Sunday, March 22, is an important day for admirers of Millard Sheets and the work of the Claremont arts community: it’s the premiere of Paul Bockhurst’s documentary Design for Modern Living: Millard Sheets and the Claremont Art Community, 1935-1975 at the Garrison Theater. All the information is here—buy your tickets now! I’ve bought mine!
Paul is the winner of five Emmy Awards, who has long been fascinated with the accomplishments of the Claremont art community. This film highlights how Sheets, Albert Stewart, Betty Davenport Ford, Karl Benjamin, Harrison McIntosh, Sam Maloof, and others made Claremont a major center for art, craft, and architecture in the postwar period. The project spawned a second documentary–Claremont Modern: The Convergence of Art + Architecture at Midcentury–in which he and I discuss my research on the Sheets Studio art and architecture for Home Savings.
As we reach the end of 2014, I wanted to give you an update about all that is happening behind the scenes–as well as to share some thoughts about those Home Savings branches constructed outside California, and the effort to add them to the story.
It has been a productive fall! With support from Howard Ahmanson Jr. and the Ahmanson Foundation, I have been on leave, writing my book on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Sheets Studio work for Home Savings. Four of the planned seven chapters are drafted: The Story, Origins, Location, and Reception. That leaves Process, Meaning, and Legacies as the chapters to draft this spring. I am also speaking with presses about a full-color, heavily illustrated book, as well as museums about a possible exhibition. And, on Monday, I was interviewed by Paul Bockhurst for his documentary projects about Millard Sheets and other Claremont artists, and I toured Claremont Heritage.
The question of current ownership–and whether those owners realize what they have–has finally driven my new post off the to-do list and now to your screens.
From 1947, when Howard Ahmanson purchased it, Home Savings had regular periods of growth, through acquiring other savings-and-loans, petitioning the state to expand their territory, and final due to changed regulations that allowed expansion throughout California, in around 1976, and then across the nation, in the mid-1980s. Though Millard Sheets had completed retired from the studio in 1980, Sue Hertel and Denis O’Connor, who had worked with Sheets on these commissions for decades, continued to produce similar work. Around 1990, Home Savings also commissioned some other artists, such as Marlo Bartels, Astrid Preston, and Richard Haas, to produce branch artwork, with a similar focus on community identity and history. These locations were constructed in Florida, Illinois, Missouri,New York, Ohio, and Texas.
In 1998, Home Savings was sold to Washington Mutual, and then in 2007-8, Washington Mutual was seized by the government and rapidly given to JP Morgan Chase. At both moments, some of the locations that the Sheets Studio had designed and decorated for Home Savings ceased to be banks. In 1998, some of those properties were sold to Met Life and managed by CB Richard Ellis, such as former branches in Santa Monica, Coronado, Montebello, and the Home Savings headquarters in Irwindale, along with some locations that are still banks, such as Santa Barbara and Riverside, presumably based on the value of their locations. Since Washington Mutual acquired a number of financial institutions before its collapse, other branches in an area where multiple banks were acquired, such as La Mesa and Redondo Beach, were sold off to other commercial-real-estate holders at other times. (I don’t have a master list of Washington Mutual locations from 2007; if you do, perhaps in a booklet form, I would love to see it!)
Chase was interested in taking Washington Mutual from the federal government in part because of its network of locations on the West Coast, where Chase had not had a presence; according to my list, Chase currently owns at least 69 locations with Sheets Studio artwork, mostly former Home Savings locations.
But what gets really interesting is what happened to the 52 Home Savings locations with Sheets Studio artwork outside of California. Home Savings had for decades used their art and architecture as part of how to stand out against their traditional competitors in the West, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, both based in San Francisco at the time. While both had some tradition of historic artifacts or mosaic banks, these seemed pale imitations to the number and uniformity of the Home Savings locations.
Yet, outside of California, I have found that, over and over again, it is Wells Fargo and Bank of America that are using the former Home Savings buildings–either purchased outright, or by acquiring banks that had acquired the location, such as Wachovia in Florida. Whether these locations were sold off by Washington Mutual in 1998 or Chase in 2008, I am not sure, but it seems that the California banks understood the power of this art and architecture, and they wanted to be first in line to pick up the former competitors’ locations in other states. I have found 12 locations owned by Bank of America, mostly in Illinois; 12 by Wells Fargo, mostly in Florida; and a few by US Bank in California, and then local credit unions and banks and trust companies elsewhere.
Thus, in a way, even when these banks are isolated–only five in all of Ohio, six each in Texas and Missouri, fifteen in Illinois, nineteen in Florida, just one in New York–they actually are still part of a conversation with Home Savings, carried on by its once-rivals that survive as well as by Chase, the steward of the largest number of these buildings.
Below I post the full details for these outside-California Home Savings branches with Sheets Studio art and architecture, to aid those in these communities in seeing their value and working to preserve them.
If an address brings you to this post, please contact me so I can connect you to the wider history of these buildings and their artwork.
3090 (3050) Aventura Blvd
Safra National Bank
tile mosaic; O’Connor plan “beach scene (maybe Santa Monica)”
Richard Haas; O’Connor
9035 Boca Fontana Blvd 33434
Fifth Third Bank
mosaic: fish and snorklers
Denis, Sue, Alba, Jill, Darin
7380 Manatee Ave west
tile mosaic: city map, sword, compass rose
25749 U S Highway 19
Perenich and Coldwell Banker; covered?
painted mural: segulls in flight
3325 W Hillsboro Blvd
TD Bank; shows no art?
galleon and deers?
Denis, NOVA Designs?
1483 Main Street
egret and pelican over water; city shield?
Marlo Bartels; Denis, Sue
O’Connor; and http://www.marlobartels.blogspot.com/
4875 N Federal Hwy
12370 S Cleveland Ave
mosaic: text tell history from muddy road to palms; Macgregor Blvd and mention Edison, Hendry, Terry, McGregor, Miles
Denis, Sue, Homolka-Gilkerson
1701 East Young Circle
O’Connor – CF Arlington Heights
9899 NE 2nd Ave
Denis, Sue, Alba, Jill, Darin, Martita
900 Neapolitan Way
put on hold
12440 Pines Blvd 33027
702 N University Dr
cows in enamel tile mosaic
3340 N Tamiami Trail
Charlotte Heart & Vascular Institute
mosaic: Caloosa Indians, cattle, eagles, Seminole Indians, wildlife, shels, ranching, galleons, egrets, black woman, pelicans, fishing, phosphates, palm trees
Denis, Sue, Alba, Annie, Pete Knersel?
2891 South Tamiami Trail, US Highway 41 Bougainvillea
circus animals, including monkeys, elephants, camels
Denis, Franco -Nova Designs, Frank Homolka Jess Gilkerson; Studio MosaicArt Colledani Milan/NOVA Designs
1901 Alton Road 33139
So. Miami Beach (Alton Rd.)
mosaic – fish
4100 4th Street North
2 mosaic: dolphins and fish; just dolphins
2050 U. S. Highway #1 / 8th avenue
6000 Okeechobee Blvd, Drexel Plaza
W. Palm Beach
CDA Financial Plaza
mosaic: polo players
Denis, Franco; Studio MosaicArt Colledani Milan/NOVA Designs
415 E. Rand Rd
Bank of America
mosaic: “racetrack – horses & jockeys”
Denis, Sue; Italian
6400 W Cermak Rd (at Ridgeland) 60402
Bank of America
mosaic: theater showing The Ragman with Jackie Coogan; streetscape
Denis, Sue, Gina Lawson, Leland Means,
6115 S Pulaski Rd
Bank of America
mosaic – snow scene, ice skating
are these interior? Not there?
1300 Oakton Ave, 60018
mosaic: “street w/ people in front (brass band)”
Denis, Sue, Franco
1000 S York Rd
Bank of America
1336 Chicago Ave 60201
Bank of America
mosaic – men putting boat into lake; their wagon
Denis, Sue, Gina, Kathy, Leland Means, Studio Marble
2108 W Jefferson St
Joliet Bank & Trust
mosaic – birds; Roger Nelson inside painting of fields
Denis, Sue, Roger Nelson
8745 N Waukegan Rd
Bank of America
Denis, Sue, Frank Homolka, Franco
are these interior? Not there?
1080 S Elmhurst Rd
Bank of America
mosaic of columns
Denis, Sue, “others”
1301 E Odgen Rd 60540
Bank of America
mosaic: fire company, wagon, bicycles; painted mural; is it mosaic: “volunteer fire dep”?
mosaic: family group and livestock; H. Lee Hale: “use scenes of early Texas Pioneer cultures (German, English, Irish) overlaid on a background of wild flowers as the subject” – DOC – “No Alamo – Mexicans, etc.”
I am in the final months of a year-long NEH research fellowship for my third project, on African North Americans crossing the U.S.-Canada border after the Emancipation Proclamation. (Want to learn more? See here, from the New York Times Disunion series.)
Then, starting September 2014, I have a year to write up this research on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Millard Sheets Studio work for Home Savings & Loan, thanks to Howard Ahmanson Jr. and the Ahmanson Foundation. So I will be much more active here, and around southern California, starting then.
In the meantime, I am happy to share this wonderful video, created by the Beverly Hills Cable TV team, on “The Mosaics of Beverly Hills by Millard Sheets.” They did a beautiful job, and I am glad to have played a part (and to have such a large role in the narration.)
So click over there to see my Top Ten places you need to see the Millard Sheets Studio artwork in person. With about 200 to choose from, any such list is sure to be controversial!
(In the background news, I have finished a first draft of the first chapter written for my Home Savings and Sheets Studio art, architecture, and urban context book. So it is now about 20% closer to completion!)
I have written earlier about the use of the historical triptych by Denis and Sue in their own, 1980s commissions for Home Savings, but looking back at my Torrance pictures today, I was struck not only by the asymmetrical, cut-out-of-travertine shape you see here (a feature also present in contemporaneous Sheets Studio work for Van Ness in San Francisco and Tujunga) but by how this image–described in the shorthand in the Sheets Papers correspondence as “Rancho San Pedro, Red Car maintenance, family living” demonstrates that historical arc we see at Northridge–European origins in the region; classic Victorian-era nostalgia; something modern—for what I think is the first time in Home Savings art.
According to the files, there were wall hangings there once, likely long gone. But this triptych will stay with me, know, as another subtle-but-important “first” in the evolution of the Home Savings art style, and its integration of local history.
Opened on May 8, 1974, this branch holds art in three forms: the mosaic, credited to Millard Sheets on the wall and Nancy Colbath, Denis O’Connor, and Sue Hertel in the files; John Edward Svenson‘s leaping dolphins, forged in Oslo; and the stained glass, inside, a collaboration between Hertel and John Wallis Stained Glass.
The result, I think, is one of the most beautiful branches, just down the hill from the stunning views of ocean and shore that crown Rancho Palos Verdes. The size and complexity of the work leads to a large file in the archives, but the effect is simple–an improvement on existing Home Savings forms. I was particularly struck by the stained glass, as I think I had never seen it, whereas the leaping dolphins make the front of the branch quite iconic.
The innovations in the forms–new background material; combining sculpture imaginatively with the mosaic wall of sea foam; and the use of a more naturalistic color palette with a traditional set of children and domestic animals–suggests subtle adjustments to traditional Sheets Studio-Home Savings artwork, the kind of tinkering made possible by artists secure in what was expected of their work but trying not to be bored.
The surprise of the stained glass is another reminder how, like so much excellent architecture, even the repetition of form and style can hold surprises in a new context.
Eric Abrahamson’s new book, Building Home, describes the first interactions between Millard Sheets and Howard Ahmanson, and says some about the National American Fire Insurance building. It is crucially important but hard to document, since its demolition in the process of the construction of the Ahmanson Center.
The images you see here come from the remarkable collection of mostly color sketches for sale via Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, in San Francisco; these and more appear on their website, with prices and other details. But my work in the Ravenna Mosaic Company papers have provided more insights about their fabrication and installation.
And so, in order to get the installation correct, you needed a map of the mosaic, matching the pieces back into the correct order. They existed for every installation, but they were mostly destroyed — but it just so happens that the Ravenna Mosaic Company kept a copy, when they sent another to Sheets for installation.
And though it is referred to as the “General Fire Insurance Company,” and it is also along Wilshire, it is clear from the shape that it was the mosaic over the door at the National American Fire Insurance Company of Howard Ahmanson, at 3731 Wilshire — and the start of a remarkable partnership in art, architecture, and urbanism.
Working backward a bit in time, the Ravenna Mosaic Company records for the Arcadia mosaic, completed 1959-1960, show a similar discussion about Sheets’s planned mosaic methods–as well as a desire to multiply the use of these designs.
In a January 25, 1960, letter, with Millard Sheets out of the country, Mary Dane records suggestions he relayed via Susan Lautmann (later Hertel):
“1. No outline on arms or legs — use none at all.
2. Use a little more variety in the rythm
of the tesserae.
3. Follow the patterns. We will send you a slide of the kind of thing we have been doing when we send you the next decoration to be executed.
4. If possible, use larger pieces of tesserae mixed in with the smaller ones for more variety.”
This suggests the discussion between Ravenna Mosaic Company and the Sheets Studio was ongoing, about having their vision expressed completely–and it confirms there was some “thing we have been doing,” suggesting some of the mosaics were being made in California at this stage. (Perhaps tesserae purchase orders from this period, if they exist, could confirm it.)
And then there was the possibilities of reuse. As Sheets concluded an October 13, 1959 offer letter, “I am particularly anxious that you preserve carefully the original color cartoon as it is possible I will want to send this design to France to be executed in a tapestry.” Thus, even before his 1963 Loyola Marymount tapestry and those that followed, Sheets was exploring the possibilities of various media for his designs (probably in concert with Martha Menke Underwood‘s textile work).
The files on this mosaic from Garden Grove have helped me resolve an ongoing question raised by conversations with mosaicist and mosaic historian Lillian Sizemore: Where does the Sheets Studio mosaic style come from, and why does it change so often? We have discussed the Ameses, the role of Martha Menke Underwood, and the later innovations of Denis O’Connor, and the last mosaics fabricated in Italy, but the questions around the initial mosaics, 1954-1960, remained: Is the style the work of Millard Sheets, or the imprint of his fabricators? Were the fabricators Italian, or Ravenna Mosaic (who are actually German), or Sheets’s own studio?
Now the Ravenna Mosaic Company records can provide an answer, in the form of a complaint.
On February 29, 1960, Arno Heudeck, of the Ravenna Mosaic Company, wrote to Millard Sheets about the cartoon received for the “proposed mosaic mural for the Home Savings & Loan Association. Garden Grove,” saying “we have studied it quite carefully.” But then there is a concern:
“You have indicated…your suggestion for handling the style, size, and texture treatment of the tesserae for this mural, including large sized tesserae. Your selections of colors and shading are beautiful, but very vast in numbers. I think it is clear that you are indicating a great deal more time-consuming work for us in your specifications. All our tesserae, it seems, will have to be cut and fitted in irregular patterns and fields; even you plain gold areas are broken up in an interesting, but obviously more time-consuming manner for us.”
And so they wrote with a higher price quote–which Mary Dane, secretary-treasurer (and all-around keep-things-working administrator) for Millard Sheets accepted on April 1, stating as “I relayed to you via telephone sometime ago: It is not necessary to break up all the areas that way (refering
into patterns may be done with regular cutting…For example, the foliage on the trees could be done with some areas fitted in regular pattern and most areas cut simply.”
On September 14, 1960, Heudeck wrote back, to ask for photographs of the finished installations, and “to ask how these last two murals we executed for you were received by you and your clients,” given “the unique manner in which you installed these mosaics into the sandblasted recessions of the marble,” and their “interpretations of the cartoons into the mosaic medium.”
Thus, it is clear that the innovations of Sheets’s design that gave it depth and life– the plane-splitting diagonal lines, the articulation of variegated color, and the contrasting colors — were innovations for the Ravenna Mosaic Company, and required a new technique (and greater cost) than their normal procedures.
Given a discussion of work for Arcadia (see my next post), it seems the Sheets Studio was already doing some mosaic work in-house–likely including the small paintings/mosaics for Compton. But by 1961, with the arrival of Martha Menke Underwood and then Denis O’Connor as members of the Sheets Studio, they began to do all this work themselves, beginning with the Scottish Rite Temple in Los Angeles. But this letter — its surprise, its wonder, and its admiration — demonstrates when Sheets’s new style for mosaics began to emerge, despite the difficulties it left for his fabricator.
Businesses need brand logos. And so, though the art and architecture of Home Savings were their own sort of branding–prominent corners, eye-catching art, local themes–in 1955 Home Savings needed a brand logo, and Millard Sheets designed this shield. Some of its earliest renditions were in the traditional Home Savings form — mosaic.
Like many successful logos, the Home Savings shield seems simple, through a number of careful design choices. Here words are scaled according to their relative importance–the concept of “HOME” as well as its use as a nickname for the savings and loan makes it an obvious choice for being largest. Next comes “Savings” — you can see below, in other versions, that its prominence was kept, while “loan” began shrinking.
Home Savings locations also had the griffin, designed by Albert Stewart via a Sheets connection, which was the symbol of the larger Ahmanson holding company, and today is the symbol of the Ahmanson Foundation. It passed a key test for modern logos — good at all sizes — that recently got the UC system logo in trouble. But nothing about it said banking exactly, despite the reference to the winged lion of St. Mark, symbol of Venice, a longtime global trading hub.
The shield is obviously a symbol of protection, and the background–which at first seems to be an abstract design, like on a tapestry — shows small trees, reinforcing the idea of growth, seed capital, and the power of long-term investment.
But then there is the problem of how to make the shield stand out in two dimensions. In my conversations with George Underwood, who oversaw the inside publishing and advertising efforts that brought us the calendars, advertisements, stationery, and more, he spoke of the agony of figuring out how to make the shield look good.
We can see two of those solutions here: the laying down shield (a photograph of a three-dimensional shield at a dramatic angle) was often used in print and television ads; it positions the viewer as looking up at the shield, as we might from the sidewalk to the side of a building. And it always helps a brand to feel folks are looking up to it!
Then there are the subtle but important design changes in the shield above, in the midst of the rainbow of color. To emphasize the depth and weight of the shield even in a two-dimensional rendering, the top line is bowed out, as in the photograph, and the placement of the letters are also distorted across what would be the bulge at the center of the shield, strengthening the illusion of three dimensions.
Such an important symbol as the Home Savings shield eventually made its way into interior-illumination signage, sometimes on buildings but mostly on standalone signs. The plastic version was crafted by Tony Sheets, and some still exist; at right is a case of how Chase has reused on such existing sign, in Garden Grove. (I haven’t seen examples of how Washington Mutual used the street signs in this way, but they must have done so at least in this location.)
Among other reasons for interest, this demonstrates the staying power of Ravenna Mosaic Company as the fabricator of choice. The use of mosaic with marble columns and the change of color planes divided by diagonal lines are very reminiscent of Sheets’s work—though I find this artwork flatter, in all senses of the word, than the Sheets Studio work. (Haines’s work at UCLA, on Schoenberg Hall and the Physics Building, seems more lively and fun.)
The mosaic depicts many symbols of justice and harmony, showing two hemispheres, flowering trees, small images of animals and industry—and then collections of white-robed people, carrying gifts and tools. Though perhaps no more than one is holding an overtly religious symbol, the sense of a procession and of communal action in white robes is as evocative of a choir and a baptism as much as the Parthenon frieze or the art and architecture of the United Nations. But perhaps evocative is the key word–no explicit religious symbols, and hence no controversy?
Art in public always has an edge of controversy — what gets included, and what gets left out? What gets preserved and cherished, and what gets removed, destroyed, or painted over? Add to that public sponsorship of iconic art, meant to represent a political body like the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and something is sure to burst.
Millard Sheets never shied away from public art, nor from including figures, icons, or religious symbols that he felt were appropriate to the cause. In 1953, Sheets struck a bargain with L.A. Supervisor John Anson Ford to take over the Los Angeles County Art Institute, better known as the Otis College of Art and Design.
Given Sheets’s role and his ties to the Board, perhaps it is not surprising that Kenneth Hahn, another county supervisor, chose Sheets to turn his vision into the new Los Angeles County Seal in 1957. The design represented Los Angeles with a mix of environmental, economic, and historical icons: sun, mountains, and the sea; Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees; an engineer’s triangle and caliper; a tuna for the fishing industry; oil derricks; and the “champion cow Paulette”; the San Salvador,Cabrillo‘s ship; and the Hollywood Bowl, with two stars (for motion picture and television) overhead–and a cross also there, in the sky.
In 2004, the seal received three changes: a Native American woman holding a basket replaced Pomona; the oil derricks were dropped and replaced by the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel; and the Hollywood Bowl shifted up–and lost its cross. Together, the three changes tell an interesting story about the changing self-perception of Los Angeles industry and history — but the removal of the cross (done in response with other controversies about Christian symbols on public lands, public buildings, and in official icons) angered some residents, who have, so far, lost their court cases about the change.
What would Millard Sheets have thought? In 1955, under the headline “Art Must Serve Two Masters,” Sheets wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “A good designer has always had to deal with real clients whether king, bishop, or a commercial agency, satisfy their needs and never compromise his
own aesthetic judgment,” and he praised the Board of Supervisors for giving LACAI the ability to train those artists and designers. My sense is that he would have understood that a county seal is a very political item–and so, as times changed, the decision to represent the county differently might come along, no matter what an artist had created.
Here Home Savings is put on the map of California, its home state — but in a very different format. This is from a calendar, rather than a road map, and that probably helps — the size of the state and the number of branches might overwhelm the other format (though I hear one exists).
While the eastern maps emphasize the convenience along the roads, here Home Savings is represented on a natural-resources map of California–emphasizing, in an even more dramatic way, the history and rootedness Home Savings strove for.
Here it seems the savings and loans are literally as old as the hills, and as permanent on the California landscape as the Sierras, the Mojave desert, and the Central Valley. (And how great it would be if those blue regional dividing lines were rivers instead!)
More in the weeks ahead about that Home Savings shield in the bottom left corner.
My research has suggested Millard Sheets first designed mosaics that were fabricated by the Ravenna Mosaic Company of St. Louis, in the 1930s and 1940s, before building his own fabrication team. And, like mosaicists around the world, the Sheets Studio ordered its best tiles from Italy (with some additional ones from Mexico), making it hard to use materials to track the mosaic fabrication process.
What we see here is the other end of the spectrum — when, after Millard Sheets retired, Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel continued the business — they became overwhelmed by the requirements of the rapidly expanding Savings of America.
Lillian has helped me see how and where O’Connor ordered mosaics to be fabricated in Italy, at less cost, via a broker named Franco Merli at NOVA Designs. (Denis segregated the records about these Italian-fabricated mosaics, either as a matter of file management or to keep this change out of the spotlight.) The work was done by Studio MosaicArt di D.Colledani-Milan, which has a nice website highlighting their ongoing mosaic work.
Offshoring the mosaic fabrication was cheaper, but, as Lillian has shown me, it also led to changes in the fabrication techniques, which she is tracking. Unfamiliarity with the themes, figures, and even animals intended by the sketches lead to discussions, in a mix of Italian and English, in the files.
This mosaic, in Springfield, Missouri, then suffered another goof — the fabricators did not correctly reverse Sue Hertel’s initials — and no one at the installation noticed to fix it.
For one of the new national Savings of America branches, far from other branches and from the context and story of the Sheets Studio and Home Savings, this was insult to injury.
One expects there were foreheads smacking from Missouri to California to Italy when the mistake was pointed out.
Goodwin and Ames both were involved in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, and Jean, in an oral history, said that Arthur’s professor at the California School of Fine Arts, “Ray Boynton…inspired me to do the work in mosaic and so we were one of the first to do mosaic work in California and it was through his expression we did that.” (They also mention the influence of Dr. Robert King and the help of Bob Vohe.)
The Ameses were part of a veritable movement of artists, especially in California, learning the art of mosaic in the 1930s. According to the research of Lillian Sizemore, mosaicist and mosaic researcher, as well as Sharon Musher, a historian of the New Deal arts projects, Maxine Albro and the Bruton Sisters were employed through the Federal Arts Program in the Bay Area (including at the San Francisco Zoo), where, in the words of the Ameses, they acquired mosaic skills from “imported workers” from Italy who had come to work on mosaics at Stanford, among other locales.
The mosaics that the Ameses produced for Newport Harbor Union High School were likely among the first public mosaics fabricated by Americans in the state of California. The preponderance of square tiles; the heavy, dark lines; and the massive, static feel of the figures do not bear the mark of the later Sheets Studio mosaics, reflecting more the large figures of the contemporaneous Mexican muralists, and Soviet Socialist-Realists.
The material is also different. As Jean later said, “at that time it was almost impossible to get the Byzantine [glass] mosaic [tesserae] that is used in Italy, and we used native material,” hard, high-fired matte vitreous (clay) tiles from scrap heaps as well as tile from manufacturers such as Gladding McBean. But the interplay of colors to create depth, and the cut tiles that provide hints of motion—in the women’s hair, in the pelican’s feathers—show the promise of how their technique evolved.
Jean and Arthur Ames were married in 1940, and Millard Sheets recruited Jean to the faculty at Scripps College, while Arthur became Professor of Design at Otis Art Institute. Their artwork moved progressively through a number of media—paintings to mosaics to woodcuts to copper enamel to tapestries, and, in most cases, from figurative to abstract compositions.
The influence of the Ameses at the Sheets Studio was mostly through the skills endowed to their students who worked in mosaic – Martha Menke Underwood and Nancy Colbath most prominent among them. The mosaic at the first Home Savings mosaic, completed 1955, is signed with the names Millard Sheets, J.E. (likely James Edgar) Michalski, and Ronald Gerber—and I am still trying to track down who these last two individuals were.
From Millard’s encouragement and Martha’s skill, the Home Savings mosaics emerged—small in size and intricacy at first, and then ever larger and more complex. After 1961, when Denis O’Connor came into the studio, Lillian Sizemore has described to me that this shift marked “a more modern trend in the Studio’s handling of the mosaic surface.”
In 1999, Newport Union demolished the building where the mosaics were, outside facing a patio—but, thankfully, their wall was preserved. They now occupy pride of place in a hallway at the entrance to the school, with a plaque describing their history.
Next week we will look at what happened after the grand era of Denis O’Connor mosaics for Home Savings — when his smaller operation could not handle the timing demands of Home Savings, expanding across the nation.
On Monday, I had the opportunity to interview Larry Upham, who worked for nearly three decades on the construction of new Home Savings branches. (He even got his start, after Korean War service, in rock work at Millard Sheets’s Claremont studio via Arlen Eddington – and later did the same at Barking Rocks, in Gualala.) Upham’s career at Home Savings spanned the expansion throughout the LA Basin, on to San Diego and San Francisco, and then to other states, where Upham oversaw the construction of branches in Missouri and Illinois.
He had an album of great photographs of these more farflung branches, where artwork was designed and fabricated under Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel after Millard Sheets had retired from the Home Savings artworks. More of these to come — but today I will highlight something I had not seen: Home Savings road maps.
As I mentioned in posts about Home Savings/Savings of America in New York, the bank had to introduce its traditions to a new audience across the nation, often doing so through its ongoing commitment to public artwork about a community and its history.
But these maps demonstrate another element of that connection: literally putting Home Savings locations on a local map, and integrating the bank’s generosity (in this case with directions) with its local presence — and its prominence on key street corners, for an ever-expanding automobile culture. As one (at right) declared, “Wherever you may live or visit in Illinois, you’ll not be far from Savings of America,” and the map “is best carried in your car for ready reference.”
The Auto Club of Southern California maintains great archives, demonstrating more than a century of reorienting Americans to the view from the driver’s seat. And a raft of great books describe the growth of roadside architecture.
My scholarship on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Home Savings buildings will tell part of that story, of roadside postwar America — and these maps are just another reminder that Home Savings’s influences on the cultural, economic, and urban landscape were part of an intentional strategy.
Here’s to another year of great contacts, interviews, new sources, and more writing — and, as always, I welcome your suggestions of people to speak with and sources to see.
The Home Savings branches were expertly sited — placed on prominent corners, so drivers could know, instantly, which financial institution it was. The original branches had gold tiles and brightly colored mosaics, like these birds. (The mosaic seems to involve less sophisticated cuts, and the location has no file in the Millard Sheets Papers, suggesting it was completed before 1961.) Funny to see the gold tiles replaced by the brown-and-red colors of Wells Fargo!
Of course, other banks and savings and loans understood the value of a location on a prominent corner as well. The rounded-square signs over rounded-to-the-corner buildings mark the former Crocker National Bank locations. Even though Crocker was acquired by Wells Fargo, I find that many of their former locations in Los Angeles are now Bank of America, a result of the waves of bank expansion and consolidation that have shaped banking since the 1980s.
This is a similar story: though Wells Fargo also owned the American Trust Company, and hence has a connection to other Sheets Studio artwork, I think this location is the only former Home Savings that is now a Wells Fargo, and the only location with artwork completed before 1980 that is a financial institution other than JP Morgan Chase.
I assume Wells Fargo and Bank of America had internal conversations about the Home Savings commitment to art, history, and community, and whether their banks needed to do similar work to compete — the San Mateo branch of Bank of America honors the bank’s founder, A. P. Giannini, with a front facade covered in mosaic designed by Louis Macouillard. But, despite their more publicarchives, I have yet to hear about records of these conversations. If you know of any, do let me know!
Happy Holidays! The blog will return with new posts in January.
Now, windows are for light, so a walled-in solution would not work well (and would have to be applied on two sides, which would get messy). But what if the new business does not think a joyous Sue Hertel / John Wallis creation, described in the Sheets Papers as “a continuation of the theme…pleasures of swimming, beach games, figrues with animals, all designed to to give a kaleidoscope of beach activity,” will fit the mood of the stores, or seem dated?
The translucent screen seems like an intriguing idea, bringing in that multicolored light while hiding (but not damaging) the stained glass behind it.
But, to me, it just begs for the viewer to peek back there and say what are they hiding, anyway? It just sends more people to the parking lot, to consider it from behind.
Come back next week for the last post of the year — another case of Sheets Studio Home Savings artwork re-imagined for a new owner.
It’s a busy time of year, but I noticed that I have not posted about the iconic Home Savings branch at 2600 Wilshire in Santa Monica — one of the best known and, depending on who you are, loved/hated branches.
John Edward Svenson has a soft spot for the sculpture of the girl riding the dolphin, over the parking lot door; his daughter served as the model. And the Ahmansons seem to as well: in a visit to the Ahmanson Foundation offices, I saw the small maquette of this sculpture prominently displayed.
And I think the building owners (MetLife, I assume, managed by CBRE) and their tenants after Home Savings — a mattress store, a cell-phone store, and now New Balance — have maintained the artwork in great condition. (More next week about how it is hard to see one element, though.)
But what if you hate it? Some love the Richard Ellis family group in front; others don’t understand the connection. Most who dislike the building focus on the mosaic, disliking the fabrication, by Denis, Sue, and others on a team led by Nancy Colbath – especially of the sunbathing youth (probably a girl and a boy, but because it is hard to tell, that adds to the grumbling).
Interviewer Paul Karlstrom: I know the one, for instance, on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. I used to live right nearby. That’s I think at 25th or around there.
Sheets: I think that’s one of the poorer buildings.
Sheets: Now that’s my feeling. I always felt that I. . . . I didn’t like the way that one’s _____ was done.
Even more critiques from Sheets about this locale appear in a UCLA oral history. Just a reminder that the best artists can use their aesthetic sense to criticize problem art and architecture — even when it is their own.
Thanks to my colleague Pete Leonard for the images. Stay tuned for more about changes to the blog and more work on the book version ahead in 2013.
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.”
First, the built: a delicately curving building at 1619–1621 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In July 1948, Millard Sheets typed up a followup note to Jack Beardwood, a TIME bureau chief and Millard’s connection to LIFE magazine. “It just occurred to me,” he wrote, ” it might be wise to suggest…that the magazine should not use the word ‘architect’ in the article in connection with my name.” As Sheets noted, “not having an actual architectural degree, along with many others who design,” he had no need to claim the title and “wav[e] a red flag in front of the A.I.A.,” architecture’s national professional association.
Sheets made clear that he did the overall design, approaching it as art in its totality–but that there was always an architect there to sign off, to make working drawings, and to see to it that regulations were followed. In the letter from 1948, Sheets mentioned Benjamin H. Anderson as the architect of record on the air school projects; as we have discussed here, Rufus Turner has shared memories of the studio beginning in the late 1950s.
But, as soon as there was a Sheets Studio to be part of, the studio’s principal architect was S. David Underwood. Rufus Turner has memories of seeing Underwood hard at work in Sheets’s large personal studio at the Padua Hills house–and even of Underwood having a cot there to sleep, before the Foothill Boulevard studio was constructed, after a 1958 groundbreaking.
Born in Montreal in 1917, Underwood had grown up in Glendale, California, and his first commercial architecture was for a schoolmate, Robert C. Wian, designing distinctive, “landmark” architecture for the new branches of his hamburger stand, Bob’s Big Boy. This iconic work (see next week’s post) stood out among roadside architecture, much as Sheets would need for Home Savings.
Underwood came to work with Sheets in 1955, just as Sheets’s work in murals and interior design was blossoming into the design of complete buildings, with the mainstay of the office’s work, at the behest of Howard Ahmanson, begun with a phone call in 1953, for both Home Savings (Underwood worked on 16 locations, 1956-1962) and Guaranty Savings and Loan (three locations, including Redwood City) in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Underwood made all this work possible, Sheets understood. Millard wanted to sketch the silhouette of the building and design its artistic flourishes, but he wanted someone else to decide how to route the pipes, support the roof, or create drawings for permits and contractors. This synergy of vision and technical details was all necessary for the art to emerge–and the next few weeks will highlight these designs, from subtle to spectacular.
Like the work of Sue Hertel, Denis O’Connor, David’s wife Martha Menke Underwood (married in 1962, they divorced in 1979) and others in the Sheets Studio, Dave Underwood’s work was publicly regarded as Millard Sheets Studio work, without much room for individual credit.
By 1962, Underwood left the studio to set up his own architectural office in Claremont, though he continued to collaborate with Millard Sheets on some projects, including the Garrison Theater (updated link here). Underwood continued to design buildings, including a lot of distinctive office space in Claremont, including the San Jose Avenue office building for the Carpenters’ Union (updated link here), and the Midland Mutual Insurance building at Harvard and Fourth, until his retirement in 1990. Underwood died in 2002.
As all the references above suggest, there are a lot of buildings I could have chosen to introduce Underwood on the blog. But one stood out–because it was a memorable landmark of my childhood.
The Sentinel Savings and Loan building was built on Camino del Rio North in San Diego, near the intersection of Interstates 8 and 805 was constructed in 1962, one of Underwood’s first projects to be listed under his own architectural firm, after his time with the Sheets Studio.
As this photograph demonstrates, by 1965 the Sentinel Savings building anchored a trio of distinctive modernist structures in Mission Valley. In 1971, Sentinel Savings was purchased by Great Western, the name on the building in my childhood. Of these three, now only the First United Methodist church remains.
Though quite different from the Sheets Studio architecture for Home Savings, the clean geometric lines, use of solid and airy forms, and the use of the tall interior space suggested some of the same eye-catching choices, and show also the affinity of all this bank architecture to some of the most well-regarded examples of Mid Century Modernism. (See this example, a round bank in Sunnyvale from 1963 — is there some direct link to Underwood?)
Come back over the next few weeks to see more examples of Underwood’s work, before, during, and after his Sheets Studio work.
For decades after its acquisition by Howard Ahmanson in 1947,Home Savings and Loan had its headquarters along Wilshire Boulevard — first in Beverly Hills, and then in Los Angeles, and finally, in 1985, to a campus in Irwindale. When Home Savings was purchased in 1998, the headquarters was transferred to Washington Mutual.
Some wonderful art–mosaics, paintings, fountains, and sculptures–were commissioned for the campus from Joyce Kozloff, Richard Haas, Astrid Preston, and others. (A nice post and illustrations of Kozloff’s work from friend-of-the-blog Vickey is here.) All of it seems to be still on site except the Preston works from the cafeteria walls, which JP Morgan Chase took after they acquired Washington Mutual, and no one quite seems to no where they went. (Leads, as always, welcomed.)
But the most remarkable find on campus for me were these three mosaic panels, installed on a brick wall to the right of the second building’s entrance. Showing a woman and children on horseback, a woman lifting a child into a tree, and a Dalmatian frolicking alongside, these joyous mosaic panels highlight the family themes so common in Sue Hertel’s work for the Millard Sheets Studio, as well as the angular trees, touches of gold, and intricate patternwork that Sheets himself was fond of.
Unlike any other Home Savings work I have seen, the panels are signed MSD — for Millard Sheets Designs, perhaps marking another moment in the evolving attributions in the Studio’s mosaics, from just Millard’s signature to a period of no signatures and then works completely designed, fabricated, and signed by Sue Hertel and Denis O’Connor. (In this case, Brian Worley has a distinct memory of doing that Dalmatian.)
These are intimate family scenes, but not linked to any specific place. To me, they suggest Sheets Studio designs elsewhere: the woman holding the child echoes Burbank and Pomona, while the children on horseback in a forest echo Burbank and Highland Park. A number of Sue Hertel’s designs show frolicking animals; for dogs, the Studio City stained glass and the mosaic in Anaheim come to mind.
These hints, once matched with Brian’s recollections, helped me realize what they are: the temporary mosaic panels, made in frames and intended to be installed in temporary Home Savings branches throughout the Southland, while their permanent buildings were built. (My research suggests they were built for a temporary location in downtown Los Angeles, possibly at 7th and Figueroa, 1974, and may have been displayed at later temporary branches in Westminster, Riverside, and Santa Cruz.)
I can’t say this is the most prominent file home for these mosaic panels, but they do seem appreciated by CBRE, on a campus that once thronged with Home Savings employees.
Thanks to Jason Bonomo of CBRE for giving me a tour of the Home Savings artwork on the property, and to Brian Worley for helping to identify the panels.
As you walk into the newly renovated Mt. SAC library, there is a brightly colored mosaic of “Little Joe,” a retired version of the school’s Joe Mountie the Mountaineer mascot, grinning up from the pavement. Though the faux-Indian facepaint, the coonskin cap, and the rifle are more reminiscent of the Indian mascots and caricatures of 1964-1965, now mostly phased out around collegiate sports, the mosaic still catches the eye, and probably has a Sheets Studio connection (if more likely to be student work than the Studio itself.)
But the clear Sheets Studio (and friend-of-Sheets Studio) work for Mt. SAC was (is?) the set of library murals created by Susan Hertel and Tom Van Sant. According to the 1996 Mt. SAC history, Van Sant created murals symbolizing the social sciences and humanities; Hertel’s showed physical and biological sciences, with The Bull, The Flowering Tree, The Horse, and (as seen here) The Water and the Lion. From this photograph — all I have seen of the work — it is clearly linked stylistically to the wood panels and mosaic work of the Sheets Studio for Home Savings, especially (at this moment) reminding me of Pomona and Arcadia.
But where are the murals? If on wood panels, they could easily have been removed; canvas murals from the Sheets Studio can also be rolled up. Are they in storage? Covered? Egad, destroyed? I wish we knew more. (I asked around the library in June, but haven’t heard anything.) I hope these murals can be placed back in the public view, ideally at Mt. SAC art gallery or in a public, secure place nearby.
The images tell the history of the greater San Francisco Bay area, and they are a remarkable preview of what will appear in Home Savings images later: vaqueros and missions; wagon trains and railroads; women at the beach and sailboats out at sea; eagles and skunks and deer and lots of cows and horses. There are also other historical scenes that do not appear later: Fort Ross; the takeover of Monterey and the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic; the Ferry Building; the UC Berkeley Campanile; the Capitol building; large airplanes crossing the bay and grain elevators on the landscape. The farm equipment and industrial agriculture buildings likely reflected some of American Trust’s customers; the proliferation of American and Californian flags makes one wonder why these did not play a larger role in the later Home Savings works.
The American Trust and Savings branch at 10th and L in Sacramento once had three painted panels by Sheets — were these of the same them, or different? And who created the design for these works, and how did they relate to the Home Savings commission, the same year, which moved from a general and abstract history of finance and California life to the kind of specific history you see here?
I have tried the Sheets Archives without much information, and the Wells Fargo history center without getting a response; ideas and tips welcomed! I do think these remarkable prints hold a key window into the choice of historical scenes for the Home Savings buildings.
I am back to teaching at UTEP and so back and forth from LAX a bunch again. And so I have had occasion to visit this Millard Sheets Studio sculpture, originally commissioned for United Financial (or Imperial Bank — see below), and to observe it odd bedfellows on the corner of Manchester and Sepulveda.
It is also a reminder of how many projects the Sheets Studio did. S. David Underwood, the subject of some upcoming posts, was the primary Sheets Studio architect, and with Rufus Turner and others they worked on Home Savings, but also on interiors, remodels, and other buildings that sometimes showed the same style–and sometimes were completely different. In the “definitive list,” which needs updating, there are lots of occasions where the Sheets Studio did a mosaic, or ordered furniture, or something, and so many traces of their influence on Mid-Century Modern art and architecture hiding around town–or already lost.
More examples in the weeks to come, but just one here: late in life, Millard Sheets provided a video oral history for Home Savings at his home in Gualala, taped by a time led by George Underwood. In that account, he mentions that Howard Ahmanson contacted him about the Home Savings work after seeing a March 22, 1953, article in the L.A. Times about Sheets’s work for Pacific Clay Products, at 4th and Bixel, which helps date their collaboration. The building is now the offices of the Children’s Home Society of California, and I don’t think the interior or exterior show influence of Sheets’s work — if so, let me know! — but it did launch a legendary partnership. And that is the most prominent of the ways the Sheets Studio work is hiding all around us.
I know I have posted these mosaics before, in regard to dating and process… but classes have begun at UTEP this week. So, while I have some longer posts in the works and research questions out there, I just wanted to revisit another “home” branch for me, in San Diego — as I look forward to being there Labor Day weekend and checking on the status of the mosaics, sculpture, and paintings.
Here, sailboats in the harbor compete with gulls diving after bread crumbs, the orcas of Sea World frolic on the left while fish and other creatures hang out in the tidepools at the right. Up the middle, the lighthouse of Cabrillo National Monument and the “world’s oldest active sailing ship,” the Star of India, highlight the centuries of European exploration and presence in the land of the Kumeyaay, but they wear their history lightly–the way I often found it, growing up in town, and the way many Home Savings art depicts it–just enough to make the local feel the bank belongs here, celebrating your home.
More from San Diego and beyond in the weeks ahead — for now, grasp the last summer you can! The Star of India even has visitors this weekend for the Festival of Sail.
Marlo Bartels creates wonderful ceramic tiles by hand, shaping grooves and choosing glazes, and then matching bright colors and themes to the local landscape, whether it is a set of steps down to the beach in Laguna (replete with sea shapes and colors; see left) or creating artwork for corporate clients such as the Chart House restaurants and Home Savings. (Bartels also created the art for the wonderful Cancer Survivors’ Park in San Diego, my hometown, and has numerous residential and public commissions, as his website explains.)
Bartels’s work in Woodland Hills is threatened; I wonder whether his work for Home Savings in Thousand Oaks, Palm Desert (with Eric Johnson) and Monterey Park (with Astrid Preston); Pembroke Pines and Dunedin, Florida are associated much with his name or Home Savings.
The large image you see above is of Marlo Bartels’s mosaic for Columbus, Ohio, in 1988; a mosaic by Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel at 6280 Sawmill Road, in Dublin, Ohio, in 1990, is gone, showing how quickly these bank buildings, no longer built for permanence, can disappear.
But the story of Marlo’s Columbus mosaic has a happy ending. As you can see, Marlo’s materials may be different, but he followed a rather standard Home Savings way of creating branch artwork — visit the city, look for something distinctive (the skyline), use local symbols and icons (Ohio state flag; state bird; local animals; shapes that echo those of the Moundbuilder peoples) and then put them into a permanent, colorfast material, such as ceramic, and hope to celebrate the community forever.
But in 1992, just four years after installation, the bank building was torn down (UPDATE: after it and the Graceland Shopping Center it was in were damaged in a fire) and the mosaic was threatened. Thankfully, the Casto Corporation (owner of the shopping center) was willing to help save the necessary wall, and Susan Gaunce of the local Clintonville Area Commission contacted Marlo and brought him to Columbus to help with the reinstallation and teach a few workshops. The mural then became the backdrop for the Gail Paris Discovery Garden at Clinton Elementary School.
I have just heard from Shirley Hyatt, author of Clintonville and Beechwood, that Clinton had been closed for renovations, but when it opened for this school year — this week!–the tile mosaic is to be brought inside, so the kids can see and touch it more often–and where it can be protected, hopefully for decades to come.
The timing of the LA County Fair is either brilliant or insane.
A county fair is an icon of summer fun (away from the coasts), and the largest in the world is in Los Angeles — and it is held in September, when school is back in session and Halloween has taken over the store promotions. This either is a perfect extension of summer (and often the hottest days of the year here) or a crazy strategy.
Either way, the LA County Fair is intimately tied to the work of Millard Sheets, and his circle of artists and friends in the Pomona Valley. Sheets won the first art competition at the fair, in 1922, at age (corrected) 15, in the year the Fair opened, and by 1924 he was assisting Theodore Modra in organizing the fair’s art exhibit.
In 1994, the Fine Arts Building at the Fair was renamed as the Millard Sheets Gallery (now the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at the LA County Fairplex, to be exact). Since 2007, Millard’s youngest son, Tony Sheets, has been directing the gallery and creating wonderful annual exhibits ever since.
This year, the exhibit celebrates “Art and Fair: A 90 Year Celebration,” and includes a look at the Fair’s origins, its architecture and design elements, iconic past exhibits, and a section on “The Work of Millard Sheets: Bringing World Famous Art to the Community.”
We have a newborn in my household, so the posts will be paused for a few weeks while we get accustomed to that.
In the meantime, I suggest this great article by Christina Geyer from the weekend’s Dallas Morning News, about the Dallas Mercantile Bank mosaics designed by the Sheets Studio. There were also sculptures and, it seems, wall hangings, plus furniture designed by Rufus Turner, who came to work full-time for the Sheets Studio after this project and is quoted in the article.
The article has a nice gallery of images from the original layout, as well as of the mosaics’ restoration and reinstallation work, along with quotes from Tony Sheets, Lillian Sizemore, and me. Check it out, and see you back here soon.
One of the themes I am pursuing in this research comes from my urban-history background: How did Home Savings relate to the multiracial, multiethnic population of southern California? Did it rely on old mental maps from redlining and housing covenants to drive its lending, or socioeconomic data, or did it buck the conventional wisdom of the time?
My hunch is that Home Savings had a record about the same as its competitors. A colleague who grew up in East L.A. remembers none of this ornate art at his family’s Home Savings branch, suggesting that these commissions may have remained in affluent neighborhoods.
But there is the history, still incomplete, of the Compton branch from 1958. And there is this sculpture, by Vertis Hayes, once at the Home Savings branch, at Vermont and Slauson near the heart of South Central.
While the Compton branch showed (white?) workers, the South Central sculpture shows a family group–a common Home Savings choice–but, in this case, African Americans wearing what seems to be traditional African accessories, including a taqiyah (sometimes called a kufi) for the man, a traditional Islamic cap adopted by various Afrocentric / Black Arts supporters in the United States. But I haven’t seen a picture of the whole sculpture, so I can’t be sure of the whole theme.
Thanks for the image to George Underwood, who worked for Galaxy Advertising when it was the in-house firm for H.F. Ahmanson & Co. printing and thought up the idea of using Home Savings art and architecture to decorate the annual calendars.
The Millard Sheets Studio mosaics for the Van Nuys and Long Beach branches are done in a different style than the contemporaneous Home Savings work — and there is a comment in the studio correspondence saying that “if mural is executed in the United States add $10 per square foot,” suggesting that Williams, Sheets, or both had connections in Mexico, Italy, or elsewhere that could do the fabrication. (It is unclear where these were fabricated.)
In terms of style, both Van Nuys and Long Beach seem closely aligned with mosaics done by Ben Mayer, including those from the Norwalk Public Library on friend-of-the-blog Vickey Kalambakal’s site — check them out! The timing matches the period when Millard Sheets was becoming more involved with Interpace’s ceramic tile projects, and he seems to have broken any exclusivity deal he had had with Ahmanson and Home Savings. Mayer’s name appears in the Sheets Studio invoices for the Van Nuys location, but the affinity is also evident in the Long Beach work. UPDATE: Another colleague, Lillian Sizemore, has done research to confirm Ben Mayer was the creator, with Maurice Sands listed as design and color consultant, and has found that the Long Beach branch opened June 20, 1967. Interestingly, the (earlier?) Van Nuys branch has a Sheets signature, the Long Beach branch does not.
While the Van Nuys branch is still a Bank of America branch, the Long Beach building was most recently a music venue, and is again under renovation. One hopes the importance of the architect and the connections present in the mosaic to local and regional history will help preserve this building and its artwork.
As promised a few weeks ago, we are back with the details about the other space-themed Home Savings mosaic, in Lancaster, California, in the Antelope Valley.
Here the “triptych” design is not chonological, but shows a farmer and a rancher, an orange tree and some cow grazing, flanking the central image of Edwards Air Force Base, with test pilots and planes from many eras, spanning the twentieth century. (Lancaster also has an Aerospace Walk of Honor, profiling pilots and displaying aircraft.)
This is the only Home Savings design by Anita Thomas, a Scripps and Claremont Graduate School graduate who was married at one time to Denis O’Connor. As she described it, “The process was fairly straightforward. The history of the area was simple to track down, then it was a matter of deciding how to organize it.” After input from Denis and Sue Hertel, the mosaic was fabricated by MosaicArt di D.Colledani in Milan, Italy, near the heart of world mosaic-smalti production and instruction.
When the mosaic was installed, the space shuttle reflected the current state-of-the-art in aerospace exploration; now, with the shuttles retired and making their way to museums around the country, this image reflects nostalgia for that recent past as well.
Yesterday I enjoyed interviewing Marlo Bartels about his work for Home Savings and other corporate public-art clients, and I came back via a second tour of Orange County Home Savings locations, along the coast in Newport, Long Beach, Rolling Hills Estates, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and South L.A. More images from those locations will appear here soon, along with updates to the definitive list. Be in touch with any tips on others to interview or unique stories to tell.
On September 9, 1963, ten years into his nearly-30-year career of working for Home Savings, Millard Sheets resigned. “No designer in America has had greater opportunity to express himself than I have had…working with you,” Sheets began his letter to Howard Ahmanson, but now “I would like to resign from my present contractual arrangement with Home Savings,” Sheets wrote. “Let’s be friends apart from…irritation or tenseness, that now seems insoluble.”
Ahmanson and Sheets were both large personalities, and their working relationship was full of both trust and, at times, disagreement. But this resignation was less about that than another opportunity for Sheets: to become corporate design advisor for Interpace, the successor company to California ceramics leader Gladding, McBean & Company.
(Despite attempting to resign, Sheets stayed on with the Home Savings work, though handing more responsibility over to other members of his studio and the outside architectural firm of Frank Homolka and Associates. It seems the financial aspects of the arrangement were reworked as well.)
Millard Sheets thought of painting as his true passion–watercolors, mostly, and things that could fit on an easel. But in 1953, his frescoes, murals, interior design and architectural work had garnered Howard Ahmanson’s attention, and Sheets found himself at the head of a studio doing remarkable architectural, mosaic, painting, and stained glass work–making him even more prominent, though taking him away from the painting.
So in 1963 he sought to resign, and dedicate his efforts to a new venture: managing artists-in-residence designing ceramics, with uses from dinnerware to household decoration to large-scale architectural works.
In memos, Sheets discussed the possibility of asking a remarkable range of artists to participate, naming Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Andrew Wyeth, David Alfaro Siquieros, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, Willem De Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Joan Miro, and Stuart Davis as artists to approach. To approach such artists for avant-garde designs for commercial ceramics demonstrates how Sheets, ever at the intersection of fine arts and commercial applications, foresaw the kinds of top-designers-for-Target/Walmart/etc. blurring of categories we experience today.
To Sheets, it must have seemed like a perfect marriage of traditional arts, top design, and commercial applications, as these tiles were uniform, mass-produced yet hand-colored, and perfectly suited for anything from a home wall accent to the massive projects they accomplished. This flexibility and modularity seems to fulfill some of what Frank Lloyd Wright had attempted with his textile-block designs, such as the Alice Millard House in Pasadena and the Ennis House in Los Angeles.
The Sheets-Interpace collaboration led to the creation of the Franciscan tiles used to accent Home Savings buildings, but also the large-scale ceramic-tile murals of “The Four Elements” for the Interpace headquarters lobby in Parsippany, New Jersey (1966); two murals for the Coco Palms Resort on Kauai (1968), which has been closed due to hurricane damage since 1992; a pair of mosaic murals, one for each side of the Hilton Rainbow Tower, in 1968; and a final ceramic-tile mosaic done for Sunset Magazine offices in Menlo Park (1973). (Mary Blair designed two murals at Disneyland, “The Spirit of Creative Energies among Children,” (1966), since hidden in place; one for the Disney World Contemporary Resort; and the It’s a Small World exhibit — see great pictures here. Another mural for the Coco Palms was designed by Sheridan Stanton.)
In 1967, Interpace chief executive Allan Hirsh resigned, and Elliot-Bishop argues this was the beginning of a significant change in Sheets’s involvement. Letters express continued frustration on all sides that the architectural and dinnerware tile work could not be done quicker and cheaper; Sheets eventually spent less time on Interpace work, downgrading himself to a mere consultant to the line before resigning outright in 1973, once again to “spend most of my time painting.”
This time, with his house in Gualala completed and work for Home Savings, Interpace, and others in good hands, Sheets mostly succeeded, but he kept a hand in these large-scale public artworks as well. And despite Sheets’s interest in emphasizing his paintings, these works of art and architecture seem destined to be an important part of his legacy of art as well.
As promised, I present the Northridge mosaic “triptych.” — the same format on a similar building that we saw last week in Downey. And, again, these late O’Connor-Hertel creations stretch from the very earliest of local history up to the present day.
The span of time and the effort to include such easily recognizable, present-day figures furthers the long-standing Home Savings goal of integrating HS&L seamlessly into new communities, and using the art to make a claim about their rootedness and permanence there.
As was common, the research files are filled with pictures photocopied from history books and historical-society brochures, the sources the studio used to find authentic figures to include. The notes often include captions or text not included in the final work, in this case:
Water was Welcome from the Beginning / Hawk Ranch • Farming • Walnut and Fruit Orchards • Housing • Trains • Commercial Development • Northridge Hospital • cal State Northridge / Chamber of Commerce Stampede and Barbeque
But despite labels and accuracy in many cases, a nice iconographic figure could fill in for the extensive research needed to get local conditions right at times. For example, the Native American in the files that is most closely reproduced here is a Kashaya Pomo warrior drawn by scientist Il’lia Voznesensky in 1843, in northern California near Fort Ross, as reproduced on page 307 of the (unidentified) book the studio consulted, rather than an actual Tongva image. (I have written about the importance of Fort Ross in the image of California in Ansel Adams’s photograph of a eucalyptus tree there; read it here.)
As a 19th-century urban historian of the American West by training, I first returned to the art and artwork of these Home Savings and Loan buildings to see what they said about California history. But I have been happy to have been pulled fully into the business-history, art-history, built-environment, and urban-studies questions the Home Savings and Loan buildings can answer for the 20th century, investigating not just historical topics but art with subjects such as family, festivals, and local landmarks.
The planets, with their companion image of the space shuttle in Lancaster (to be featured here soon), are seemingly a break from the traditions of Home Savings art under Millard Sheets. But celebrating outer space is celebrating local community in Downey, where the former aerospace and NASA facility is now the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a hands-on learning center for space science and national living memorial to the lost space shuttle crew.
And its format shows a signature Denis O’Connor/Sue Hertel design: a timeline triptych, to be read left to right from the natural/pre-Columbian origins of the area, through a typical scene of late-19th-century American settlement, to an image of today. The pattern works on a similar building in Northridge, from Native Americans to Monty Montana, that I will discuss next week (see the center panel here).
All the full image reveals, there are birds flying up there, with the planets; a nice reminder that we can dream far away, but keep our familiar surroundings in sight as well.
As I mentioned there, on my way back from the exhibit in early May I stopped at a number of Home Savings branches. I also drove right alongside Knotts Berry Farm to take this picture, of the two former Home Savings branches on two corners of Beach Boulevard and La Palma.
I have very little information about the first branch. From Eric Abrahamson, I know that Home Savings purchased the Savings and Loan Association of Anaheim in 1956, and that it came with Garden Grove and Buena Park branches (two of these buildings which fit an architectural model like the Compton branch). It seems sites for new branches were purchased in late 1958, with construction soon after — but, given the lack of detail in the Sheets Papers, it is possible the artwork for these branches was done elsewhere.
The larger second branch, across the street, shows a later style — the gold tiles are replaced with brown, and the branch sits diagonally across the corner, rather than snug and square like the first branch. Finished in 1978, it is a Frank Homolka design, with notes from Denis O’Connor, Sue Hertel, and others in the file describing the research of the Knotts Berry Farm themes and historical replicas, considered for inclusion.
I assume Home Savings built the larger branch because they outgrew the first one, but why build across the street? Why not build nearby, and have two branches? The branch at Pico and Doheny was built to handle overflow business from the 9245 Wilshire location in that manner, Bill Ahmanson Jr. told me. From a preservation standpoint, it is great they did not tear the first branch down, but it seems a peculiar business decision — as 7th and Figueroa and Lake & Colorado are branches that were torn down to make way for larger Home Savings towers, albeit at a later date.
This week I am teaching an intensive course, so not a lot of time to post. But here I think the image says it all.
This is an 1958 original Millard Sheets Designs building, 1801 N. Long Beach Blvd., with the exterior architecture, mosaic, gold tiles, and even sculpture in place. (I assume the inside was gutted; I was there when it was closed.) Its theme–working me–fits with what I know of Compton as an up-and-coming middle-class African American community in the 1950s, making it unique among the neighborhoods where Home Savings located. And the style of these black-granite-background sites such as Whittier and the original Buena Park location are a bit of a mystery to me (though Lillian Sizemore is helping me figure it out).
But yet the alterations are somewhat extreme — and the building is again for lease (contact is Sam Kangavari).
Just a reminder of the research, education, and preservation work still to be done to protect these wonderful banks.
Millard Sheets cared deeply about his artwork, particularly his painting; he cared about his networks, and his ability to connect to people across career, political, or national divides; but he also cared deeply about his family, even when he was far from them. And these strands come together in the story of a painting, seen above, now hanging at the Parkway Grill in Pasadena.
Millard had known Mary’s older sister Elizabeth as a fellow student artist at the Chouinard Art Institute, and at a family dinner Millard met Mary. They hit it off immediately, I am told, but their lives seemed headed in opposite directions: Millard was gaining attention in New York and elsewhere for his paintings, and Mary was committed to her studies at UCLA (then called the Southern Campus of the University of California).
Mary, an art major in UCLA’s teacher’s college, rose to be president of her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta–and among its members in her class was Dorothy Grannis, later wife to Howard Ahmanson (suggesting occasions for an earlier connection between the two men than business breakfasts and a famous letter in 1953). Her presidency of the sorority Class of 1930 coincided with UCLA’s move to the newly constructed Westwood campus, and hence the building, funding, and decorating of the large new Greek houses in the neighborhood.
Millard wanted to get married, but Mary was also committed to finishing her degree — but in her last semester, in the spring of 1930, these two goals seemed impossibly opposed. Mary decided to leave school and marry Millard before his next trip East, to follow the whims of the art world. But there were also her duties to the sorority – how to placate them?
I am told this painting was the answer: a large oil
painting, showing a river landscape, given to the sorority in that spring of 1930, as the sorority president left to marry its artist. It hung for decades on the sorority walls, as a testament to the relationships between Millard and Mary, Mary and her sorority. The theme seems appropriate to such a moment of transition as it college — the crossing over of the river, the forking water path, and the question of what lies beyond, up upon those mountains.
It can now be seen amidst a wonderful collection of Millard’s paintings at the Smith Brothers restaurants in Pasadena. (UPDATE: I am told by Michael J. Johnson that a Giclée-on-canvas replica hangs in the sorority to this day. UPDATE 2: According to Susan Traister, who had the sorority’s paperwork on the transfer, “the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority at UCLA owns it and loans it out to the Smith Bros.”) Perhaps that is the perfect place to celebrate Mother’s Day this year, and think about the interplay of family, art, and community for Millard Sheets.
Thanks to Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle, Perry Jamieson, Christina Vader, and Bob Smith for providing/confirming elements of this story.
Over the past week I was far from Southern California, the part of the country most associated with Home Savings & Loan, in New York City.
Yet Home Savings (under the name Savings of America) expanded into New York, Illinois, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Texas in the 1980s and 1990s. The company worked to keep its brand assets in play there, with distinguished customer service but also distinctive buildings, with artwork that reflected the community. From the Denis O’Connor Papers, I have found some interesting conflicts between the local historical societies in these states and Home Savings, perceived as an outsider corporation. But the artwork did get done and installed in many of these locations.
There is one mosaic on a former New York Home Savings, in Forest Hills, at 108-36 Queens Blvd. It is by Richard Haas, an artist still active in New York City, who I had the pleasure of interviewing on my trip. Haas completed commissions for the 7th and Figueroa and Pasadena towers in Los Angeles, the Irwindale headquarters (all paintings) and designed mosaics for many of the Florida locations, with the mosaic fabrication done in Spilimbergo, in northeastern Italy. (He told me quite a story about the mural designed for Naples, Florida, that never got installed — the project was delayed, and the mosaic, all pasted to sheets, was put in storage. When they opened up the storage room to get the mosaics, they just found mounds of tiles — the industrious Florida insects had eaten the sugar paste off the paper, and destroyed the mosaic.)
Haas’s New York mosaic shows the Manhattan skyline in the distance, with the World Trade Center towers prominent; in between, the tracts of housing, tree-line streets, and larger developments create a patchwork. In a sign we are no longer in car-loving California, the bottom of the image is anchored by the historic Tudor-influenced train station nearby, for the Long Island Rail Road. Haas, a visual artist productively obsessed with the wonders of architecture, added house portraits of other local architectural gems to the upper corners, in the multi-view manner of 19th-century cityscapes.
Haas’s mosaic was installed on the curving facade of the Forest Hills Savings of America branch (shown here as a Commerce Bancorp branch, in 2007, before that bank’s merger). While, like so many Home Savings locations, this is a prominent corner, I am unaware of any other branches that have curving facades, instead of other approaches to the corner lot. The curve makes it hard to take in the full image as installed, so it is nice to have my rough photograph of the color drawing, above.
Haas’s work demonstrates how the Home Savings motif could translate to new locales such as New York. But this was the only mosaic completed for New York. Come back next week to learn about how some of the same themes were expressed in a different medium.
I am thankful to continue to find such enthusiastic fans of this art and architecture, and my research on its place of Home Savings within the urban context of its communities!
This is Richard’s recent image of Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, where enamel mosaics that Millard Sheets designed both echo some of the Home Savings work in their subject but differ dramatically in their style. (More on these panels, with photographs of all three, on the Alhambra Preservation Group site.)
I recently found one of Millard’s résumés from 1963, when many of these early projects were still listed. Public, non-church buildings to be added to the “definitive” master list (and, in many cases, to be researched further) are:
Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, CA, 1939, murals
Scripps College Art Building, Claremont, CA (date and specifics unknown)
Beverly Hills Tennis Club, Beverly Hills, CA (date and specifics unknown)
YMCA, Pasadena, CA, (date and specifics unknown)
Robinson’s Company, Los Angeles, CA, (date and specifics unknown)
South Pasadena Junior High School, South Pasadena, CA (date and specifics unknown)
Bullock’s Men’s Store, Los Angeles, CA (date and specifics unknown)
Air schools including Thunderbird #1 and #2 in Phoenix; Cal Aero, Ontario, CA; Air Cadet, St. Louis; Tex Rankin (flying) Schools, Visalia, CA; Dos Palos, CA; King City, CA; Uvalde, TX; Fort Stockton, TX (date and specifics unknown)
U.S. Department of Interior building, Washington, DC, 1946-1948, four panels on “The Negro’s Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of America”
Lyman’s Restaurant, Los Angeles, CA, 1947-1948, glass mosaic
Melody Lane, Beverly Hills, CA, 1947-1948, puppet room
Beverly Hills Hotel, Beverly Hills, CA, 1947-1948, main lobby
Carnation Company offices, Hollywood, CA, 1948-1949
American Trust Company, Sacramento, CA, 1949, panels
Sequoia Room, Hody’s Lankershim, North Hollywood, CA, 1950
Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, 1953, mural on canvas
Pacific Clay Products (later Children’s Aid Society of California), 4th and Bixel, Los Angeles, 1953, interior design
Van Nuys Savings & Loan, Van Nuys, CA, 1954, mural on canvas
Bob’s Restaurant, Phoenix, CA, 1955, ceramic tiles on exterior
“The Springs” restaurant, Palm Springs, CA, 1956, three ceramic tile panels
Guaranty Savings and Loan, 2400 Broadway, Redwood City, CA, 1957 mural – painted over Guaranty Savings and Loan, 200 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA, 1957, mosaic
St. Francis High School, La Cañada, CA, 1957, mural
First Federal Savings and Loan, Dallas, TX, 1958, mural
Bankers Life Insurance Company, Lincoln, NE, 1959, mural and mosaic
Tyler Bank and Trust, Tyler, TX, 1959, mosaic
Robert C. Wian Enterprises, Glendale, CA, 1960, executive offices – mosaic
Valhalla Mausoleum, North Hollywood, CA, 1960, mosaic
United Savings and Loan, Inglewood, CA, 1960, mural
Bankers National Life Insurance Company, Cincinnati, OH, 1960 interior mosaic
Victory Savings and Loan, North Hollywood, CA, 1960, mural
United Savings and Loan, Westchester, CA, 1960, mural
Willow Brook Country Club, Tyler, TX, 1962, mural
And of course information about these sites is much appreciated!
Your faithful historian/researcher/blogger will away for Passover, so the blog will not get a new post until around April 20.
The L.A. Conservancy tour, like many of my efforts, focused on preserving the art and architecture of the Millard Sheets Studio, and to understanding what it has meant for its communities.
But, like all artists and architects, there are the projects that didn’t get built. And unbuilt projects can often be fascinating in their counterfactual, floor-moving-under-you way, a vision of a city unvisited yet so familiar.
This statue seems the biggest unbuilt project in the Sheets oeuvre: the Monument to Democracy, a 1954 effort spearheaded by LA County Supervisor John Anson Ford to build the Pacific Ocean’s “Statue of Liberty” companion in San Pedro.
“The erection, on the West Coast, of an heroic statue to Democracy…is a project combining considerations of statesmanship, education and art, of profound international significance,” Ford wrote. Echoing age-old themes with a new Cold War twist, Ford declared,
The course of Democracy is moving westward. The great nations about the Pacific basin are looking across to America trying to discern whether our Democracy is really something for all, or is in effect a concept reserved for the Anglo-Saxon. Communism tries with cunning and skill to alienate all of darker skin from the ideals that motivate our Western society….When this project becomes a reality, as it certainly must, countless millions will find their way to it, there to be inspired by its majestic symbolism, and there to learn something of the unending story of how Democracy has inspired and blessed mankind.
Intended to be 480 feet tall, on a drum base 46 feet hight, topped with a bronze globe 125 feet in diameter, the Monument to Democracy was to have three figures, each 250 feet tall, on top of historical and art museums revealing the progress of each of the world’s races toward democracy. (I guess we are talking Asian, African, and European here — not a period of much considered of indigenous American peoples.) Millard Sheets was listed as the project’s designer, with the statue to be designed by his colleague, sculptor Albert Stewart.
This funding prospectus was circulating just as Sheets was completing his first project for Howard Ahmanson, the remodel of the National American Fire Insurance building, then at 3731 Wilshire (now the site of the Ahmanson Center).
If Sheets and Stewart were to have become wrapped up with this statue/museum project, how different southern California would look! One iconic statue, for good or ill, would have replaced the effort, history, and messaging that Home Savings received, to different ends.
Last week I stopped into the Sunset and Vine branch of Home Savings. The mosaics look good, and the painted mural is mostly visible behind some cubicles. (As Tony Sheets mentioned this weekend, bank tasks change, and hence these spaces have had to evolve.) But it was the condition of the stained glass that stayed with me.
The Hollywood branch stained glass had some cracks, holes, or other damage–covered up with blue electrical tape! I introduced myself and told both the bank manager and Chase’s regional facilities manager who to contact for repairs: John Wallis and Associates stained glass.
In the current Huntington Frontiersmagazine, I write about the marvels of the mosaic studio archives, from the time under both Millard Sheets and Denis O’Connor. But a visit with Susan Wallis, the current head of the stained glass firm and John’s daughter, and Helen Wallis, his widow, opened another window (pun intended) important for my research.
The Wallises generously explained the workings of the stained glass studio, and provided a chance to see their extensive files about the research, cost, process, and repairs of the stained glass.
Building designs, mosaics, and painted murals were all done in-house at the Studio, and the archives are filled with Millard’s correspondence about furnishings, carpet, tile, and paint color, and other details. But like sculpture, stained glass was a skill outside of Millard’s direct purview. In the case of glass, it was Sue Hertel, armed with the designs approved by Millard, who came over to the Wallis-Wiley or then John Wallis studios to select the glass colors, approve the “waxed-up” temporary design, and to paint the final details onto the windows.
The discussion of repairs in the files is really fascinating, too. From the very first years, there was vandalism, settling, earthquakes, and accidents that led to cracks and holes, and (mostly in the case of the 1994 earthquake) whole panels falling out and needing to be replaced. Using the original instructions, the same materials, and the same methods, Susan Wallis has kept the windows in pristine condition, with no indication of what had been replaced.
As far as I know, none of the Home Savings stained glass windows have been removed, so going to see them is the best way to appreciate them. (Santa Monica, though, is now protected but obscured by a screen, and Beverly Hills are blocked by the new stairs.) Choose a sunny day, and go see these gems, like the Ahmanson Trust windows! (Details on where to find them in the list; contact me with needed updates.)
The Conservancy has docents ready to explain seven sites in Claremont and Pomona with art and architecture from Millard Sheets, including his studio where much of the work was completed.
And then there is the 5:00pm panel, with sculptors Betty Davenport Ford and John Svenson, Sheets Studio architect Rufus Turner, Sheets Studio mosaicist Brian Worley, and two of Millard Sheets’s children, Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle and Tony Sheets. And I am told many other individuals who worked in the Studio and on related art and architecture will attend as well.
The vast majority of Home Savings’s distinctive art and architecture cannot be moved easily: mosaics; stained glass; giant painted murals; large sculptures; and the architecture of the buildings themselves. In a few cases, they have been torn down or painted over, but for the most part the artwork is in place, though at times hidden or damaged by changes to the bank’s layout, security, or convenience features.
But this week I want to focus on that which was movable from the Home Savings banks, and see if you my avid Internet audience might have ideas on where items are. There are some wood-panel murals that have been removed from the Pasadena Home Savings and the Pomona Buffum’s, as well as the mural from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel; these all seem to be safely maintained. There are the original Millard Sheets sketches for Home Savings projects, some of which are for sale by Alan Wofsy Fine Arts. And there are various commemorative brochures and prints offered at the openings of Home Savings in Beverly Hills and Hollywood, and Pomona First Federal in Claremont and Pomona; I have seen a number of each, some in library collections. There are calendars and advertisements too, with fascinating messages, which are harder to find — more on that in another post.
But what about these wall hangings, done for Huntington Harbor and Torrance, or the mosaic tables produced by the Millard Sheets Studio for Lakewood, the Van Ness branch in San Francisco, and the Arden Way branch in Sacramento? Can anyone say if any of those survive? (I also hear there is a version of the Home Savings shield done in stained glass for an Ahmanson Center corporate office; I am keeping track of these movables as I mull whether an exhibit might be possible alongside my book.)
The wall hangings are especially interesting, as they are more quilting or embroidery, rather than the tapestries that the Studio produced earlier for the Foley Communication Arts Center at LMU, as well as the Garrison Theater, produced in Aubusson, France. (It is unclear what kind of fabric art was in the Home Savings branches at Montebello and Mountain View as well.)
Alba Cisneros, who worked in the studio for many years, recalls having these wall hangings stretched out across her living room, sewing them quickly for the bank opening. Their theme and color palette, by Sue Hertel, reflect traditional Home Savings designs, but the new medium provides new textures and depth of color — as well as the portability that leads to the question of where they are.
Do you have leads on any of these items? Are any still in these banks? Have they been preserved? Do let me know.
Also: a REMINDER of the L.A. Conservancy’s Millard Sheets tour in Claremont and Pomona on Sunday, March 18, 10:00am-4:00pm. At 5:00pm there will be a panel discussion with Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle (Millard’s daughter), sculptors Betty Davenport Ford and John Edward Svenson, architect Rufus Turner, and Studio mosaicist Brian Worley — and I will introduce the session with slides relating the tour sites to my overall research. I assume lots of others involved with this artwork will be there too. Hope to see you!
I have been on the Southern California freeways a lot recently–driving down to San Diego, out to Claremont, around and around the LA Basin, discussing my first book and finding new leads for Home Savings research. And though I have written before about the efforts to catalog what makes the Home Savings and Loan buildings distinctive, I have found another pattern worth noting: the Home Savings and Loan office tower.
The first Home Savings tower seems a fluke: it was built in 1962 as part of the downtown Pomona Mall redevelopment, a project that was a love note from Millard Sheets to his hometown, and something Howard Ahmanson and Home Savings seem to have joined as a favor to Sheets. The mall was toasted nationally as the future of urban renewal, and then faced its own decline — and now Chase has threatened the future of the tower as well. (Come tour the Pomona sites, and learn more from docents, a panel of Studio participants, and knowledgeable folks like me, at the L.A. Conservancy tour March 18th).
The tower was a one-off — Home Savings was not then in the business of building large office towers, nor of owning and managing commercial real-estate. And, because it may be the only Home Savings tower to have Sheets Studio art, I basically ignored the other towers for a while.
But I have been recently thinking about how the Home Savings brand was maintained by architecture even as the Sheets Studio branches changed (a topic for a future post), and I began to think more about the Glendale tower, and the Covina tower, and the one along the 405 in… Carson? Signal Hill? Clearly, Home Savings and Loan did become interested in tall office towers, likely for their commercial real estate space and their large branch spaces, after the S&L banking laws changed.
And of course it was nice that the towers could be their own Home Savings icons. These towers reflect the work of Frank Homolka for Home Savings, and their uniformity, with the space for the proud Home Savings name at the top and the shield along the shaft, created their own iconic recognition. (Here you can see Chase beginning to mimic this, with their logo on the side.)
Home Savings towers are in sight of the freeway, along the main streets of these suburbs, and hence often they are the only office tower of their kind in, say, Covina. This reflects a continuation of the Home Savings siting policies of the decorated branches. But the choice not to include Sheets Studio art, combined with the ubiquity of this generic, pared-down modernist architecture, suggests these towers no longer stand out from their postwar peers. But they do serve as a part of the story of art, architecture, and the urban context of Home Savings and Loan — if a subtle one.
I was sad to learn that Martha Menke Underwood died on February 15, 2012. I had the chance to visit her in November 2010, on a day she was at work in her painting studio; like so many of the Pomona Valley artists with whom Millard Sheets collaborated, she had achieved renown in a number of media, before, during, and long after her time working for the Sheets Studio. She was especially known for her tapestries and other “stitchery” works.
Martha had studied with Jean and Arthur Ames; Arthur had overseen her master’s thesis, and shared an interest in the revival of tapestries as a fine-art form. After graduating from Scripps and Otis, Martha was briefly employed by Wallis-Wiley Stained Glass (the contractor the Sheets Studio used as well) before working directly for Sheets. Some of her tapestries hung in the first major Sheets bank commission, for Mercantile National Bank in Dallas; she also became essential to the design, installation, and construction of the early Home Savings mosaics.
Martha left the Sheets Studio soon after she was married, to the Sheets Studio architect S. David Underwood, in around 1960; they later divorced. But, in those busy years, Martha Menke Underwood was instrumental to the creation of the Sheets Studio style of mosaic work.
Though mosaics were essential to the new look of art and architecture that Millard Sheets was providing for Howard Ahmanson beginning in 1954, Sheets and those around him had no expertise in how to create them. Initally, the mosaics were designed in the Sheets Studio but sent to Italy or, Martha said, to Mexico for fabrication, but Sheets grew frustrated with a process out of his control, sending back versions of his designs stylized against his wishes.
According to Martha’s account, she was tasked with figuring out the process. After more frustration with imported mosaics–she specifically remembered having to piece together the outline for the Arcadia Home Savings and Loan mosaics on the spot, as the concrete backing for the installation waited–she took charge of ordering smalti and creating a tile-cutting and -setting procedure in the Sheets Studio.
Martha remembered how exhilarating but stressful work for the Sheets Studio could be. As the timing for completion of the Los Angeles Scottish Rite Masonic Temple mosaics was tight, various sections of the four-story-tall exterior mosaic were taken for installation before she could be sure the colors and lines could match up. But I think the resulting mosaic (below) demonstrates how it worked out!
Finally, Martha decided to hire an artist who would take over the details of the mosaic operation, from ordering to installation. Her search led to the Studio’s master of mosaic fabrication, Denis O’Connor, whom Martha helped to train. Martha continued working for the Studio, part-time, and contributed to the iconic mosaics at Sunset and Vine, the Garrison Theater, and Notre Dame, among other projects.
Martha Menke Underwood followed the pattern of many Pomona Valley artists in finding the time working for Millard Sheets as invigorating but ultimately distracting from her own art interests. She credited Millard Sheets with arranging for her large-scale tapestries to be woven at the historic looms in Aubisson, France, and she stayed close to many of her fellow artists; she also taught art for 27 years at Chaffey College..
Her website holds many of her last works, as well as a picture with a wide smile, much like the one that welcomed me. She will be missed.
It is great that the Millard Sheets Papers and the Denis O’Connor Papers have been donated to archives.They provide a tremendous amount of detail about the art and architecture of Home Savings, starting in 1954. There, the work of the Sheets Studio team is documented — a changing cast including these two men; their main collaborator Susan Lautmann Hertel; architects S. David Underwood, Rufus Turner, Robert Kurtz, Robert Nilson, Milton Holmes, F. Arthur Jessup, and Francis Lis, and Frank Homolka and Jess Gilkerson of Long Beach; contracted sculptors such as John Edward Svenson, Betty Davenport Ford, Albert Stewart, Renzo Fenci, and Paul Manship; John Wallis and Associates for stained glass fabrication; other Pomona Valley artists such as Arthur and Jean Ames, Martha Menke Underwood, Melvin Wood, and Sam Maloof; studio regulars including Nancy Colbath, Alba Cisneros, Brian Worley, and Jude Freeman. More than 200 projects are documented in this way (though the records remain incomplete, as described here).
But then there are at least 14 other Home Savings buildings with art and architecture to consider. Starting in 1989, Home Savings (then expanding as Savings of America into Florida, New York, and other states) decided to cut ties with Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel, for reasons I have not quite figured out yet. At first, Home Savings fine arts coordinator Kristen Paulson added artists such as Steve Rogers, Richard Haas, Roger Nelson, Marlo Bartels and Astrid Preston, and in the final few years of commissions, these artists replaced O’Connor, Hertel, and the Sheets Studio method.
Why? Was it cost? Theses final works are mostly painted flat-tile artworks, still painstaking but less expensive than the traditional Sheets Studio mosaic. I am seeking out these artists to learn more, and I had the pleasure last month of interviewing Steve Rogers.
Steve first gained attention for his bas-relief panels of boxing scenes; in 1989, he received the Home Savings commission, and afterwards did a marvelous scene in the lobby of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, the relief on the tiles jutting forward with the rush of the water. He has been recently working on fantastical images of chickens, showing the same energy and attention to bright colors and contrasts that his earlier work has shown.
Speaking with Steve Rogers and seeing his notes and files from the Home Savings commission, I was struck by how similar the process remained from the earliest works: choosing a theme that reflected local history or community; input from the artist and the bank representatives on themes and edits to make; and then the logistics of fabrication, engineering, and construction to get the image ready for permanent display along a busy street, over the door in earthquake country.
From the street (as we saw on the Autry bus tour of the Valley Home Savings sites), it looks easy, and simple: those images of Day Begins and Day Ends (titles the artworks should have but that are not on the pieces, another characteristic omission) at the local mission, the carreta out front, the man hard at work.
But, from the files, you can see the negotiations, the short time frames, the worries and contract provisions that went into making this art. From Steve, I got the same sense of what I can find in these files: this work was exhilarating, but the uncertainty could also be unnerving — Would it be done in time? Will I make any profit? Will there be another commission? Steve’s work shows the same knack for crystallizing the sentiment of the community, but unfortunately he has not been chosen for similar projects after the Metropolitan Water District.
I am in touch with more of these artists, and I welcome contact from even more artists, and their bank liaisons. I look forward to sharing more of the stories from the oral histories on the blog and in the eventual book.