Remember the Alamo—or not: Sheets and Associates in San Antonio

Millard Sheets, "The Death of Travis," detail of lithograph, San Antonio, 1966 via http://www.parkitecture.org/wordpress/?p=332

Millard Sheets, "The Death of Travis," detail of lithograph, San Antonio, 1966 via http://www.parkitecture.org/wordpress/?p=332

We often think of Millard Sheets as a California artist, and the Home Savings banks as a California phenomenon. Sheets was born in California, and did the vast majority of the bank projects in California—but there are other public-art projects, in Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. (A full list, with dates, addresses, and current status is coming – I will finish it one of these months!) There are Home Savings banks with Sheets and Associates art in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and Texas, where Sheets, in fact, did one of his first banks, the Dallas Mercantile Bank, in 1958. This past week I had the pleasure of helping Scott Stoddard with stories for the San Antonio Express-News about a massive painting of the battle of the Alamo in the former Travis Savings and Loan in San Antonio. As he describes here, here (where I am quoted a few times), here, and here, the bank building was bought by the San Antonio Independent School District in 1994, and is currently in closing for sale to a new developer. The building has been empty, and Stoddard initially could not even get in to see the painting—but the latest story is accompanied by breathtaking pictures of the mural, 20 feet tall and 32 feet across. According to the latest report, the new owners plan to remove the painting and donate it to a museum. The mural is rich with action—from the perspective, we stand with the Texans with guns pointed over the ramparts, firing cannons as uniformed Mexican soldiers climb up the walls with ladders. The painting’s perspective runs deep, showing mesas and thunderheads, and what appear to be cattle trains in the distance. At the center—highlighted by a white shirt and a simple, unmistakable gesture of being hit—is Col. William B. Travis, one of the leaders of the Texan Revolution to be killed in the fighting. Even teaching in El Paso, far from San Antonio, the basic mythology of the Alamo and its importance to Anglo Texans has become second nature to me. Stoddard wonders whether this may be the largest painting of the Alamo anywhere in the world, and has worked to get estimates for such a large, intricate work, with suggestions running into the hundreds of thousands. I am glad the painting is getting attention and will be preserved, and I plan to learn more about it in the archives soon.

Sue Hertel and Denis O'Connor, Castle Hills mosaic. Image courtesy of Scott Stoddard.

Sue Hertel and Denis O'Connor, Castle Hills mosaic. Image courtesy of Scott Stoddard.

But something I did see this week in the archives of the Texas projects provided another perspective. The Texas Home Savings banks came later, in the late 1980s, and so their artwork was commissioned from Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel, Sheets’ former assistants on these projects who had begun working for themselves. One such mural was done for the Castle Hills branch, at 2201 NW Military Hwy in the San Antonio region. The final design, of horses, cowboys, and their animals, reflected direction from Richard Massey, the local bank manager, “to use scenes of early Texas Pioneer cultures (German, English, Irish) over a background of wild flowers.” UPDATE: Scott Stoddard emailed a sharp photo of the Castle Hills image, to add to his great images of the Travis S&L mural.

In processing another recommendation that “the Spanish influence was good, but overdone,” Denis made a quick note in his planning: “No Alamo – Mexicans, etc.,” hinting at how the Texan Revolution—and especially the all-out war between the U.S. and Mexico that followed in 1846—was a bitter memory for many long-established Hispanic families or newer Mexican American residents, and something to avoid when courting new bank customers.

When it comes to remembering the Alamo, then, Millard Sheets and Associates were ready to be on both sides. We can be too—in seeing that both are preserved.

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