Twenty Years Later: Restoration of Oakland City Hall Following the Loma Prieta Earthquake

October 16, 2009
On October 17, 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake struck near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay area causing severe damage to many of the surrounding buildings and structures. Oakland City Hall was one of the structures that was determined hazardous and in need of immediate repairs.

Built out of framed steel with unreinforced masonry infill in 1914 at a cost of $2 million dollars, Oakland City Hall was one of the nation's tallest buildings in the early twentieth century. The structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Determining how to save the building was of great importance to members of the community, local historians and preservationists, and the city's council. From an economical standpoint, many thought it would have been far easier to tear the structure down in order to build a newer, modernized version. Despite higher project costs and a lengthier completion time, city leaders opted to repair the building instead.

City officials retained Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE), to assess the severity of damage and to head a peer review committee for the building. WJE Principal Veronica Martin, AIA, and Associate Principal Alan Dreyfuss, AIA, both served as Oakland's assistant city architect and preservation architect for the Oakland Heritage Alliance, respectively, when repairs were executed.

Working closely with the city's design engineer throughout the repair process, WJE performed an independent state-of-the-art evaluation emphasizing the interaction of a new structural system with respect to the building's historic materials. WJE staff also conducted a structural review and seismic strengthening plan. When construction was finally completed, Oakland City Hall became the tallest building ever to receive a base-isolated retrofit in order to limit severe damage in the event of future earthquakes.

Twenty years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, Oakland City Hall still remains the operational centerpiece of Oakland's government and downtown civic area and serves as a reminder of the city's rich and elaborate history.

Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE), is an interdisciplinary firm of architects, structural engineers, and materials scientists that specializes in the investigation, analysis, testing, and design of repairs for historic and contemporary structures. WJE focuses on delivering practical, innovative, and technically sound solutions across all areas of construction technology. Since the firm's founding more than fifty years ago, WJE specialists bring the collective experience gained from conducting more than seventy-five thousand investigations worldwide to every construction challenge. WJE combines state-of-the-art laboratory and testing facilities, nationwide offices, and knowledge sharing systems to provide solutions for the built world. For more information, please visit

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