Oakland’s City Hall was the tallest building west of the Mississippi in 1914, when it was completed. It’s still an impressive structure, 324 feet high, covered with intricate stonework and flooding the plaza with warm reflected light around midmorning.
City Hall weathered the 17 October 1989 earthquake without collapse, although there was serious damage and it is said we nearly lost the clocktower. After the quake the city was motivated to retrofit the structure. In evaluating the possibilities, Charles Rabamad and Donald Wells write, “To minimize the amount of new construction, the existing structure was given credit for the strength it exhibited during the Loma Prieta earthquake. This performance-based approach required less strengthening than conventional, code-based design, which ignores the existing capacity of the building.”
Today City Hall rides on a grid of 113 big, fat rubber-and-lead base isolators 19 inches high and either 29 or 39 inches wide. These soften the shaking and allow the building to be strengthened with the least impact on the historic building’s interior. The building will shift back and forth as much as 17 inches. It’s designed for a magnitude-7 earthquake on the Hayward fault, after which some cracking, fully repairable, is expected. Completed in 1995, the retrofit was the world’s first base-isolation project for a high-rise building, setting the precedent for many more retrofits including several at UC Berkeley. Now Oakland City Hall is in all the engineering textbooks.
The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute has a publication on the whole thing, and a 15-page paper by Mason Walters with the dirty details was presented to the Third Seminar on Utilization of Strong-Motion Data in 2003.