Banking on Beauty:
Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California
Available February 2018 • University of Texas Press
Expansively researched and illustrated, this lively history recounts how the extraordinary partnership of financier Howard Ahmanson and artist Millard Sheets produced outstanding mid-century modern architecture and art for Home Savings and Loan and other commercial clients.
I know it has been quiet on the blog — because I have been perfecting the book manuscript!
I’m proud to say that the book — covering the Home Savings art and architecture commissions from the 1950s to the 1990s, and the entire scope of Millard Sheets’s public and commercial art and architecture commissions — will be published by the University of Texas Press in the first half of 2018, with 150 color illustrations. I will post the exact title, cover art, and pre-order information when they are available.
A history of the collaboration between the Millard Sheets Studio and Home Savings and Loan, studded more than one hundred color images and beautifully designed, is on its way!
My target publication date is Fall 2017, in time for your holiday purchases. What that means is, between now and July 1, I will be gathering the very best images–archival or taken yesterday–for every building, angle, process, or detail I would like to include. I will also be revising what I have written with the goal of entering production this fall.
If you have places I should speak, or media outlets I should alert, let me know — I can add them to my planning list. But, for now, think if you have an image you haven’t seen on the blog, or that might not be in the Millard Sheets, Denis O’Connor, or Home Savings archives. I would love to know about it, and if we can create a high-resolution digital scan and include it, I will credit you as my source in the final publication.
Please be in touch, and I will provide an update once the images are assembled and the text is honed.
I have a full draft completed for my book on the art and architecture of the Millard Sheets Studio, and I have conversations ongoing with publishers and museums (though your leads welcomed!), as I edit and I plan an exhibition. I am also connected to new archives, and I am helping with preservation for Sheets Studio artwork from Los Angeles to Texas and beyond. Hopefully I will have a chance to write more about it here soon.
The Art & Architecture Case Study houses and the Monsanto House of the Future were never mass-produced, even though both concepts were created with that goal. Why? The Monsanto house, intended to be cheap, modular, and replicable, was not; the Case Study houses, made out mass-produced industrial materials, could not find financing from lenders worried they were atypical, too small, too unusual.
I finished my grading for the semester and I rewarded myself with a trip to the Getty to see the Pacific Standard Time Presents exhibition, focused on LA architecture in the period of the successful PST art shows, 1945-1980. (Glad to be back on the blog; I have a lot of writing and research commitments in the months ahead, so my pace may slow down–but some of what you don’t see here will eventually mean more articles, books, and exhibitions on the Sheets Studio and the Home Savings and Loan influence, so don’t despair!)
At the exhibition, I found a lot of what you might expect as touchstones in a postwar LA architecture-and-urbanism show — the car, Googie, the freeway system, aerospace, LAX, Sunset and Wilshire streetscapes, Disneyland, Mid-Century Modern houses, the Music Center, Bunker Hill, the Watts Towers, the Chavez Ravine evictions and Dodger Stadium, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and concepts, built and un-built, from big-name architects from Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry to Morphosis. If, like the PST shows, the PST Presents shows are setting a baseline for the history of LA postwar architecture, this is all required for the survey.
Then there were the pleasant surprises: the focus on religious architecture, from an un-built mosque designed by Richard Neutra and Sinai Temple by Sidney Eisenshtat to churches, large and small, architect-designed and vernacular storefronts. I thought the attention to dingbat apartment buildings and Park La Brea was great, as well as the discussion of architecture for retail space, from the Kate Mantilini restaurant to Universal CityWalk, and the architecture paid for by higher-education institutions. The single biggest eye-opener for me was the temporary architecture and design work done for the 1984 Olympics — the video segment, all hot pink and electronic music, evoked the age wonderfully.
The Getty is an art museum, and their engagement with architecture here is mostly aesthetic — beautiful drawings, photographs, and models, and not a ton of text on the wall, advancing contextual or historiographic arguments. Maybe my years as a professor are getting to me, but I like a strongly argued exhibit, and I didn’t see any strong argument here (other than those made at the level of inclusion and exclusion). I flipped through the essays by noted historians and architectural historians, among others, in the 300-page accompanying volume, and I found mostly overviews of the existing consensus on suburbanization, LA’s relation to open space, to freeways, its architectural schools and the like — nice, but I am not sure they rise above the reference-work level.
And, throughout the exhibit and 300 pages of the book, there was no reference to Millard Sheets.
Of course this blog is biased on that point. And there was a large drawing of the Ahmanson Center, with the Home Savings & Loan name prominently displayed, in the exhibit. Choosing the most atypical Home Savings & Loan design, by big-name architect Edward Durrell Stone rather than the Sheets Studio or Frank Homolka, demonstrates the show’s biases. The financing of homes gets a mention in the book, though no discussion of the specific role played by the S&L’s in financing and promoting LA’s main-commercial-street-and-tract-home-suburb-connected-by-freeway vibe. Howard Ahmanson’s name doesn’t appear – and they don’t have Eric John Abrahamson’s great new book for sale (nor anything by architectural expert Alan Hess).
And that got me thinking: Who paid for it?
Who paid for Googie architecture, and the Disney Concert Hall? Who paid for the Case Study homes, and the imagineering of Disneyland? You show me the gleaming cars and the drive-ins, but who was the customer, and who the producer? What economy made this possible, and what happened to that economy since?
I know the answer, and you may too, but it felt like the economic history of architecture and urbanism needed a larger role. The classic commercial and civic architect of LA in these years is Welton Becket — his name and designs are all over the exhibit, on almost every wall, but we get no image of him (except in a video of the dedication of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) and no discussion of his life, his views, his experiences. (It doesn’t seem anyone has written anything significant about his firm in decades — a great research opportunity!)
I am not asking for Millard Sheets and his studio to be featured. But it seems not giving this attention to Becket (or any of the other architects) means we don’t learn what vision they had, how they were trained, who paid the bills, and what constraints they faced. In urban architecture, especially for commercial or civic clients, these seem essential concerns.
Perhaps this is what makes me a historian first, interested in politics, economics, and then culture, rather than an art historian. But it felt like ignoring the industry and financing of the architecture left the exhibit a bit shallow.
If the goal of the show was to demonstrate how LA constructed a futuristic city, isn’t the financing, the politics, the urban planning, the historical and political context, and the public reaction important? Those motivations drive my interest in the Sheets Studio work for Home Savings & Loan — why a commercial enterprise would invest in first-quality art and architecture in these exact years, depicting southern California community history and events, in an effort to change the landscape and cement their legacy.
Business, economics, and politics behind (and, often, in) art and architecture — seems like pretty powerful stuff to me. It will gets its due in my Home Savings book and exhibit, one of these days. Perhaps the Getty can help us see these connections for the architecture and urbanism they have on display — in their next PST exhibits?
This week, I encourage one and all to come to the gallery show at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, showcasing the art of the Millard Sheets Studio at six Home Savings and Loan locations.
I will be presenting my research on a panel this Sunday, May 6, at 2:00 p.m., alongside noted architectural historian Alan Hess. I have been working with the exhibit organizers Concepcíon Rodríguez and Wendy Sherman for months, and I can guarantee this will be a great, ground-breaking show.
How did Home Savings/Savings of America express its affection for communities after they stopped paying for expensive artwork? Teresa Fernandez helped me again with a tip that some of the old Home Savings commercials can be viewed on YouTube.
Here, over a saxophone’s slow wail, images of multicultural New York flash by: the Brooklyn Bridge; a checker cab; Vesuvio Bakery; older (Italian?) men playing bocce ball; a baptism in a Catholic cathedral; a (Chinese?) girl whirling fans; a mother and son lighting Chanukah candles in the window; an African American band; an (Irish?) family dressed to parade with bagpipes; and then a return to those old men.
The commercial’s text, with pauses that make it feel like a poem, reads:
It’s a city
not just of people,
but of traditions,
that preserve the past
and enrich the present.
At Home Savings of America,
the nation’s largest savings bank,
we have a tradition
of conservative investing
that has made people like you feel secure.
for more than a hundred years.
In my mind, this is an exact continuation of the themes in Richard Haas’s Forest Hills mosaic and the general use of art and architecture to ground Home Savings, using quintessential (almost bordering on stereotypical) images of New York City and its traditional ethnic residents to express a sense of home, evoking personal routes and stories of migration through the city for those customers elsewhere, and a sense of pride for New Yorkers.
Home Savings put the tagline “Peace of mind since 1889” on its shield for many years — despite the fact that Howard Ahmanson only became the majority shareholder in the savings and loan in 1947. I see the same here, with a new bank determined to prove itself as an old, reliable friend. I find it very well done, the sentimentality full but not overdoing it, the “conservative investment” reassuring. And now, just like the mosaics, this 30-second commercial is now its own fascinating window on the past.
The last Home Savings and Loan completely conceived by the Millard Sheets & Associates, in concert with Frank Homolka & Associates as the architects of record, was the expansion and renovation of the Encino branch at 17107 Ventura Blvd.
This branch has practically a whole wall of stained glass, mosaics inside and out (though the interior vault mosaic is now hidden), a large interior mural, and statues in niches — as well as a pair of ceramic mountain lions, enclosed in decorative grilles. Given the volume and variety of Sheets Studio artwork in this branch, it may be the most comprehensive look at the Sheets Studio’s production, given the variety of subject matter as well as media.
The year 1976 was one of the busiest for the Sheets Studio with Home Savings; we have seen artwork conceived or completed from that year in La Mesa, San Francisco, and Tujunga, with other projects in Alhambra, Redlands, Torrance, Buena Park, La Mirada, Lakewood, Simi Valley, Menlo Park, and Barstow still to come. It was also the era of the press-release or brochure at the opening, to give us a sense of what we see:
Designed for Home Savings by noted artist Millard Sheets, the two-story building occupies 12,030 square feet…
Two forty-foot[-]tall cast stone grill[e]s, designed by Tony Sheets, embellish the exterior while shading the large picture windows behind them.
Sculptress Betty Davenport Ford created two 1000[-]pound mountain lions which are ensconced on pedestals in the grill-work. Each larger-than-life animal was directly modelled from clay, slip-glazed and fired. They represent some of the largest works of this kind ever executed.
Like Sam Maloof, Martha Menke Underwood, and some of the other of the very best Pomona Valley artists, Betty Davenport Ford spent a period of her career contributing to the Sheets Studio artwork before dedicating herself completely to a solo career, creating sculptures of the natural world, distinctively stylized. At 88, she is still involved with the world of art ceramics, and her work is present in museum collections around the country.
I have to think more about if the art of the Encino branch has a unified narrative–from mountain lions to working men and women, to farm animals and birds to a cowboy on horseback–but the lion could mark the earliest, primeval sense of the valley, especially given the local La Brea tar pits, and the remains of the megafauna–saber-toothed cats, wooly mammoths, dire wolves, etc.–that were found there in number. It takes the winged lion and says hey — take a look at this local lion instead!
Though partially hidden by trees now, these lions in Encino announce proudly how Home Savings would guard that money.
Following up last week’s post and staying at San Francisco’s West Portal, if we walk outside, we encounter the most international of the Home Savings artworks, the Sheets & Associates “Gateway to the Pacific” mosaic.
The concept of a Pacific Rim, interconnected by commerce, entertainment, migration, and cultures, is an old one — statues in Easter Island suggest that these connections may predate Christopher Columbus’s voyages. But the 1970s saw a return to thinking about the Pacific Rim, with President Nixon’s visit to China, the rise of the Japanese economy, and the start of the “Asian tigers” economic phenomenon, and the flood of goods made in Japan, Taiwan, or Hong Kong.
The representative figures from each Pacific Rim nation come in pairs, a man and a woman, and each is engaged in what might be seen as a representative task, a labor linked to agriculture. From what I can tell, the Mexican couple carries flowers (calla lilies), the South Pacific pair a fishnet and fruit; the Californians wheat (I think; very hard to tell); the Australians care for sheep; and the Japanese carry also carry grain bushels.
The figures do not interact, and do not appear in geographic order; four of five men wear sunhats. Only the Japanese woman looks out at us; all the rest are engaged with their labor, or the labor of their partner.
This is a very unusual work, not only for the international theme. Besides the large sun overhead, which (given its inclusion in the Beverly Hills, Encino, and other mosaics, is a kind of Home Savings theme), there is no way to look at this and say, immediately, this was a Home Savings artwork.
What it looks more like was the artwork that Millard Sheets created after his trips around the world, and in commissions for United Air Lines and other international-themed places. Though exhibits like the LA County Fair exhibit organized by Tony Sheets highlighted this international side of Sheets’s work, it seems a world away, literally and figuratively, from the standard Home Savings topics and designs.
Given the radically different artwork that Sheets, Hertel, and Denis O’Connor created independently, outside of the context of the Home Savings work, makes me wonder where the “Home Savings style” originated. Sheets did the original designs, and so the answer lies with him, in one sense, but — the early works like Beverly Hills also feel atypical, in their way, and Sheets, in any case, had to have some idea of what Howard Ahmanson wanted for Home Savings.
Sheets chose California community themes, but were those works only possible in one style? Clearly not. Mosaic makes certain demands; so stained glass, and so Sheets and Hertel, painters by preference, made concessions to form. But the differences so evident here — the colorplay in the tiles, the abstracting lines, the sun are the same, but the figures seem cut out of a totally different scene.
Which Home Savings artworks seem not like the others to you? (I have another in mind, which we can see next week.)
On Thanksgiving Day, while my toddler napped, my father and I drove over the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge to take a look at the former Home Savings (and now, former Petco) at the center of the business strip on Orange Avenue in Coronado.
When I first heard that a former Home Savings had become a Petco, I couldn’t figure out how that could be; thinking about the kind of grand lobby in the original banks the Millard Sheets Studio designed for Howard Ahmanson, I could not figure out how that would work.
When I arrived to see this building, however, it made a bit more sense — in part because this was hardly a typical Home Savings building. It was a corner property on the main business thoroughfare, with a sizeable parking lot, but the site had been misused by those that built it; the corner was given over to parking, and the building — not, clearly, built as a bank originally — squeezed into a row of storefronts. It had been a not-very-prominent bank, then a too-small Petco; now it sits empty.
The artwork, which my files can date to 1985, is small, a modest addition to this preexisting building. But the work does hold some of the earlier themes — a joyous and iconic local experience, crossing the commuter ferry to San Diego — and a few seeming technical innovations.
As I noted a few weeks back, Alba Cisneros had described the difference between cutting the travertine around the small elements at the edges of a rectangular piece of artwork vs. finding ways to “cheat” it, by using broken travertine like mosaic pieces or simply staining/painting those edge details onto the building.
Despite the late date of this work, Hertel and O’Connor nevertheless were able to carefully cut the travertine to match up with the gulls’ wings, a few matching the rectilinear lines but the one at the center top bolding taking its mosaic wing at an angle, at great cost but greater beauty.
Even though the color palette of this mosaic is lesser — fewer offsetting Color Field-like choices — the craftsmanship on these tiles on planar surfaces — the sky, the rocks, the birds — seems unsurpassed, so dynamic and intricate, compared to some of the earlier compositions.
A nice sight to see over the holiday, and a nice reminder the questions of complexity, cost, theme and color do not simply rise and fall in the history of this artwork.