The Millard Sheets Studio could create the fantastic art of these banks because they had the financial backing of the Home Savings banks, to create these ornate and expensive pieces of artwork. Hence, as much as Sheets, Denis O’Connor, and Susan Hertel can be credited for these gifts to California, the financial muscle and some of the visionary designs should be attributed to Howard Ahmanson.
Howard Ahmanson Sr. had been born in Omaha, Nebraska, and, while attending the University of Southern California, founded H.F. Ahmanson & Co. In 1947, the holding company purchased Home Savings and Loan; in the decades that followed, the bank profited from lending to the residents of new tract homes and other houses throughout southern California, in its boom years. In the mid-1950s, Ahmanson built a Home Savings along Wilshire in Beverly Hills, his first second (see comments) experiment in a partnership with Sheets’s studio; given the enthusiastic response from depositors, Ahmanson continued the arrangement, as good for business and for the community. Tragically, Ahmanson died of a heart attack in 1968, at the age of 62, while traveling abroad with his family. (This quick bio is derived from the account in Vickey Kalambakal’s recent article; a true Ahmanson biography is underway.)
This image of Ahmanson and the Hollywood stars he wished to honor at Sunset and Vine comes from a brochure that Home Savings produced to celebrate the bank’s opening, titled “From Oranges to Oscars.” Once again, the whistle-stop tour of California history is on display; more about that another time.
But the text here is itself a remarkable peek into the intentions of the artwork:
Now the past and the future combine in “The Home of the Stars.” Home Savings has dedicated its new Hollywood office to keeping alive the colorful history of Sunset and Vine…
“Civic leaders have expressed Hollywood’s need for such a monument,” said Mr. Ahmanson [who died soon after the bank's opening, on a trip to Europe]. “By providing such a landmark, with no cost to the taxpayer, we can show our gratitude to a wonderful community which has been so nice to Home Savings.”
Could the artwork be intended merely as a thank you? Or would the promise of increased attention and free publicity for a grand opening lead to more deposits and hence profits? Did actors and movie professionals generally like banking at a place decorated by the images of their craft? Did anyone dislike these mosaics — not for artistic choices, but for something about the mere idea of public art upon a bank?
Not to seek out cynicism and discord — even as an academic, we can believe in happy stories — but I do hope to learn more about the economics, the cultural choices, and more that went into creating these images. I don’t think there was a tax break awaiting the creation of beautiful, rather than merely functional, bank spaces, so I do hope to learn more about the motivations, for Sheets, his studio, and their first Home Savings patron, Howard Ahmanson Sr.