Welcome to 2012, and a Reinvigorated Blog!

Denis O'Connor and Sue Hertel, mosaic, Savings of America, Springfield, Missouri, 1986. Note the goof at installation that reversed the SH of Sue's signature at bottom right.

Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel, mosaic, Savings of America, Springfield, Missouri, 1986. Note the goof at installation that reversed the SH of Sue’s signature at bottom right.

Hello!

After a semester on other projects, I am proud to announce that I am a Haynes Foundation Fellow at the Huntington Library this semester, so I am working full-time on the history and preservation of the art and artwork of the Home Savings and Loan buildings.

My plan is to complete research in the papers of Millard Sheets and Denis O’Connor, and to track down more interview subjects and other paper collections to help me complete the research. By fall, I will be writing, and hopefully we can see a beautiful book, with lots of color images of this remarkable artwork, appear in late 2013/early 2014. So any tips, leads, and memories are always welcomed!

In the “radio-silent” period, I have been to Home Savings locations in the Bay Area and around Los Angeles, to Savings of America locations in Missouri, and to all the presentations I mentioned in my last post. Also, thanks to a Jonathan Heritage Foundation fellowship at the Autry National Center over the summer, I have determined more about where the “Home Savings style” drew from, in the decoration and marketing of other Los Angeles banks in the early twentieth century, especially Security Trust and Savings (later Security First, later Security Pacific). More about all that soon.

I also am proud to announce one new publication and two more great events to put on your calendar:

This month, look for a (cover?) story — by me — in Huntington Frontiers, the magazine of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, about the Home Savings and Loan artwork and the collections I am using.

Sunday, March 18,Millard Sheets: A Legacy of Art and Architecture” in Pomona and Claremont, organized by the L.A. Conservancy’s Modernism Committee.

Sunday, May 6, a panel discussion (with me and noted architectural historian Alan Hess) at the gallery exhibition of Home Savings locations, organized by Cal State Fullerton students Concepción Rodriguez and Wendy Sherman, at the Grand Central Art Center.

I will now resume posting weekly. Next up: all the great Pacific Standard Time exhibits that show the circle of mutual influence around the Sheets Studio and the Home Savings work. Details to come, but if you want to get ahead, the key exhibits are The House That Sam Built at the Huntington Library; Common Ground at the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA — which has a spectacular Sheets and Hertel painting in its new location, a former Pomona First Federal); and California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way” at LACMA.

Happy 2012! I look forward to reinvigorating the conversation.

Home Savings Bank Art Upcoming Events

 

Sue Hertel and Denis O'Connor, Northridge, central panel, 1986

Sue Hertel and Denis O’Connor, Northridge, central panel, 1986

It’s September, so summer must be over. I’ll be back to posting here regularly soon, but I just wanted to put a few events on your Home Savings Bank Art calendar.

Sunday, October 23, 2011 — I will be leading a bus tour to some of the San Fernando Valley Home Savings sites, in conjunction with the Autry National Center’s Pacific Standard Time exhibit. Information on how to make a reservation here.

Saturday night, December 10, 2011 — I will be speaking about the Home Savings work in conjunction with the Pacific Standard Time exhibit at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona–newly relocated into a former Home Savings. More information about the exhibit here. UPDATE: My talk announced here.

May 5 – June 17, 2012 — Home Savings bank locations featured in a gallery show at the Grand Central Art Center, Cal State Fullerton, organized by Concepcíon Rodríguez and Wendy Sherman. I am helping them with the research and the exhibition catalog.

Stay tuned, and be in touch — more about summer discoveries of art threatened or destroyed in Pomona and Redwood City, and new images of lost work in Long Beach and Beverly Hills, to come!

Iconic but not Exclusive: Sheets Studio bank art and architecture

This week I have had a chance to catch up with some of my fellow scholars interested in the art and architecture of banks, whether in the human story of their creation and management or the architectural story of how technological innovation — from check processing to ATM cards — changed the physical shape of banks. It is nice to find such a community working on telling these overlooked stories!

One beautiful bank with its own set of surprises is the Pomona First Federal location at Indian Hill and Foothill, in Claremont. Driving by quickly, the bank has all the hallmarks of the Home Savings locations — the travertine, the mosaic, and atrium-like spaces enclosed by columns and facing the parking lot and a prominent corner. Inside there is a prominent painting of local history, much like at another former Pomona First Federal location (the new site for AMOCA).

Indeed, the lotus-like capitals seem unusual, but not out of the realm of the possible for Home Savings. And the bank’s (former) name is prominent in the artwork — not quite the Home Savings shield, but the same sort of permanent corporate marker, though one left in place here.

The records suggest these similarities are no coincidence, and they are not evidence that Sheets could only think in one mode. This was a rejected Home Savings design — a bank repurposed for the Claremont site from another location. The artwork seems to relate to the Pomona Valley — the interior image is a rich scene of Native Americans gathered in circles around wigwams and a horse corral, credited by many to Nancy Colbath despite the Sheets signature. So it seems likely Sheets simply borrowed an architectural design from a project Home Savings did not build, and then drew on his deep affection for his home community to quickly provide appropriate imagery.

But, looking back from our era of non-compete clauses, and for a project so linked to Home Savings’s image, it is remarkable that the Sheets Studio could do this work for Pomona First Federal and similar echoes in the work for Texas banks. Home Savings had not reached those communities, but as it expanded nationally, one wonders if these close copies ever became an issue.

It clearly was something that Pomona First Federal looked upon with pride, as a later renovation reveals. When PFF was ready to install a drive-up ATM station in 1982, they contacted Denis O’Connor, the Sheets Studio mosaicist who had done the tile work and contributed to the design of the original mosaics.

O’Connor provided a matching image — another Native American figure on a black-and-white horse, back turned toward the snowy mountain, again walking through the wonderful M.C. Escher-like leaves that evoke bird shapes above the desert plants. I assume it was satisfying to see such a commitment to continuity, when the experience of banking went from entering a temple to commerce and commercial relationships to the chance to grab your cash without getting out of the cash.

So much of what this art and architecture can offer is that sense of continuity–even as the bank names change. ( M. Danko has good images.)

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This will be my last regular post for the summer; the academic year is winding down, so I will be traveling more, researching more, but not in a position to post easily every week.

I know I owe our faithful readership a definitive list of these banks, their addresses, dates of construction, and current status — I am working on it, and I welcome your input. I also hope to get more interviews done, with former Home Savings employees, and to seek out more resources. And I will provide a better index to this site, more than just keyword searching.

I will be back regularly on the blog in August, and with any great finds in the meantime. Do keep commenting and checking back, though, for more about these treasures.

If it is good enough for a Chase ad, is it good enough for a preservation commitment?

Chase billboard, May 2011, showing Sunset and Vine branch

Chase billboard, May 2011, showing Sunset and Vine branch

My wife is always warning me that it can be dangerous to let a historian drive — they see something evocative along the roadway, and they might forget about the rest of the cars. As I drove home along Pico this past Monday, I was surprised to find this new billboard on the north side of the street, between Curson and Fairfax. No worries–I got over safely, parked at a meter, and snapped a few photographs.

This ad apparently reflects a new Chase campaign, at least for the LA area. Given the ubiquity of Chase and its national-chain competitors, I assume the message of the ad is intended to suggest that you might be tempted by credit unions, community banks, and others with good press in this moment of fees and bailouts, and the rest, but at the end of the day, what you really want is a bank you can find anywhere, anytime — and that is what Chase and their competitors have bet on.

But, in the context of the Home Savings banks’ place in the LA landscape, I think the choice of the Sunset and Vine location as backdrop is telling. My larger history about these banks is not just to map their locations and advocate for their preservation, but also to consider why Howard Ahmanson figured it was a good investment for his Home Savings and Loan banks to be icons, ornate works of art on landmark corners throughout Los Angeles.

The choice of a former Home Savings for the ad is the first use of the Home Savings properties in a Chase ad (as far as I know–know of others?), and it suggests a second, deeper sense of “easy to find” –not just a bank that would come up on your GPS as nearby, but a bank location that sticks out in your mind, as the Home Savings locations do.

I have yet to hear a firm commitment from Chase that they want to be the best possible stewards of the Millard Sheets and Associates art and architecture. But if it is good enough to use in an ad, can’t it be good enough to commit to preserving? That could be truly good news.

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NBC Radio City studios, Sunset and Vine, 1939, lobby mural; demolished 1964

NBC Radio City studios, Sunset and Vine, 1939, lobby mural; demolished 1964

By the way, I have also come across fans of what was on the location of Sunset and Vine before the Home Savings — the NBC radio studios, an Art Deco building with a large, expressive mural welcoming visitors–much as Millard Sheets would design for Home Savings. Great photos, from construction to demolition, here.

Given the 1964 demolition date, it seems the building was torn down just as Home Savings went in — a question of cause or coincidence I will be researching soon.

The Last California Home Savings Mosaic: La Cañada-Flintridge

Denis O'Connor, Home Savings, La Canada-Flintridge mosaic, 1990

Denis O'Connor, Home Savings, La Canada-Flintridge mosaic, 1990

In my last post, I discussed how we should measure the “lasts” of the Home Savings artworks. The Bartels and Preston tile mosaic I displayed is the last exterior work in California; today, the last interior work in California, by the longtime mosaicist of the series, Denis O’Connor. (As I mentioned last time, the very latest from O’Connor are in Illinois and Missouri — Berwyn, Evanston, and then Chesterfield, to be exact.)

I visited this mosaic on a day I had met with Denis’s son Kevin, and had a chance to see some of Denis’s later works and momentos of the decades spent working on projects for Home Savings. Kevin mentioned Denis’s frustration in some of his last projects, battling the difficulties of the mosaic craft, the troubles of older age, and the flagging enthusiasm for these mosaic works.

At the La Cañada branch, the diminution of the Home Savings works is evident: as the electrical outlet in this photograph suggests, the placement of this mosaic is happenstance, in the entry hallway to the bank, which does not have any of the other signals of Home Savings, like travertine facing.

The mosaic is much smaller than the average Home Savings artwork, and it was installed in a metal frame — ready to be carted away as needed, without the cost involved with removing the mosaics from cement and permanent walls, as would be required in most of the Home Savings locations. Rather than placed high overhead, the mosaic is at eye level, allowing a far more intimate examination of the craftsmanship and a tactile appreciation for the tiles, design, and methods.

I have not yet checked the relevant file at the Huntington Library, but I believe what Kevin told me, that the artwork is meant to echo the nearby Descanso Gardens, once again linking the bank to the community. The ducks, roses, and trees over streams in the mosaic match nicely with the images of the gardens available on their website.

Descanso Gardens are a bit of a hidden treasure–a preserve in the San Rafael Hills that held out against the post-WWII transformation of the LA Basin, and a park more muted than the region’s brashest and most well-known attractions. So too is this last Home Savings mosaic in California modest — but, in its intimate size and placement, a treasure worth the trip.

The Last Home Savings – under threat in Woodland Hills

Marlo Bartels and Astrid Preston, Home Savings art, Victory Blvd., 1989

Marlo Bartels and Astrid Preston, Home Savings art, 21818 Victory Blvd., 1989

This weekend I was on the Jewish World Watch walk to end genocide in Woodland Hills, strolling with thousands through the mostly deserted streets of the Warner Center early on a Sunday morning. But when we turned onto Victory Blvd., I saw it — one of the last Home Savings banks. I ran off the walk path and snapped some photos.

This branch was in the news in November–apparently, Costco and the mall giant Westfield plan to tear down this former Home Savings to build a big-box store–with its back wall facing Victory Blvd.

This is not the work of Denis O’Connor, Millard Sheets, or Sue Hertel. The artists were Marlo Bartels and Astrid Preston, who had collaborated on two of these late Home Savings banks. (Why Home Savings started contracting artists outside the Sheets Studio is a question I have on my to-research list. Leads welcomed!)

Bartels and Preston, Victory Blvd., 1989

Bartels and Preston, Victory Blvd., 1989

I spoke with Astrid Preston in the fall, who described her efforts to link the mosaic to the community, showing the mix of office towers and residential buildings in a leafy setting, much as the Warner Center/ Topanga Mall environs appear today. The Sheets Studio often started with historical sketches and photographs; this mosaic was more about the contemporary moment, and was researched by driving around the neighborhood.

Doing the math, I figured out that this is the last exterior Home Savings mosaic in California. (According to my records, the last California mosaic is in the lobby of the La Cañada branch, installed 1990, and the last Home Savings banks with mosaics were done in Illinois and Missouri. All of these were done by Denis O’Connor Mosaics.)

So I knew about the bank, but going there provided a few revelations: first, the bank is set deep into a parking lot, typical of a modern mall but unlike almost any other Home Savings location. (Compare to the placement of the Westminster location, adjacent to the mall but still prominent on its own road.)

Second, you can see that there was an effort to maintain the look of the Home Savings bank, as we have discussed, but to try and do so with much cheaper materials and styles. Out went the hand-cut glass smalti; in came the painted, flat ceramic tiles. Out went the large travertine tiles; in came smaller specimens.

Gold tiles at Victory Blvd., 1989

Gold tiles at Victory Blvd., 1989

And, most tellingly and least effectively, out went the Interpace gold tiles used to mark the roofline, and in came quite inferior metallic gold tiling, vertical and undistinguished.

So the bank has a feel of Home Savings, but not the true romance and beauty of the original banks. I didn’t wander inside, but the interior looked undistinguished as well; I do wonder, as the LA Times article suggested, if the mosaic could be preserved and placed in any future wall along Victory Blvd. — something much more like what the original Home Savings had intended.

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I will take a break for Passover/Easter Week next Friday; more mosaics to follow after.

Compare and Contrast: Other Corporately Sponsored Public Art

Lincoln Perry, "Urban Odyssey," St. Louis Metropolitan Square, 1988

Lincoln Perry, "Urban Odyssey," St. Louis Metropolitan Square, 1988

True history needs its points of comparison and the proper context. So in this week away from southern California, I have turned to that aspect of the Home Savings project.

This past weekend I spoke twice in downtown St. Louis, and took the opportunity to visit the local sights again: Busch Stadium, for the Padres-Cardinals opener; the Arch; the Old Courthouse–and the local corporately sponsored public history mosaics.

The cover I originally desired for my first book was a detail from Fredrick Brown’s wonderful mural at the UMB Bank across from the Old Courthouse, focusing on the nineteenth-century figures appropriate to that project. Brown’s work stretches from the era of the Cahokia Mounds to Auguste Chouteau, Thomas Hart Benton, Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, Adolphus Busch, and on, to the Cardinals and the Arch; a great sweep of St. Louis history all in one place.

A reception for the Business History Conference brought me back into the Metropolitan Square building, and a helpful suggestion from one of my book talks let me grab the building’s explanatory brochure, and learn how the artist Lincoln Perry has cleverly blended St. Louis sites with the story of Homer’s Odyssey. The then-and-now murals at the front of the building by Terry Schoonhoven (who has done extensive work in Los Angeles, including at the former Home Savings at 7th and Figueroa) showing the courthouse dome before and after oxidation and other details, show the efforts of the building to speak to the history of its local community–much like the Home Savings and Loan art and artwork.

I have found there is a whole company dedicated to cataloging these art collections: the International Directory of Corporate Art Collections and its associated websites, with more than 1,300 corporate art collections listed! So coming up with an exhaustive list here would be impossible, but I am especially curious of other examples.

So this week I have a challenge, dear readers: What examples of corporately sponsored public art comes to mind? (That knocks out collections mostly kept as investments and not constantly on display.) Sculptures are easy, so we will mostly discount them too — I want to find mosaics, stained glass, and murals, and I especially want to know if they depict the local community or history.

Which other corporately sponsored artwork comes to mind when you think about the Home Savings art and architecture?

Home Savings in a Changing Highland Park

Millard Sheets, Sue Hertel, and Denis O'Connor, Highland Park mosaic, sometime 1972-1974

Millard Sheets, Sue Hertel, and Denis O’Connor, Highland Park mosaic, sometime 1972-1974

Before researching this project, I had never heard of the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Tucked away along the Arroyo Seco, on the grounds of the former Rancho San Rafael, Highland Park is one of Los Angeles’s oldest settled areas–but one that has faced generations of turnover, whether in redevelopment that threatened Victorian houses to demographic shifts toward Latinos and then toward “hipsters.”

Visiting Highland Park recently, to see the mosaics installed in the early 1970s, the shifting tides were obvious: the feel on the street, the look of the businesses all around the location reminded me of the working-class Latino businesses of El Paso more than the environs surrounding most of the southern California Home Savings locations. Given the timing of its construction, I assume the contrast is more about changes in the local landscape than an effort by Home Savings to court Latino customers under President Nixon.

Painted mural near Highland Park Home Savings

Painted mural near Highland Park Home Savings

The neighborhood is alive with visual culture, however; this is just one of the vibrant painted murals on the alley side of buildings along this main drive in Highland Park. This fall, I am leading a bus tour of Home Savings locations in the San Fernando Valley for the Autry Museum, linked to their Pacific Standard Time exhibit on pre-Chicano Mexican American muralists. Highland Park’s murals are of more recent vintage, but the parking lot behind the bank is one place to take in the contrast.

Two more tidbits from my visit:

When I asked the bank teller about the mosaics on his bank, he pled ignorance; “I’m not from here,” he said, in a way that seemed symptomatic of the difference between Home Savings’ deeply community-based approach and Chase’s more national profile.

Awning sliced into Sheets Studio mosaic, cutting off signature, Highland Park

Awning sliced into Sheets Studio mosaic, cutting off signature, Highland Park

And yet another case of Chase’s mishandling of the artwork: this awning does help shade those standing at the ATMs, but did the angles require them to cut into the mosaic–and separate out the Sheets signature–to do so? I can’t say the anti-pigeon-roosting spikes make it seem very hospitable, either.

See you back here April 8th–next week I am in St. Louis, to present at the Business History Conference about Home Savings, and elsewhere about my current book.

Missing Home Savings Art: Mysteries in Santa Monica and Glendale

Something missing? Blank spot in the travertine facade, Glendale

Something missing? Blank spot in the travertine facade, Glendale

This week I had the pleasure of meeting Lillian Sizemore, an accomplished mosaic artist who teaches about contemporary and classical mosaic techniques and who knew Denis O’Connor, the mosaic master of the Home Savings bank art, in his last years. (Last week I took a week off for spring break — sorry!)

We discussed the intersections of our research while browsing the Denis O’Connor Collection at the Huntington Library — and Lillian alerted me to a letter she saw, at once heartbreaking and mysterious.

In 2001, Denis O’Connor received a letter:

Dear Denis:

We have removed the two glass mosaic murals from the old Home Savings Bank building located at 331 Santa Monica Boulevard…

…please note that you can have the murals if you are willing to pick them up and pay us for the costs incurred for their removal….If we do not hear back from you within thirty (30) days, we will assume that you do not want the murals.

Sue Hertel and Denis O'Connor, pelicans and dolphins, Santa Monica, 1988

Leland Means and Denis O’Connor, pelicans and dolphins, Santa Monica, 1988 (demolished; a blurry image, sorry)

As Lillian said, what a heartbreaking thing to receive. Did Denis follow up? What was the cost — a few hundred, a few thousand, or tens of thousands of dollars? The mosaic, from 1988, and showing pelicans and dolphins, was not massive, but the effort to remove it from a demolition site intact would have entailed most of a day.

In any case, there is no record of Denis’s response — and no record of what happened to the mosaics. The company that oversaw the demolition, The Tides Building LLC, seems to have been a part of The Braemar Group; all the phone numbers listed in the letter, or on the Internet, are disconnected. But even if the company went bankrupt, was sold, or otherwise disappeared, the assets involved likely did not–neither the $18.7 million for the building they constructed in the bank’s place, nor mosaics.

Sam Watters, in his March 2010 Los Angeles Times “Lost LA” column reflecting on the themes of the Home Savings artwork discussed every week on this blog, mentioned the site as “reduced to rubble,” but we can assume that was hyperbole rather than a confirmed kill, until we hear otherwise.

Have you seen them? Are they in your backyard? Did you write this letter, or were you involved in the Home Savings’s building’s demolition? Historians, and some interested museums and collectors, would love to know!

So that’s the Santa Monica mystery for today. As for the Glendale mystery above: the records I have searched suggest no artwork was designed for that site, so perhaps the construction crews simply cut a hole for artwork that was never to be there. for the Home Savings shield that was once there.

But the records are also incomplete–do you remember artwork in that spot, facing the parking lot off Brand in Glendale? If so, let me know!

A Tree Grows in Claremont

Sheets Studio, mixed-media tree with birds, Claremont

Sheets Studio, mixed-media tree with birds, Claremont

February turned out to be a busy time–so much to do, so few days to do it?–and the start of March offers no let-up. Most of the time I am happy with so busy–research, writing, conferences, commuting, teaching, grading, and that is just for work–and it beats having nothing to do, though that seems an impossibility nowadays.

But it has meant that I have not been out on the streets, tracking down Home Savings and Sheets Studio archives and statuses that much recently. At least spring break is coming soon.

So, looking through my own Home Savings photo archives, I was struck today by the calm of this simple mixed-media tree with birds, completed by the Sheets Studio and affixed to the end of an office building in Claremont. (I think it it is on 4th, between Harvard and Yale avenues.) It seems a perfect image for spring.

Trees and birds seem to have been almost as important totems for Millard Sheets as horses; from his home in Gualala to numerous compositions in many media, the tree filled with the sights and presumably sounds of birds reflected a sense of contentment and joy that the Sheets Studio work exudes.

Claremont, detail

Claremont, detail

I assume this is an early piece, as the mosaic tiles are used merely as background, and the birds and tree is represented in three dimensional ceramics, some with colorful accents. What comes to mind are other earlier works — the sculptural birds and trees, as well as other animals, by Betty Davenport Ford, and the marvelous bull at the LA County Fair’s Millard Sheets Center for the Arts building, completed in 1952 by Albert Stewart and John Edward Svenson. Like the tapestries, they represent the efforts to use color and modernist lines to rethink traditional art forms, as Picasso, Miró, and others were doing in these same years.

This is at least as labor-intensive as the glass-tile mosaics, harder to install, and likely far more brittle, so harder to maintain. Nevertheless, this example has held up wonderfully–and likely adds a quick, upbeat note to all those who notice it, as they walk in the leafy, sunlit streets of Claremont.