, Janssen said, repaid all loans from the county, with interest.
The $274-million landmark now anchors downtown's resurgence as newcomers stream into refurbished lofts amid a budding arts scene. But the building, which opened in 2003, almost never was.
Lillian Disney's 1987 gift of $50 million for a world-class concert hall to honor her husband Walt, languished for years while the city and county negotiated plans, costs escalated and fundraising sputtered. Those years were terrible for Los Angeles, as the economy sagged and then, in 1992, riots left the city smoldering and disconsolate.
The future of the hall seemed hopeless. The county had provided the land and sunk $116 million into an underground parking garage — which Disney Hall now sits atop — but had so little hope of getting its money back that a former county administrator recommended scuttling the entire project.
"Los Angeles was kind of down on itself at that point in time," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who contributed $1 million from his office-holder account to help build the hall. "Disney Hall was the first civic project that got successfully built after that down period in the L.A. economy and the L.A. psyche."
Riordan came to office in 1993 and vowed to make Disney Hall an exemplar of the city's recovery. For that, he turned to Broad, who launched an aggressive fundraising drive.
Broad, who Riordan likes to joke is adept at getting other people to give their money, raised $120 million in corporate and private contributions in less than three years.
"We decided between us that this had to happen," Broad said. "Here it had already appeared on the cover of the New York Times and all the architectural journals and so on, and yet it was dying and ready to be buried. We thought it was important for the city."
Disney Hall in large part revived corporate involvement in civic life, Riordan said.
Broad agreed. "It became a rallying point for a lot of people that were not really giving to cultural institutions at the time," he said.
The striking structure heralded the revitalization of downtown, Broad said. The iconic hall not only gave the orchestra an acoustically dazzling home but was a "sparkplug" for all the downtown development to follow, including the proposed Grand Avenue project, he said.
Like the Eiffel Tower or New York's Guggenheim Museum, the hall was envisioned by Broad and others as "a symbol of our city; a great piece of architecture that would stimulate other great things."
Los Angeles "now has an icon in Disney Hall, but also a confidence … that we could do anything we wanted to," Riordan said.
With the hall fully operational, ubiquitous in advertising campaigns and drawing a steady trickle of tourists, the county contributes $10 million a year toward its operating costs, collects revenue from the more than 2,000 parking spaces underneath it and pays for maintenance and security.
This week's ceremony, the capstone to 20 years of planning and prodding, celebrates the realization of a dream, Yaroslavsky said. "Disney Hall became sort of the beacon on the lighthouse of the Los Angeles cultural experience."
The long struggle to finance and build downtown's $274-million Walt Disney Concert Hall began in 1987.
• May 1987 — Lillian Disney donates $50 million for a world-class concert hall to honor her late husband, Walt.
• December 1988 — Frank O. Gehry is chosen as architect.
• September 1991 — Gehry unveils his design.
• Dec. 10, 1992 — Ground is broken.
• December 1995 — Los Angeles County accepts a fundraising plan led by then-Mayor Richard Riordan and local billionaire Eli Broad.
• August 1997 — Construction resumes.
• Oct. 23, 2003 — The hall opens.
• Tuesday — The county Board of Supervisors is expected to vote to transfer ownership to the county, which will sublease the hall to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Source: L.A. County, Times reporting
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