Monthly Archives: November 2012

Grasscrete at the Los Angeles Downtown Home Savings

GrassCrete at the Los Angeles Home Savings, 7th and Figueroa (demolished). 1977 Home Savings calendar, courtesy of George Underwood
GrassCrete at the Los Angeles Home Savings, 7th and Figueroa (demolished). 1977 Home Savings calendar, courtesy of George Underwood

When discussing the mosaic panels once at 7th and Figueroa, I thought of this image, of the Grasscrete parking surface once used at this location. (It also confirms the mosaic’s placement at that site, before removal.) A colleague at the L.A. Conservancy said this was her strongest memory of visiting this branch in the 1970s and 1980s.

As the caption from this 1977 calendar proclaims, “combining real grass with concrete patterns that support the weight of cars, GrassCrete brings much-needed green belts to the central city.”

GrassCrete seems to be the brainchild of the Bomanite corporation, one of their ways to create “ornamented concrete.” Boman was an artist turned industrial contractor — clearly, a career path Millard Sheets would have admired.

The number of marketers and technical papers online suggest it is still possible to order and install GrassCrete, which I have encountered, here and there, in public plazas.

One wonders why (cost? impracticalities? mud?) this simple way of greening parking lots and sidewalks did not catch on.

Ghosts of Home Savings: Bay Area Finance and First Federal

S. David Underwood and Millard Sheets Studio, Fred L. Roberts Enterprises and Bay Area Finance, Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.
S. David Underwood & Millard Sheets Studio, Fred L. Roberts Enterprises-Bay Area Finance, Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.

To continue looking at the work of S. David Underwood as principal architect for the Sheets Studio, I present these buildings, built (and unbuilt?) for financial institutions other than Home Savings.

First, the built: a delicately curving building at 16191621 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The color logo tiles and the terrazzo floors being the best hints at this building’s Mid-Century Modern past — given that the inside spaces were long since gutted. Note also the alley-side view in the picture above: for a building not on a prominent corner, the marble siding stopped when the facade did.

Sheets Studio, logos for Fred L. Roberts Enterprises and Bay Area Finance and "JI," Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.
Sheets Studio, logos for Fred L. Roberts Enterprises and Bay Area Finance and “JI,” Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.

The tile logo letters show an attempt, contemporaneous to the Home Savings work, to find a quick, recognizable way to mark the business with a colorful, artistic icon — closer to the style of abstracted corporate icons for franchise recognizability that has become a permanent part of U.S. roadside architecture, from the Golden Arches to the Swoosh to JP Morgan Chase’s interlocked pipes-become-octagon.

Could such a logo have worked for a bank in the 1950s? This sketch, for an apparently unbuilt First Federal Savings and Loan (perhaps intended as a branch for the bank in the larger Dallas project where Sheets and Turner met) shows a bank design much like the Home Savings banks, but with such a logo instead of mosaics or the gold tiles. (It reminds me of I.Magnin store designs, and others on view here.)

S. David Underwood, sketch for First Federal Savings and Loan, n.d., S. David Underwood Archive.
S. David Underwood, sketch for First Federal Savings and Loan, n.d., S. David Underwood Archive.

These works show that, while the art and architecture being created for Home Savings was the most prominent and memorable of the Sheets Studio work, those other projects, designed by Sheets and Underwood and completed by others in the Studio, demonstrate the wider role of their architecture in shaping the Mid-Century Modern look of commercial spaces, in Los Angeles and beyond. We can hope these contributions will be included in the exhibits, lectures, and discussions around the Getty’s Los Angeles Architecture initiative next spring.

Bob’s Big Boy “Burgers with Culture” in Phoenix

Millard Sheets Studio, Native American themes in mosaic, Bob's restaurant, Phoenix, 1954. From "Burgers with Culture," TILE Magazine, 1955. S. David Underwood Archive.
Millard Sheets Studio, Native American themes in mosaic, Bob’s restaurant, Phoenix, 1954. From “Burgers with Culture,” TILE Magazine, 1955. S. David Underwood Archive.

As discussed last week, S. David Underwood, the Sheets Studio’s principal architect, got his break working for a Glendale chum, Robert C. Wian, as he expanded Bob’s Big Boy into an iconic franchise.

The Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank is a Googie icon, designed by Wayne McAllister, is a historic landmark. But the Phoenix’s Bob’s restaurant, designed by Underwood — which had mosaic work designed by Millard Sheets — seems to have been destroyed.

Underwood’s extant drawings show the Phoenix franchise was conceptualized as a near-copy of the Burbank location, but that subsequent designs changed the elements, though still within the Mid-Century Modern/Googie/drive-in styles.

S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob's exterior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.
S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob’s exterior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.

A large, billboard-like neon sign with the Bob’s name, arches flying over the driveway entrance, and alternating black and white panels mix the feel of Sheets Studio designs–and this was one–and the Bob’s Big Boy checkerboard pattern. Sketches and photographs show how the wall design and counter layout were all carefully planned, with the Sheets Studio sense of interior precision.

S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob's interior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.
S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob’s interior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.

But what might surprise even the Bob’s aficionados is the Millard Sheets-designed mosaic of Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo (or Hopi?) “gods and legends,” known to us through this September 1955 article in TILE magazine.

The largest mosaic, seen above, depicted sun symbols and used background tiles from the Mosaic Tile Company, mosaic “specks” (their word) and ceramic cast pieces designed by Sheets and made at the LA County (Otis) Art Institute under the supervision of W.A. Perry, whose tile and marble company on E. Indian School Road in Phoenix then completed the installation. (This is more interesting data for the discussion of who fabricated the mosaics in the Sheets Studio before the arrival of Denis O’Connor in 1961.)

Though we only have a black and white photograph, the TILE magazine caption sounds like classic Sheets Studio work: “Vivid white, black, red and green colors on a blue background provide a pattern in harmony with the surrounding western landscape.” Sheets himself is quoted in the article discussing the tile’s durability, suggesting such outdoor, artistic use was unfamiliar. As for the American Indian nations as the source of a theme, Sheets had designed the Thunderbird air fields in the California and Arizona deserts and utilized Native American imagery there as well.

Where is this work now? This restaurant was at N. Central Avenue and E. Thomas Road, which Google StreetView suggests two massive office buildings, an empty greenspace, and a strip mall exist today. So chalk this up as another lost Sheets artwork.