Monthly Archives: November 2010

The First Home Savings: Stained-Glass Windows

Stained-glass windows at the original Home Savings and Loan, 1955
Stained-glass windows at the original Home Savings and Loan, 1955

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

While I am at home in San Diego, I thought it was worth going back to the original Home Savings and Loan bank. In the future, I will post more about the original Home Savings mosaic, and the iconic gold HS&L tiles that flanked the other artwork and ran beneath the windows on the bank.

Icon tiles, Home Savings and Loan, 9245 Wilshire, 1955
Icon tiles, Home Savings and Loan, 9245 Wilshire, 1955

But today I want to focus on what surprised me most when visiting the bank this month: the stained glass. I have written about the importance of stained glass at a number of marquee Home Savings locations, and I have found other inaccessible pieces of stained glass.

But the original branch held a double surprise for me: the answer to one riddle, and the beginning of the next .

First, the new riddle: why are so many of the stained-glass windows blocked off? This is somewhat an answerable riddle, by the simple fact that many of them, as here and at Laurel Canyon, reach the full height of the building, and so when renovations are made and second floors become inaccessible to the general public, the glass gets blocked off.

The image above tries to solve this problem by taking the external image–showing the full extent of the window–and reversing it; hence, if you go to see it, those captions will be only visible from inside.

"Roman Thrift and Savings," banking image detail
"Roman Thrift and Savings," banking image detail

The placement of the new stairway and drop ceiling on the inside make it impossible to see the captions, and I am pretty sure the clear, etched-glass sections are not original, and must replace either broken windows or windows that held Home Savings logos (more research awaits, as always).

But I knew there were captions, and I could make out what I was seeing here, thanks to an early image I saw at the Millard Sheets Studio in Claremont: a single panel of stained-glass work, showing the (Biblical?) scene of an Egyptian-dressed man carrying a calf over his shoulder, with the caption “banking.”

"Banking," Claremont Studio
"Banking," Claremont Studio

Clearly, this was artwork intended for another project that did not make it–but I also found it a fitting reminder within the Claremont studio of the primary client and benefactor, Howard Ahmanson and his banks. Given what Sheets says about his work on this first bank, I think this window could have gone all the way to fabrication before some design change meant it could not be installed in this bank as planned.

What to make of the imagery? Well, banking is an obvious subject for a bank, and the fine-art quality of these stained glass windows shows the initial desire to make these banks places to linger, to experience beauty. Such a universal history of banking hardly seems to engage the community and the location; of course, this was the first bank, and so those imperatives may not have been clear yet.

The Sheets Studio designed these windows but did not fabricate them; soldering and glass-cutting went on in Pasadena, though Katy Hertel remembers her mother going down to paint all the details onto the glass, so these works can clearly be considered as part of the overall Sheets Studio package. It is very hard to see enough detail here to really be sure, but these windows do not seem to share the style of the later Sheets Studio art–but neither, really, does the mosaic out front, which was fabricated in Italy. (More on all that in the weeks ahead.)

The placement of this window also indicates a pattern present here and at Laurel Canyon, and at Sunset and Vine: sculpture and mosaics in front, stained glass catching its light over the parking lot. That might have been about security for the artwork, but it also suggests the old cathedral trick of the rose window: catch them by surprise with the stained glass. You saw the mosaic out front, you pulled your finned car around to the back, you went in to bank, and then WHAM! on the way out, you look up to a beautiful image you are surprised not to have noticed before, over the door.

So many of these Home Savings banks have been remodeled, and the open doors have been changed, but it is worth considering how the art and architecture work together to create this spectacle.

Intricate Scottish Rite History on Wilshire

Millard Sheets and Studio, Scottish Rite Masonic history mosaic, 4357 Wilshire, 1963
Millard Sheets and Studio, Scottish Rite Masonic history mosaic, 4357 Wilshire, 1963

Last week, I was able to drive along Wilshire Boulevard and see my local string of Sheets Studio art: three banks and this monumental building, the four-story former Scottish Rite temple designed and decorated by the Sheets Studio in 1963.

The property is currently for sale; the Los Angeles Masons (Scottish Rite is one of the traditions of the Freemasons, a fraternal organization with many ties to the symbolism of the United States, as Nicholas Cage and Dan Brown remind us) lost a series of court cases over noise complaints and zoning for the building, and as of 2008 the California Supreme Court denied them the right to lease the property for commercial use.

The legal fight means that the building has been mostly closed since 1993, and completely closed since 2006, so I have not been able to see the Sheets Studio work inside the building (which I hear is extensive).

 George Washington, Mason, at 4357 Wilshire
George Washington, Mason, at 4357 Wilshire
4357 Wilshire entrance, with text drawn from U.S. founding documents

I provide here only a few examples of the sculpture and quotations from the building; following the tradition of Masonic structures such as the ornate George Washington National Masonic Memorial, built in 1932, that bridge the known history of the Masons (reaching back to the Enlightenment) with the order’s mythology, reaching back to the time of King Solomon’s Temple, with (as this mosaic and group of sculptures gives evidence to) detours into the law-giving and correct-living precepts of Hammurabi’s Code, a number of early Greek and Roman leaders, the builders of medieval cathedrals, Renaissance leaders, and finally American Founders. As anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists are quick to point out, the vast majority of U.S. Presidents have been Masons, along with other kinds of community leaders. But, without any internal knowledge, I have always seen that as a reflection of these individuals’ power, respect, acumen, and ability to network, rather than its cause.

From what I gather, the 1950s and 1960s was a high point for recent Masonic activity in the United States — a premier networking and campaigning venue, among an association of the established. And, as the later zoning fight about this building reveals, the prominent location on Wilshire, in what is otherwise a residential neighborhood, flanked with massive Protestant churches, indicates the influence of the Masonic group that built this structure.

detail of Babylon with signature, 1963
Detail of Babylon with signature, 1963

Two elements of this mosaic interest me, the first being  its deeply historical nature. Did this commission push the Sheets Studio toward using more history in the Home Savings banks? Next week I will discuss the first Home Savings location, also on Wilshire, that has a mix of historic and ahistorical imagery. Sheets spoke about how he had almost no guidance from Howard Ahmanson–simply a directive to make the art beautiful. Clearly the Masons had very specific ideas about who should be highlighted, what text should be included, and what gestures, symbols, and clothing would best express Masonic principles. I wonder if Sheets and his collaborators enjoyed the research project, and/or if the reception suggested more historical images would work well.

The other element is the mosaic’s style. Thanks to my experience with Alba Cisneros a few weeks ago, cutting tile and comparing Byzantine and Italian tile styles, I can recognize this Scottish Rite mosaic as a transitional moment. In his oral interview in the 1980s, Sheets discussed how the original mosaics were made in Italy, but that, given his disappointments with the results, he began to train himself and his studio in the creation of mosaics. This mosaic was made in California, but the signature technique — Byzantine tile, carefully cut and shaped — is not present throughout; there there are large sections of flat, square Italian-style tesserae, which are machine-made. Perhaps the sheet size of this four-foot mosaic is to blame, but I wonder if Sheets, Denis O’Connor, and others were still perfecting their mosaic tile. More interviews and more time in the archives will tell.