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.
The responses to the “definitive list” have been great! I know the spreadsheet section is a bit hard to read, but the interactivity of the map provides a nice perspective on the scope of the project. I will integrate corrections, updates, and even clean up the map data in the weeks ahead. I even had a chance to see a 1992 Home Savings directory, so I can get a lot of the missing addresses.
But the addresses and the maps can’t do everything — and neither can the archives. As I may have mentioned, the Millard Sheets Papers and the Denis O’Connor Collection are spectacular resources for the workings of the studio, the names of those artists involved with each project, the costs and the timeline. But the paper record often peters out, and it can be unclear whether the project was suspended, canceled, finished by someone else, or simply completed without incident.
Google StreetView can provide some knowledge about what is there on the outside now, and historic photographs, when available, provide great evidence of what was there. But often all we have is memories about what was there — and so I ask again for your help with those memories.
The Redwood City branch provides a case in point. I visited Redwood City in the spring, on a swing through the Peninsula branches (more for the website, one of these days). The building was a Home Savings, it was clearly designed by Frank Homolka, andUpdate: This seems to have been a Guaranty Savings and Loan, a northern California bank chain once controlled by Howard Ahmanson, until 1958. It seems to have had a Sheets painted mural over the teller windows. I asked a manager about it, and he said it had been painted over — seemingly another case, like the West Portal mural, of Sheets Studio artwork being lost.
But — in the archives there is a discussion of a “Redwood City” branch at 650 Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, and an order for two pumas from sculptor Betty Davenport Ford. I visited that location, and didn’t see evidence of those pumas either — but it is possible they, too, were never installed.
So, do Redwood City and Menlo Park have two cases of missing Sheets Studio art, or (as I suspect) was there never a mural there to paint over? Only those of you who have lived near this branch and banked there before 1998 can let me know for sure. The archives and the current visits can only get us so far.
See the current “definitive list” here — and the interactive, scalable map of the locations (with some somewhat misleading information on which artwork is where) here. Map courtesy of BatchGeo.
Well, I have finally done it. About two years after I discovered I was working with hundreds, not dozens, of sites, I finally have something like a definitive list of the 138 Home Savings / Savings of America sites with artwork ready. This is thanks to the archival Sheets Papers and Denis O’Connor (DOC) Papers, and the notes in those files from Sue Hertel (SLH in my code) — and a lot of hard work from volunteer (and former Home Savings employee) Teresa Fernandez, and the magic of Google StreetView.
It is not perfect — and I need your help to send in corrections. Send in correct addresses, send in new status updates, send in alerts of places you think are threatened. I have found that the California Art Preservation Act is included in many of these contracts between artists and Home Savings — even when the artwork was in, say, Florida — so there is a mechanism to help with their preservation.
This is an imperfect simplification of my main work database, which holds the names of each artist who worked on each piece, archival notes, construction dates vs. completion dates, and more. But I do hope that it leads to a lot more information about the current state of this artwork coming to light!
First, the LA Conservancy has a Pacific Standard Time tour of Millard Sheets sites in Claremont and Pomona on March 18. A great time to see these connections; sign-up info here. Stay late in the day, and I should be on hand as well for a panel discussion.
Second, have you ever noticed how the Ahmanson building at the LACMA looks a lot like the early Home Savings buildings? Howard Ahmanson clearly had his favorite architects — Edward Durrell Stone, William Pereira, and Millard Sheets’s Studio — and it seems the museum building borrows from the Home Savings look — blank travertine faces with no windows, lower entrance ways, into soaring central spaces. Instead of teller windows and interior mosaic, you get more blank faces in the Ahmanson building atrium, hiding the floors of art behind.
Pacific Standard Timeis a juggernaut: over 60 exhibits in five Southern California counties, documenting and explaining — in many cases, for the first time — the role of the L.A. art scene on the world stage. The Getty has provided the bold vision (and the financing!) to create this massive multi-exhibit conversation, and the Performance and Public Art festival section of the shows, running from January 19 to 29, will only add to the marvel (and overwhelmingness) of it all.
Pacific Standard Time has included many overlooked artists, overlooked art forms, overlooked themes, and overlooked art. And what was included reflected what the participating art organizations wanted to highlight. But the fleeting presence of Millard Sheets in the Pacific Standard Time shows demonstrates some of the art-world boundaries that remain.
First, disclaimers: I know I am letting the myopia of my Home Savings project drive this post. I know that Sheets was already a nationally known artist before 1945. And I will get to the three Pacific Standard Time shows that include Sheets below.
As this blog and the associated research project suggest, Sheets’s most important art contribution to LA after 1945 was the art and architecture of the Home Savings banks. Sheets managed a studio full of artists and architects to turn initial sketches and an open-ended offer from Howard Ahmanson into landmarks of the local community, telling history and celebrating family life through very traditional art forms: mosaic; conventional figurative paintings; stained glass; sculpture. In no way avant-garde, done for a commercial patron to advertise their business, it is easy to understand why the Pacific Standard Time exhibits (and other standard art-history studies) have missed the importance of these Home Savings works for the landscape of postwar southern California (and beyond).
But — there are elements of this story in four of the Pacific Standard Time exhibits. In order of increasing relevance, I give you:
4) California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way” at LACMA. This is the marquee decorative-arts and design exhibit for Pacific Standard Time, and it delivers — everything from an Airstream trailer to the reconstruction of Charles and Ray Eames’s living room in the gallery. There are the perfect exemplars that match the white-walled modernist setting — for example, a Japanese-style screen painted by Millard Sheets — but also lots of helpful contextual information on the source of inspirations, the choice of design media, the marketing and distribution of these products, often intended for the home or daily use. Items from Sheets’ influential 1954 Arts of Daily Living show are echoed here as well.
Dora De Larios’ work was also included in the Autry’s Pacific Standard Time exhibit, part of the L.A. Xicano subset of PST. Race and memory, nostalgia and the growing multiculturalism of postwar southern California is key to how I situate the Home Savings artwork, so I found
2) Sandra De La Loza’s Mural Remix installations at LACMA very powerful. I particularly like the video installation where naked men and women paint the murals onto themselves (through some green-screen magic), demonstrating some of the ways in which the murals become a part of us — something that I think is true of the Home Savings work as well. The more standard video documentary — catching up with Judy Baca and other 1970s Chicano muralists in LA — has lots of great info as well. There is also an affiliated tour with Sandra on Saturday January 21.
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
I will take a break for Passover/Easter Week next Friday; more mosaics to follow after.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
We often think of Millard Sheets as a California artist, and the Home Savings banks as a California phenomenon. Sheets was born in California, and did the vast majority of the bank projects in California—but there are other public-art projects, in Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. (A full list, with dates, addresses, and current status is coming – I will finish it one of these months!) There are Home Savings banks with Sheets and Associates art in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and Texas, where Sheets, in fact, did one of his first banks, the Dallas Mercantile Bank, in 1958. This past week I had the pleasure of helping Scott Stoddard with stories for the San Antonio Express-News about a massive painting of the battle of the Alamo in the former Travis Savings and Loan in San Antonio. As he describes here, here (where I am quoted a few times), here, and here, the bank building was bought by the San Antonio Independent School District in 1994, and is currently in closing for sale to a new developer. The building has been empty, and Stoddard initially could not even get in to see the painting—but the latest story is accompanied by breathtaking pictures of the mural, 20 feet tall and 32 feet across. According to the latest report, the new owners plan to remove the painting and donate it to a museum. The mural is rich with action—from the perspective, we stand with the Texans with guns pointed over the ramparts, firing cannons as uniformed Mexican soldiers climb up the walls with ladders. The painting’s perspective runs deep, showing mesas and thunderheads, and what appear to be cattle trains in the distance. At the center—highlighted by a white shirt and a simple, unmistakable gesture of being hit—is Col. William B. Travis, one of the leaders of the Texan Revolution to be killed in the fighting. Even teaching in El Paso, far from San Antonio, the basic mythology of the Alamo and its importance to Anglo Texans has become second nature to me. Stoddard wonders whether this may be the largest painting of the Alamo anywhere in the world, and has worked to get estimates for such a large, intricate work, with suggestions running into the hundreds of thousands. I am glad the painting is getting attention and will be preserved, and I plan to learn more about it in the archives soon.
But something I did see this week in the archives of the Texas projects provided another perspective. The Texas Home Savings banks came later, in the late 1980s, and so their artwork was commissioned from Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel, Sheets’ former assistants on these projects who had begun working for themselves. One such mural was done for the Castle Hills branch, at 2201 NW Military Hwy in the San Antonio region. The final design, of horses, cowboys, and their animals, reflected direction from Richard Massey, the local bank manager, “to use scenes of early Texas Pioneer cultures (German, English, Irish) over a background of wild flowers.” UPDATE: Scott Stoddard emailed a sharp photo of the Castle Hills image, to add to his great images of the Travis S&L mural.
In processing another recommendation that “the Spanish influence was good, but overdone,” Denis made a quick note in his planning: “No Alamo – Mexicans, etc.,” hinting at how the Texan Revolution—and especially the all-out war between the U.S. and Mexico that followed in 1846—was a bitter memory for many long-established Hispanic families or newer Mexican American residents, and something to avoid when courting new bank customers.
When it comes to remembering the Alamo, then, Millard Sheets and Associates were ready to be on both sides. We can be too—in seeing that both are preserved.
In late December I had a chance to go see the Loyola Tapestry — one of the most detailed and clearly the most labor-intensive of the Sheets Studio projects, surpassing the “Touchdown Jesus.” It is obviously not bank art, but it is art intended for public display, reflecting on world history, and an amazing example of Sheets’s work in another medium.
Conceived as part of a gift from Edward Foley for a communications art center designed by Edward Durrell Stone, only the cartoon stood ready at the building’s dedication, in January 1964. According to documents I found in the LMU archives, it took seven weavers (working an inch a day) two years and three months to create the tapestry, which is reputed to be the largest modern tapestry in the Americas and the third-largest in the world. Eighteen feet by thirty-four feet, it was hung in March 1966.
According to the press release, the design emerged from “long and serious analyses of the them concept” by Rev. Charles Cassassa, S. J., the university’s president at the time, and Mr. Foley, working with drawings that Sheets evidently provided.
What is even more remarkable is the extensive description Sheets himself provided for a pamphlet at its dedication. A few words of description exist for many of the bank openings, but nothing like this:
The Loyola Tapestry, especially designed for the foyer of the Edward T. Foley Communications Arts Center on the Loyola University of Los Angeles campus, symbolizes the meaning and means of communication created by man.
The total theme has been divided into three basic areas: communications from man to man, from man to nature, and between God and man.
The central figure of Christ with the Wings of God symbolizes man’s search to understand the Infinite and his own spiritual faith.
On the extreme left side of the Tapestry is the theme of communication between man and man. The symbols of scholarly and creative expression are noted in the small vignettes that surround the two figures indicating brotherly love. The smaller symbols of the Renaissance scholars, the Magna Carta signing, the United Nations, missionaries, the various arts are all facets of man’s desire for cultural, social, and political understanding. The small band of symbols at the bottom of the Loyola Tapestry on both sides are expressive of the techniques man has developed as means and methods of communicating. Various alphabets, printing, telephone, motion pictures, and communication techniques are included.
One the right side of the Tapestry, communication between man and nature is pictured by the central figure of the young man’s love of plant and animal life. The smaller symbols represent man and his use of fire for warmth and cooking, the domestication of animals, conquering of air, water for food, and related ideas.
The total theme is designed to indicate many of the great accomplishments of man in insight and inventiveness to express the variety of urges and feelings he needs to express to others.
I would also hope that in the spirit of the Loyola Tapestry the beholder will sense the possibilities of the infinite future of new and greater means of communication that lie ahead if discipline and imagination are matched with a deeper desire to face the great problems of our times. Man desperately needs to improve all present techniques for communication. He must determine greater objectives for each separate language and skill if mankind is to enjoy a future with assurance and depth.
On its edges are quotes from the Gospel of John, the 12th-century Chinese poet and painter Fu T’ung-Po, and the 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber; add that to the Pony Express, the United Nations, the large figure of Jesus, and you get quite a capacious image of communication. It also makes an interesting contrast with Cold War-era brochure about the need for such a communications center: “In olden days the enemy poisoned wells,” it declared. “Today the enemy poisons men’s minds,” and hence it was time to fight back with communications arts–marketed quite differently today, amidst the cell phones, Facebook revolutions, and satellite TV.
How exactly this all came together — that Foley decided he wanted artwork in the foyer, and to pay for a tapestry rather than a mosaic or painted mural; that such a wide-ranging set of quotes and images were best for the new communications building at a Jesuit college; and that Sheets, as a Protestant, became the artist of choice for Catholic institutions from Loyola to Notre Dame to the “Triumph of the Lamb” in the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. — remains unknown to me. I do know that Martha Menke Underwood, who had worked in Sheets’s studio, was dedicated to the art of tapestries in these years, and that the Sheets Studio had produced some tapestry designs for banks as well.
Thanks to the LMU Archives for their help in finding and copying items from their collections.
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.)
Soon after the handover of Washington Mutual to Chase, Tony Sheets, Millard’s son, walked into the West Portal branch of the bank in San Francisco. After seeing the mosaic outside, showing the international reach of San Francisco’s trade, Tony proceeded inside and—found the interior mural painted over.
Now, the Home Savings banks saw a lot of remodeling between their construction and the present day—and, as we have seen, changes occurred under the management of Home Savings and Washington Mutual as well as Chase.
But given the greater press for uniformity from Chase, their efforts to paint walls white and put up Plexiglas shields has led to the greater threat to this artwork.
Finally, Tony Sheets and Chase have been working together to save more of this artwork – but that doesn’t tell us what has been lost.
The image above is from the corner of the West Portal mural, a casual shot I took back in August 2007. To the right is another painted mural from that branch, at the time; perhaps a local can tell me if it is gone as well.
But more than the specifics of these lost paintings, I want to use this as a general call for images of lost artwork—or, if you are not sure if the Home Savings artwork you pictured is lost, of all interior shots from these banks.
Brian Worley, who worked in the studio in the 1970s, got into the habit of taking installation shots of the mosaics, so we have an excellent record of the exterior artwork, from the first banks until the last mosaics completed. But, as he noted, “the painted murals were, as I remember it, installed later than the mosaic murals…The seams always needed to be touched up and that was done by Sue [Hertel], so I would have needed to go back later specifically to take pictures and was rarely if ever tasked with doing that. Same with the stained glass.” So the exteriors have a record; the interiors, less so.
As I mentioned last week, memories of my “home branch” in La Mesa are what motivated me to start this project. And I thought that all of the Home Savings branches held historic images, like this, showing the California past.
Well, last week’s whales, on the same branch, could have been my first clue that the larger study would do in a different direction. But I was still convinced that each branch received its own community-appropriate images, reflecting the specifics of local history and the local community.
Then I found these exact horsemen in the Lombard branch mural in San Francisco, and I could see how, when there were a lot of commissions due, the Sheets Studio could cut a few corners by duplicating the design.
Now, I still like the design, and I think that a portrayal of Californio horsemen (whatever the exact reference — the history throughout, I have learned, profits from vague referents) can fit for both locales and stories, showing the Spanish settlement of California.
The Lombard branch has a tremendous amount of art — a wraparound mural; stained glass; and a sophisticated look at the waterfront and how different cultures have used the San Francisco Bay — artwork intended for another branch in the area and moved to the Lombard exterior at the last minute.
Style is built of repeated elements (media, colors, topics), of course, and Home Savings sought a narrow enough range to make the banks instantly identifiable. And before the Internet age it was unlikely that viewers would have both of these images together.
But this is the most blatant repeat I have found; not just themes (as this shares with Laurel Canyon, for example) but the same figures, down to the colors of the saddles. The Franciscan friars (and the trees, front and back! and the background squares!) are there in both, too, marking how the missions opened up the possibility of ranching and other agricultural settlement among (or in place of) the Native Americans of the region.
In San Francisco, they have just been reversed –not a difficult process for the studio, when you consider that the mosaics are built on the image, enlarged and reversed. Their cowls and gestures — and the tree’s branches and colors, on both sides of the horsemen — are subject to the same doubling, almost identical to La Mesa. (If my photographs weren’t a bit blurry, who knows what other details might jump out.)
Are you aware of other exact copies, either of these figures or other Sheets Studio motifs? I will seek them out, as I continue my survey of the locations.
Happy Birthday, blog! Hard to believe, but one year ago, I put up the first list of these Home Savings banks, in my effort to draw attention to their history and to fight for their preservation.
A year later, I am gratified by the thousands of site visitors, and the contact from those who created the artwork, worked for Home Savings, lived with the artists, or simply always admired the Home Savings art and architecture. I have now conceived of a whole book project on this artwork, and 2011 is the year I can comprehensively research this art and argue more for its larger meaning.
In the meantime, I am back to the school year, teaching in Texas and having (at times quixotic) conversations with Chase Bank employees, many of whom know nothing about the artwork around them.
But, as today’s post shows, at least use as marquee banks by Chase can offer some security for the banks. This is my “home” branch, near the Grossmont Mall in La Mesa, just over the line from the neighborhood of San Diego where I grew up. The large horses on the front (come back next week) and this pod of whales is what stuck with me, making me want to do this project someday.
As you can see, the whales are signed by Sue Hertel, and something about those spouts always struck me as funny — these are whales having a good time, even just over a parking-lot door, far inland.
They were completed in 1976, just as burst of Home Savings banks were opening, all over California. And the Buffums department store used to anchor that Grossmont Mall, and my babysitter at the time (an Italian grandmother) used to take me to Buffums for lunch as a special outing.
She has passed away, and so has Buffums, and perhaps the place I went to driving school, up on the other mesa. And so has Home Savings, and so has Washington Mutual, who sold this branch in 1998. And so has the barbeques store that once was here. As reader Andrea Flint-Gogek so kindly shows us in these recent pictures, the former bank is empty.
So if you would love a classy location for your La Mesa business here it is! Save the whales! And if you are the owner and ever think of tearing it down, I can give you a list of museums that would be happy to pay the costs to remove such important mosaics from the buildings.
It seems like something out of a Dan Brown novel: there is a Sheets Studio painting, hiding in plain sight.
Last month I visited the Burbank Home Savings branch, and I could tell there was something fishy. On a prominent corner, the three-story structure dominates its site, with ornate sculptures high on the corner, and a mosaic of family life welcoming guests from up the hill.
Both works show family theme in full: a family reaching high into the tree, and children on the horses of a merry-go-round, a reference to the amusements of Griffith Park.
Though I could not find signatures, it looked like the work of Sue Hertel and perhaps Al Stewart, familiar Home Savings themes.
But it was when I went inside that I felt something missing. Like many former Home Savings banks, the large lobby had been subdivided into cubicles, and the balconies enclosed (in mismatching drywall). The travertine here was pinstriped with black lines, and a clock in the original was maintained, directly across from the teller’s windows, but it seemed like something was missing.
For such a large, prominent branch, no inside art?
Well, Carrie McCoy told me how things used to be. She had worked three decades for Home Savings, working her way up into the branch’s management, and still on hand when the sale to Washington Mutual occurred in 1998. And she had what seems to be the only photograph of the bank’s painting, of the LA Zoo, its angular trees and casual animals suggesting a collaboration between Millard Sheets and Sue Hertel. (No signature is evident in this photograph.)
And Carrie also knew what happened to it, and had the documentation to prove it. The LA Zoo painting was not destroyed; it was not removed, either. As far as she or I know, it remains in place, for in 1992 the Home Savings branch manager decided to cover it, in a renovation, and Carrie had copies of the specs from TG Construction of El Segundo, who did the work, from new paint and some window replacements to the order to “cover existing art work, approximately 24′ x 24′, at bank lobby area.” The plans show the drywall and studs used to protect it.
Carrie said she mentioned this to the Washington Mutual, and then the Chase managers; perhaps this new announcement could get it uncovered, either for display in the bank, where it was intended, or at a nearby museum that also celebrates California and the West, Griffith Park, and the community — the Autry National Center.
Happy 2011! The definitive list of Sheets Studio public buildings is coming a bit slower than expected, but the addresses and status of the 200+ sites I have identified will be available in January.
The bank manager, Jeremy Sarkissian, is enthusiastic about this history of this bank, and he provided images of what once was — fountains, sculptures, and more. But the bank — with a wide opening entrance space, an unusual round elevator, and mosaic elements around the vault–still shows many signs of its Sheets Studio heritage, even before renovations.
These wonderful large stained-glass windows provide quite a contrast to the history of banking one block west. Filled with animals, gathered around a tree reaching up either to the sun or the moon, these windows show a vibrancy that hints at the choices that Sue Hertel made to enliven the projects with bright colors, a greater variety of animals, and a sensibility of animal arrangements and poses that suggest family intimacies, rather than static poses.
This project was documented while under construction by American Artist, showing most of the artists at work. And the signature–S. Lautmann Hertel–indicates a moment of transition in Sue Lautmann Hertel’s life, when, newly married, she was signing these works with both last names, before switching to Sue Hertel for the rest of her life.
In the past few weeks, I have had the chance to visit many new branches and museums; the results should be appearing in the months ahead. But for next week, I plan to offer a new definitive list of Sheets Studio projects in public buildings; check back for a New Year’s treat!
Come on down for the Texas-size grand opening! “Savings of America” (one of the national names used, because Home Savings of America was taken in Texas) invites you to see the new artwork by “Southwestern artist Sue Hertel”! We are only twenty-two and a half years late — are we still eligible to win the Polaroid Sun 600 camera?
In these weeks when I am not commuting to Texas, I do find Texas popping up all over, including in the announcements for the Cornerstone branch, somewhere in the vast landscape of Houston.
As you can see, these later banks (in Texas, Florida, Illinois, and elsewhere) attempted to provide for the local community the sense of celebration and, at times. history that the original California branches did. Sue Hertel was living in Cerrillos, New Mexico, at this point, sending artwork back to Denis O’Connor in Claremont, so southwestern is probably an appropriate moniker as well.
This bank is still standing — take a look at the Google Streetscape image — and the expansion of Home Savings to Texas actually returned Sue and Denis to the state where some of the most magnificent early work of the Millard Sheets Studio, in the Mercantile National Bank of Dallas. A group of local preservationists and businessmen saved those images, finding a six-figure donation to pay for taking out the mosaics. You can read a bit about it here, but that will be a Texas-size effort to discuss another time.
O.K. lurkers, all of you who view the site but never write comments. I know you are out there — the website stats tell me so. Here is your opportunity for end-of-the-year redemption. And it won’t even require opening your wallet, like all those mailers and pledge drives.
Last week I had a chance to meet with Janet Hansen, Deputy Manager of the City of Los Angeles’s Office of Historic Resources. We discussed the progress of SurveyLA, a massive building survey out to find out what remarkable (or unremarkable) structures exist within the city boundaries–iconic office buildings, private homes, apartment-building types, gas stations, theaters, all of it.
She was aware of the Home Savings buildings, and we have discussed the existing lists of branches, either from the mid-1980s or today. But of course merely having been a Home Savings branch does not mean the bank location has (or even had) artwork. She asked me a question I want to start to answer here, with your help: What architectural details, colors, media, size, signatures, or other character-defining features make these Sheets Studio buildings special?
Some of the banks were conceived in their totality by the Sheets Studio; others merely received mosaics, murals, sculptures, and/or stained glass, attached to existing buildings. Some received only the projecting cornice and row of gold tiles around the top, and perhaps the travertine facing on the most public side — no real Sheets Studio work, other than to match the most basic elements of the more iconic designs.
Below is my list, roughly working from the most obvious to the more subtle.
What would you include? Once we have a good list, Janet can get it into the hands of the SurveyLA surveyors, and help to identify and preserve these buildings.
Signatures/insignia from Millard Sheets (full name in almost all cases); Denis O’Connor (circle with CD inside, for DOC initials); Susan Lautmann Hertel (“SH” initials in most cases) on mosaics and murals
Evidence the building was built between 1955 and 1998, and was used as a bank (first Home Savings, then most became Washington Mutual and then Chase)
Totally-designed banks are squarish, 2-to-4-story buildings on prominent avenues (often corner lots), have large open spaces inside, originally built as “living-room”-style lobbies; sometimes soaring 2-story ceilings have been cut down by a drop ceiling of a new upper section
They also tend to be set back a bit from the sidewalk, with room for sculptures, planters, and sometimes fountains; parking lot in the rear
Mosaics, murals, and stained glass, marked by themes of California life, either contemporary or historic, and/or family life; often include horses, almost always figurative, not abstract
Mosaics completed in Byzantine (not flat-square) tile, though at times with Italian (flat-square) tiles in background
gold Lion of Venice, symbol of Home Savings, or large Home Savings shields (all removed now, I think)
Travertine facing on all/most public faces of the building
Projecting cornice and row of golden metallic tiles around the top of the facade (some have been repainted other colors, when no longer banks; some have brown bands, without tiles)
That is what I find to distinguish these buildings; anything I have missed?
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.
While I am at home in San Diego, I thought it was worth going back to the original Home Savings and Loan bank. In the future, I will post more about the original Home Savings mosaic, and the iconic gold HS&L tiles that flanked the other artwork and ran beneath the windows on the bank.
But the original branch held a double surprise for me: the answer to one riddle, and the beginning of the next .
First, the new riddle: why are so many of the stained-glass windows blocked off? This is somewhat an answerable riddle, by the simple fact that many of them, as here and at Laurel Canyon, reach the full height of the building, and so when renovations are made and second floors become inaccessible to the general public, the glass gets blocked off.
The image above tries to solve this problem by taking the external image–showing the full extent of the window–and reversing it; hence, if you go to see it, those captions will be only visible from inside.
The placement of the new stairway and drop ceiling on the inside make it impossible to see the captions, and I am pretty sure the clear, etched-glass sections are not original, and must replace either broken windows or windows that held Home Savings logos (more research awaits, as always).
But I knew there were captions, and I could make out what I was seeing here, thanks to an early image I saw at the Millard Sheets Studio in Claremont: a single panel of stained-glass work, showing the (Biblical?) scene of an Egyptian-dressed man carrying a calf over his shoulder, with the caption “banking.”
Clearly, this was artwork intended for another project that did not make it–but I also found it a fitting reminder within the Claremont studio of the primary client and benefactor, Howard Ahmanson and his banks. Given what Sheets says about his work on this first bank, I think this window could have gone all the way to fabrication before some design change meant it could not be installed in this bank as planned.
What to make of the imagery? Well, banking is an obvious subject for a bank, and the fine-art quality of these stained glass windows shows the initial desire to make these banks places to linger, to experience beauty. Such a universal history of banking hardly seems to engage the community and the location; of course, this was the first bank, and so those imperatives may not have been clear yet.
The Sheets Studio designed these windows but did not fabricate them; soldering and glass-cutting went on in Pasadena, though Katy Hertel remembers her mother going down to paint all the details onto the glass, so these works can clearly be considered as part of the overall Sheets Studio package. It is very hard to see enough detail here to really be sure, but these windows do not seem to share the style of the later Sheets Studio art–but neither, really, does the mosaic out front, which was fabricated in Italy. (More on all that in the weeks ahead.)
The placement of this window also indicates a pattern present here and at Laurel Canyon, and at Sunset and Vine: sculpture and mosaics in front, stained glass catching its light over the parking lot. That might have been about security for the artwork, but it also suggests the old cathedral trick of the rose window: catch them by surprise with the stained glass. You saw the mosaic out front, you pulled your finned car around to the back, you went in to bank, and then WHAM! on the way out, you look up to a beautiful image you are surprised not to have noticed before, over the door.
So many of these Home Savings banks have been remodeled, and the open doors have been changed, but it is worth considering how the art and architecture work together to create this spectacle.
Last Friday I had a chance to sit down with Alba Cisneros — a mosaic artist who worked with Millard Sheets and Denis O’Connor for 17 years — and Katy Hertel, Susan Hertel’s oldest child (a stepdaughter), herself an artist and, like many of the artists’ children, a sometime worker in the mosaic studio.
Sitting at a mosaic-composition table, surrounded by cans and cans of tile, trying my hand at cutting and shaping a tile (not very well), we talked about many of the stages in the history of the mosaics — and I gained a good amount of insight into composition and dating of the mosaics.
In December I plan to return to the task of creating a comprehensive list of the Home Savings locations with Sheets Studio art and architecture — and which are threatened (for now, this list which I am no longer updating will have to do).
But one of the key questions is dating the works — which was from the Sheets-Ahmanson period, ending with Ahmanson’s death in 1968? Which is before Sheets turned over all of the Home Savings work to Sue Hertel and Denis O’Connor, in about 1980? Some archival files exist, but the expertise of Alba Cisneros, who started working for the studio in 1975, can, with others, help to date the artwork even when file, newspapers, or other sources come up short.
Alba remembers working on this mosaic, and has pictures of it in her personal files — and Katy looked at many of these images (I think this one among them) and said, “That’s my brother!” I learned that Sue Hertel — working every day in the Sheets Studio, then returning home to her children and a house full of horses, goats, and chickens — often drew inspiration for her family scenes directly from her own home, with family portraits included in each embrace.
Katy and I specifically addressed the Westminster Mall family, which I discussed a few weeks back; this companion to “The Harbor,” showing, ostensibly, the San Diego Zoo’s children’s pavilion, seems to also reflect what I have heard about the Hertel homestead. (Both of the images, facing the parking lot, can be seen together here; I will come back to the masculine portraits on the front of the bank another day.)
I grew up in San Diego, going to the San Diego Zoo, caressing the chicks, seeing the orcas at Sea World (the world’s first, which opened with Shamu in 1964), playing in the tidal pools, riding the Balboa Park miniature railroad, standing near the California Tower, cavorting about the clipper ship The Star of India, and going out to the Point Loma lighthouse; in recent years, I have been privileged to do many of the same things with my toddler.
So the sense of place, of what San Diego is like for a young family, is very strong for me in these images. But, as we have seen, Sue Hertel blended her own family history into the images and ideas of the place she was depicting — and the San Diego Zoo was not allowing any elephant rides in my memory. So the images are, as we have seen, a mix of the specific and the generic, the historic and actual and the nostalgic and fanciful.
One more note on the mosaic workmanship and the dating of the images: Alba explained that, originally, each element of the mosaic would be placed within the travertine facing of the banks — and even small elements like trees or the silhouette of a sail would be carefully cut out. But after a while some cost-cutting did occur, by making more rectangular, easy-to-install shapes, and/or, as you can see in this image, using broken travertine to fill in the background and allow for the smooth visual connection to the rest of the building, without the difficult cutting.
Alba also explained that, once the mosaics were installed, members of the Studio would get up on ladders and stain elements of the image, to cover the grout, for example, with the dominant color. I think we can see a further element of “cheating” here, as the tops of the trees in the Children’s Zoo image seem to be merely painted onto the travertine above the mosaic.
I’m glad that, this Thanksgiving, I will have a chance to revisit these images, alongside my family.
In the past month, scaffolding has gone up around the Home Savings tower in Pomona, at the corner of Second and Garey. Local preservationists were disturbed at this development; less than fifty years old, and part of the modernist moment in art and architecture just now being preserved in Pomona, Los Angeles, and across the nation, they were worried about what exactly was going on. (See news and comment.)
Questions have been raised, from what is Chase Bank’s intentions, to whether such a tower is worth preserving. So this week I will take those ides on–in reverse order.
Why preserve this tower? Well, the first thing to know is that it was conceived as part of the same project as the Pomona downtown mall, a novel project for its time in using the allure of downtown, plus a few fountains, sculptures, and mosaics, to draw in locals on their lunch break and visitors to town. Built as a pedestrian mall, the Pomona downtown mall was one of the earliest examples of the attempt to replicate the shopping Main Streets that anchored thousands of U.S. towns in the era before the highways overran that landscape.
If that doesn’t speak to you, consider the building’s interior:
A wall-to-wall painting by Millard Sheets and Sue Hertel, one of the first (if not the first) which she signed, marking her transition from Scripps College art student to full-fledged member of Sheets’ artistic studio. The jagged-shaped birds, rolling abstract hills, and horse motifs seem very much like Sheets, but there is a warmth, both in this painting and the outside mosaic.
This suggests the scenes of family embraces, curvilinear, organic shapes, and subtle but striking color choices that would mark much of Hertel’s best work as a painter and Studio member for decades to come.
The mosaic is near-impossible to remove; as long as the building is standing, it will be there, one assumes. And the painting, though massive, must have found some way in; it is probably on panels, and so, if Chase needed to remove it, it could.
But that leaves the overall design of the building itself, something no one photograph can really capture. Once you look closely at the window latticework, you can see the H-S of Home Savings, one of the marks of the early, “signature” banks personally overseen by Millard Sheets and Howard Ahmanson. (Some of the later iconic elements — a golden lion of Venice symbol by the door, and the marble facing — are also present.) As some have noted, Sheets’ Studio provided artwork for about 160 banks, but the partnership of Ahmanson and Sheets only worked comprehensively on about 45 banks, before Ahmanson died in 1968.
I have not been inside the upper floors, so I have no idea what it is like to work there today; it is a modernist icon, but like many modernist architectural icons, the spaces could be poorly adjusted to the needs of modern office life, or they could be perfect.
My first hunch is that the scaffolding is nothing to worry about; Chase Bank has had trouble with the painting over of a fresco mural in San Francisco, and the removal of the paneled mural in Pasadena, but it seems Tony Sheets (Millard’s son) has been able to work with the company — when the public and the media are alert enough to get him involved. And there is the California Art Preservation Act, which (with its federal counterpart) should at least help slow any changes to a considered pace.
But what is really needed is a true commitment from Chase Bank, to learn about the work of the Millard Sheets Studio, and to create a general plan for how the bank will steward this art and artwork.
The Sheets Studio work was the pride of Home Savings, financed, researched, carefully crafted, lovingly maintained, even through remodels. Washington Mutual, by all accounts, was quite aware of this heritage when they bought the banks, and they seem to have considered how best to maintain that Home Savings ambience in these branches.
But Chase, on the other hand, seems to have brought in their own models, angering customers and losing the local touch in the meantime. This very Pomona branch has a key example:
The Plexiglass that Chase has installed in front of the tellers, distorting and blocking the view of the Sheets-Hertel painting. The same seems to be true in many of their bank locations — the need to place white-and-blue themes, the perfect logos, and these Plexiglass shields (which of course make me feel less safe when I am banking, because the bank is telling me there is something to fear). Home Savings intended their banks as a place individuals could spend time, discussing their investment options, resting their feet, enjoying the “living room” feel; Chase seems to want you to come and go quickly, and if you want a personal touch, perhaps the ATM would be better.
Somewhere, Chase has the institutional records of Home Savings; through projects like mine, and interviews with those involved in the creation and preservation of this art and artwork, JP Morgan Chase Bank could be part of the process of honoring and understanding the gift that Howard Ahmanson, Home Savings, and the Millard Sheets Studio gave to California. In a few cases, Chase has made the effort and paid the expenses for restorations — but these are counterbalanced by the ignorant mistakes made to destroy the artwork in other branches, the lack of communication in cases like Pomona.
So the scaffolding in Pomona can be a wakeup call — both to alert preservationists and bank customers, to ask questions and be sure to announce any such changes. But more importantly, it should be another chance for Chase Bank to truly engage with the history of the art and architecture of the Sheets Studio banks — and to have a chance to be part of the community , as Home Savings and Washington Mutual were, aware of the local history and tradition — and not just another anonymous, disliked national chain.
As I mentioned earlier, I was in Westminster for a planning meeting linked to my other Southern California avocation, the Past Tense seminar at the Huntington Library. Getting off the freeway, I saw this bank, and then had to maneuver a collection of one-way streets, frontage-ways, alleys, and parking lots to get back to where I could see the bank.
This is a “late” image, near the date Millard Sheets turned over these commissions completely to Susan Hertel and Denis O’Connor. It shows Sue’s styling — flowing lines, organic motifs, family groupings, beautiful abstract trees, contrasting colors. According to the city’s history page, Westminster was known for its temperance colony, and then for “the world’s largest goldfish farm” (probably a large farm, not a large fish) — I can’t say I see any of that represented here. It seems more of a generic design — happy, embracing family, no real connection to the local history, something that does characterize a good number of the artworks.*
From another of the SoCal-Bank-Art images, here, you can see that the bank is set back on the lot, its parking behind; what this Google Maps aerial shot reveals is that behind that is the 405 freeway and the Westminster Mall.
This is a hard bank to get to, I realized, and I wondered if it had always been so. The Westminister Mall was built in the 1970s, so it seems the bank always related to its neighboring properties as it does today; perhaps once the streets were not one-way, when the freeway was less crowded, but this Home Savings location was clearly aimed at mall patrons, much as the Pomona location anchored one end of the downtown pedestrian mall.
This artwork–especially, by the 1970s, when it would have been instantly recognizable to southern Californians–clearly serves in part as a billboard here; the dimensions are about the same, and the combination of the setback and the roadways suggest it was intended to be seen from the car, not admired by passersby.
Indeed, the mall seems essential to the identity of Westminster, California — so much so that Westminster city officials have a satellite office, City Hall at the Mall, to cater to their constituents. So while the bank does not have the approachability of, say, the Sunset and Vine location, it still serves an iconic function, saluting all those that enter the mall, the heart of this community.
*I am trying to provide a new and more comprehensive list/map/timeline of the Home Savings bank art, characterizing some as “historical” along with other themes. I have had a chance to interview some of the architects involved with siting and designing the Sheets Studio work; I am also in touch with those who installed, fabricated, and restored the works, and I am trying to keep abreast of the preservation challenges. So, keep posted, and keep in touch with any leads!
Now that we have taken a tour of all the various media used by the Millard Sheets Studio, I will focus in on the images and juxtapositions that first drew this historian of nineteenth-century North America to this project about post-World War II Southern California.
Before I learned that there were so many, and so varied, artworks in the Home Savings banks, my mind fixated on the history images, in grand, prominent locations, like the parade of figures at Garnet in San Diego, the collection at Sunset and Vine, or this mosaic, commanding an entrance to the San Fernando Valley in Studio City.
In four figures, this Sheets Studio mosaic tells one story of California history, expanding on the history of “From Oranges to Oscars” discussed last week. The Franciscan friars came to Christianize California’s Indians; California’s frontier was a place of vaqueros, ranching and cowboying according to Spanish and Mexican traditions before the coming of American control; the gold rush changed everything; and, in this rendition — presto! California was ready for the magical transformations of Hollywood moviemaking.
Clearly, a lot is missing from such a history. But I would rather focus on what draws these four scenes together, and how they might have been chosen to tell their story together, on the bank facade, in giant figures.
First, these are clearly picturesque moments in California history, moments long remembered for their adventure or intrigue or possibilities. As I have noted, there is an attempt to tell happy, uncomplicated stories — no Okies arriving out of the Dust Bowl, no Zoot Suit riots, not even the proud shipbuilding of Californians during World War II. We academics now have a greater sense of the displacement caused by the Missions and the gold rush, but they remain storied moments in the public’s perception of California history. And perhaps their rootedness, their long histories, was intended to rub off on the new movie business, and the new bank in the still-newly-suburbanizing San Fernando Valley.
Are the images about history, or about movies? Given the gaps and the connection to nostalgia, it can be hard to distinguish the two. The camera does point left, taking in the dramatically dressed woman but also, perhaps, the character drama of a Franciscan friar, a vaquero, or a prospector, each a common figure in the radio dramas, films, and television shows of the twentieth century.
One formal question to ponder, too: Why the tricolor background? Merely to highlight the colors, and give a chance to add depth to the figures? Or something about the amounts of marble needed for such a large space? One more thing to research, I suppose.
The Millard Sheets Studio could create the fantastic art of these banks because they had the financial backing of the Home Savings banks, to create these ornate and expensive pieces of artwork. Hence, as much as Sheets, Denis O’Connor, and Susan Hertel can be credited for these gifts to California, the financial muscle and some of the visionary designs should be attributed to Howard Ahmanson.
Howard Ahmanson Sr. had been born in Omaha, Nebraska, and, while attending the University of Southern California, founded H.F. Ahmanson & Co. In 1947, the holding company purchased Home Savings and Loan; in the decades that followed, the bank profited from lending to the residents of new tract homes and other houses throughout southern California, in its boom years. In the mid-1950s, Ahmanson built a Home Savings along Wilshire in Beverly Hills, his first second (see comments) experiment in a partnership with Sheets’s studio; given the enthusiastic response from depositors, Ahmanson continued the arrangement, as good for business and for the community. Tragically, Ahmanson died of a heart attack in 1968, at the age of 62 61, while traveling abroad with his family. (This quick bio is derived from the account in Vickey Kalambakal’s recent article; a true Ahmanson biography is underway.)
This image of Ahmanson and the Hollywood stars he wished to honor at Sunset and Vine comes from a brochure that Home Savings produced to celebrate the bank’s opening, titled “From Oranges to Oscars.” Once again, the whistle-stop tour of California history is on display; more about that another time.
But the text here is itself a remarkable peek into the intentions of the artwork:
Now the past and the future combine in “The Home of the Stars.” Home Savings has dedicated its new Hollywood office to keeping alive the colorful history of Sunset and Vine…
“Civic leaders have expressed Hollywood’s need for such a monument,” said Mr. Ahmanson [who died soon after the bank’s opening, on a trip to Europe]. “By providing such a landmark, with no cost to the taxpayer, we can show our gratitude to a wonderful community which has been so nice to Home Savings.”
Could the artwork be intended merely as a thank you? Or would the promise of increased attention and free publicity for a grand opening lead to more deposits and hence profits? Did actors and movie professionals generally like banking at a place decorated by the images of their craft? Did anyone dislike these mosaics — not for artistic choices, but for something about the mere idea of public art upon a bank?
Not to seek out cynicism and discord — even as an academic, we can believe in happy stories — but I do hope to learn more about the economics, the cultural choices, and more that went into creating these images. I don’t think there was a tax break awaiting the creation of beautiful, rather than merely functional, bank spaces, so I do hope to learn more about the motivations, for Sheets, his studio, and their first Home Savings patron, Howard Ahmanson Sr.
I am proud to be part of a big announcement in Pomona arts! Here are excerpts from the letter from Christy Johnson, director of the American Museum of Ceramic Art:
I have great news! Mr. David Armstrong, AMOCA’s Founder, and his wife Julie are buying a nearby building in Pomona that David plans to make into a new home for our museum. The building is the former home of Pomona First Federal Bank at 399 N. Garey Avenue. The building itself is historic, exuding a mid-century modern décor, and the pièce de résistance is a Millard Sheets mural in the main room, “Panorama of Pomona Valley,” 77 ft. long & 7 ft. high, portraying a 100-year span just prior to the founding of the city. When the structure has been renovated to meet AMOCA’s needs, the Armstrongs will make the space available to the museum just as they have at our current location, for the last six years.
As a way of introducing this project, AMOCA is holding an open house at the new building on Sunday, October 17, from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. This is your opportunity to get a sneak peak at the spacious building, before the renovation begins. Wine and refreshments will be served.
AMOCA educates by presenting, collecting, and preserving significant ceramic achievements, past and present. To meet its objective, AMOCA has amassed a 1000-object permanent collection. The museum’s educational program stresses the unparalleled, cross-discipline value of ceramics: it is an art; a science; and a key to interpreting history.
And now, AMOCA will be able to expand their display space, develop ceramics studios, and more, in the expansive, prominent new space on Garey Avenue.
As Christy mentions, the museum’s move will benefit fans of Millard Sheets Studio art because this massive mural will be accessible to the public once again. Pomona First Federal was one of Sheets’s first bank clients; if my sense of the situation is correct, his artwork for the local chain predated his work with Home Savings. But Pomona First Federal was closed by the FDIC in 2008, as a “failed” savings and loan; hence when I drove by the Garey location in August with Brian Worley, we could only see the outside of the locked and empty buidling.
The location is a prominent one in Pomona, between the downtown mall and the freeway (and train) access points; it will helpfully expand the revitalization of Pomona’s downtown area around its vibrant arts history — and present, and future.
I have not been able to see this canvas mural in person, so I will comment on the image you see above, and some crosscurrents with other Sheets artwork. As Christy states, the mural depicts the hundred years of change before the opening of the bank (my records suggest 1957 for this location). The two centuries from the arrival of Junipero Serra and the mission system, through Mexican independence, the U.S. acquisition of California, the gold rush, and further town-building and modernizing is a favorite Sheets Studio time period.
As I will discuss in coming weeks, there are figures seen as representative and beloved that appear again and again — vaqueros, American Indians, Victorian ladies — but this mural (at least the section above) seems very engaged with the native peoples of the region, their customs and rituals, and how the establishment of the mission (at the center-right of the image above) brings change, for better or worse, to the native patterns of the region.
Sheets grew up in Pomona and loved horses — and his love for the region, and its specifics within the general history of California, come through here. Sheets also collected “pre-Columbian” Native American art, something I am learning more about. But clearly the influence of such ceramics and other artwork is on display in the colors and choices Sheets makes in depicting indigenous people — always with dignity and distinction, in the artwork I have seen, equal partners in the encounter of civilizations that marked the “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans.
I do look forward to celebrating with AMOCA in the coming months and years, and I am glad that David Armstrong will be securing its future!
The last medium to discuss is painting. Millard Sheets and Susan Hertel both had careers as painters; indeed, they met in the painting studios of the Claremont Colleges, where Susan was a student and Millard was teaching.
Because the paintings are mostly inside the banks, images of them can be rare to find; trust me, nothing attracts the eye of a bank manager like a camera inside a bank! (I must say, though, that both the Washington Mutual and the Chase bank managers I have met have been very interested in this project, and sympathetic of its need for documentation. Those images are for reference, rather than publication, right now, though.)
I do happen to have some images from the Lombard branch in San Francisco — an explosion of art, with stained glass, mosaics (though mostly hidden by trees now, the slides in the Denis O’Connor Collection at the Huntington Library reveal their true beauty and sophistication), and a long, frieze-like painting inside. The Sheets Studio paintings are not truly murals; even the largest, as far as I can tell, is on canvas, and hence can be popped off, rolled up, and removed as needed. (This is what Tony Sheets did to the massive painting in the San Jose airport terminal recently, much to the surprise of the conservators who had thought about cutting out the piece of wall to save it.)
This frieze is truly astounding: a whole history of San Francisco, from Native Americans to Spanish to ranchers, gold-seekers, Chinese workers, Victorian ladies, the 1906 earthquake, and the city’s status as “a community both international and unique.” In the weeks ahead, I will have more images and do more research on the community aspect of this art, but I thought this image provides a nice peek at the interior paintings, and connects to the urbanist ambitions of the artwork and the Home Savings bank — defining and promoting its community.
It is signed by Sheets and dated 1977; I am not sure who fabricated the image, but I am told he chose the wording. In terms of the art’s aesthetics, what comes to mind is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884),George Seurat’s masterful, sun-filled pointillist work, on a grand scale. Sheet’s work here predates Sondheim’s musical based on the image, Sunday in the Park with George(the 1985 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play), but it does make me wonder how influential that image was in considering cultural nodes like San Francisco in the late twentieth century.
The painting’s San Francisco history does stop with the earthquake — sailboats and petticoats remain at the end of the image, not Haight-Ashbury or the then-current administration of the ill-fated George Moscone and Harvey Milk, among others.
The Sheets Studio artwork in general held images already old — a sense of nostalgia, but one informed by local history. Nostalgia is often seen as a reactionary force, but I think it is hard to say that here — so buoyant and optimistic, these images remembered happy times in the past, in order to encourage investment in happy futures.
I have been providing an initial tour through all the media of the Sheets Studio artwork, and today we have arrived at stained glass. These can be some of the hardest images to photograph — even before we consider the banks’ restrictions on taking images only from the outside.
Millard Sheets and Susan Hertel were the primary designers of the images, and, in the case of stained glass, all the fabrication was done offsite; Denis O’Connor created the mosaics, working from gouaches and inverted cartoons and cans and cans of tiles. That was about all the labor they could handle in-house. Update: Brian recalled that the Pasadena stained glass firm was John Wallis Stained Glass, still active as John Wallis & Associates in Sierra Madre. Rufus Turner also indicates that Judson Stained Glass did commissions as well. Carnevale and Lohr, the Bell Gardens, Ca., firm recently involved in restoring the Rancho Palos Verdes mosaic working mostly in the iconic granite and travertine of these banks.
Both Hertel and Sheets had a lifelong love of horses, and here is yet another image where it shows: horses at the corral, young men and women out for a ride, and children being pulled toward fun by a woman at the reins. Other animals join in the fun — lots of dogs, and a few cats — and the bright, contrasting colors accentuate the theme of fun.
As I mentioned last week, these artworks could do a lot to set a happy mood in the bank — and of course the use of stained glass suggests the sense of awe inspired by walking into a darkened cathedral. The 1960s also saw the interest in Color Field painting, watching how one bright color would play off another; I see influences of that style and interest here, with the green moon, purple dog, bright green reins, and dappled blue- and orange-and-white horses.
These are commercial products — artwork sold to banks, that helped the banks’ bottom line — but they are also exemplary period pieces, valuable artworks from the time, which, as I have mentioned elsewhere, also tend to tell a story of California history. One hopes that JP Morgan Chase, as their current steward, understands the power and significance of these artistic bank assets.
The Pasadena bank at the corner of Lake and Colorado has been a focus of Home Savings art conservation in the last year, as Chase’s makeover of the location — new color palette, new entrance, new thick Plexiglass over the tellers’ windows — changed the experience of the bank radically.
The much-loved painting by Millard Sheets of Pasadena’s iconic Tournament of Roses parade was taken down, and as of last report, it is still seeking a permanent home in Pasadena where it will be both secure and on public display. (This report suggests the Pasadena Convention Center — as my history of this work will consider the interplay of public art and commercial spaces like banks, it says a lot about how society has changed that new venues being considered have to be public or nonprofit spaces, to guarantee the artwork, even despite the California law forbidding such artwork from being destroyed, regardless of location; see some discussion here.)
But sometimes lost in the discussion are the elements of the original Home Savings artwork that almost always remain on site: the sculptures. They are heavy, they tend to be more tall than wide, and hence even new arrangements seem to welcome them easily, even while divorcing them from their original context.
I have yet to figure out where (or if) the sculptures were signed, but I am told by Brian that the sculptors involved were John Edward Svenson and Albert Stewart. Some further information about them can be found here and here, respectively, but I must say they seem the most unsung part of the collection of artists and architects working in the Sheets Studio.
What to make of the sculpture? They are almost always family scenes, with some animals (dolphins on Santa Monica Blvd., for example). Men, women, and children enjoying one another’s company, normally in a nondescript way — walking, embracing, singing maybe. But not, say, driving, working, shopping, or, obviously, banking.
Like all of this artwork and architecture, the Sheets studio was working to create a welcoming space, with art that ennobled the experience of banking, and celebrated life — not in the means of the transaction, but in the life of that community, its history, and its pastimes. For a bank to endorse and pay for such work seems a throwback — though, I gather, these artworks paid for themselves in increased attention, increased deposits, and increased bank loyalty. Like the ongoing discussions of Mad Men‘s popularity and meaning suggest, perhaps it is this present-reality/past-ideals contrast that feeds the work’s unflagging popularity.
This week more individuals motivated by the cause of saving and understanding the art and architecture of the Home Savings banks have been in touch, and I appreciate it! I look forward to continuing to learn about this remarkable work, and sharing images and insights here on the blog, at the Urban History conference in October, and onward from there. Keep getting in touch!
Producing these intricate mosaics required a lot of work — negotiating with Home Savings about the location and design; creating a sketch; transforming the sketch into a full-color gouache; making a slide, to project on the wall to form a full-scale cartoon; tracing that cartoon in reverse, marking the colors, and then transferring it to the floor, where the tesserae could be cut and pasted in sections, only to be assembled on site into a right-side-up, all-mortared-together mosaic.
Needless to say, if one individual tried to do all that work alone–and then add architectural elements, stained-glass windows, decorative insignia on the doors and windows and cornice–it would take years, if not decades, to complete.
Some of that assistance might be seen as incidental to the artwork–I am no mason, but laying the mortar seems more workmanlike to me, for example–but others involved in the translation of idea into realized artwork clearly had to be artists in their own right.
While Millard Sheets was the face of the studio and the source of many of the designs, his closest collaborators were Denis O’Connor and Susan Hertel. Hertel was a painter in her own right, who worked in the studio creating the large-scale cartoons and doing most of the color selection; those I have talked to say her human figures are distinctive for their flowing lines. O’Connor, who had trained in the Royal Academy of Arts as a sculptor but had won drawing awards there, came to Claremont in 1960 and began work on the mosaics. And O’Connor and Hertel continued to work together on projects for Home Savings after Millard Sheets closed out his interest in the studio, in 1980.
Thus, when we look at the Home Savings art and projects like them, we have to keep in mind there is a vast team, including many artists, working together, and that the final signature — in this case, those of Hertel and O’Connor, indicating they may have conceived the design from start to finish — only reflects one or two of those involved with the work.
This week I had a chance to sit down with Denis O’Connor’s son, to hold some of the tesserae from the mosaics in my hand, to discuss the specific processes of making the tiles level and the design realistic. He has a great painting by Susan Hertel, showing the process of mosaic making — the work of men and women sitting around on the floor, surrounded by numbered cans filled with tiny pieces of glass, snippers in hand and the wheat paste nearby. I hope to speak to more of the mosaicists soon, but clearly a lot of drudgery came between conceiving of the design and seeing the final product, gloriously installed.
In terms of the artistry here in Tujunga, there are some interesting signs of the collaboration: the flowing plants and maternal figures, present in many of Hertel’s works, sit within the overall outline of a tree, a later and more sophisticated choice of design than the early, square mosaics. Millard Sheets collected Native American art, especially from the pre-Columbian period, and this work shows echoes of a large painting, signed by Sheets, in the Pomona First Federal building in Claremont, showing American Indian men gathering horses, and American Indian women, some bare-breasted, sitting in a circle.
Here, a Native American man holds a bow, while a Native America woman sits with a basket — perhaps reflecting the lifestyle of the Tongva, who gave the area its name. To the right, a vaquero roping a bull reflects the later Californio period. Do the stalks between them reflect wheat or bullrushes, agriculture or river foliage? Do most of the figures face right, to show the passage of time in that direction, or do they not engage one another to show a hostility, a pain between these communities? As I work with the preliminary sketches and correspondence about these images, I hope to find some answers.
She discusses the partnership between Ahmanson and Sheets that created the string of banks bearing many of the iconic images, and the relationship between the Pomona bank tower and the pedestrian mall just discussed in the Image of the Week last Friday.
Brevity meant Vickey kept narrowly to these four images, with a concise description of how the banks and their art came to be, and how Tony Sheets, Millard’s son, sees the changing patterns of banking and bank security affecting the art’s display. But there is a great sense of those connections between art and place, history and community, on display there.
Vickey mentions the brochures that were available at the Hollywood bank, to identify and describe the artwork; it was titled “From Oranges to Oscars,” and I have recently seen a copy. I’ll be posting about it in the weeks ahead.
When I started looking into the Millard Sheets Studio, I thought they primarily decorated buildings and spaces designed by others. What I have learned, however, is how important architectural designs were to the studio’s work. Sheets oversaw the architects who designed most of the banks where his studio’s mosaics, murals, and paintings appear, but he also oversaw the creation of other innovative urban spaces, built around community.
In 1962, Millard Sheets designed a downtown mall for his hometown of Pomona. By closing off a few streets, building fountains (like the one above) and adding sculptures, stone planters, and pebbled street, the mall turned a normal street into a pedestrian walkway, a mixed-use commercial space that welcomed shoppers, diners, and community events, from music to festivals to parades. (There is a nice history of the birth, death, and rebirth of the Pomona Downtown Mall here; this of course echoes a lot of what has gone on in New Urbanism planning in the Jane Jacobs-and-later era, and may have its apotheosis in the new, upscale creations like the Grove.)
This fountain demonstrates the marriage of Millard Sheets’ favorite themes — horses, nature — with this urbanist, community-driven desire. Nothing specific in the image speaks of history, but its location speaks to the importance of the Pomona community to Sheets, and the elements speak of friendship — two horses, not one; flowering branches of spring, not a lonely winter landscape.
In terms of preservation, this mosaic shows some of the ravages of being outside, with the calcinated California hard water constantly running; the pedestrian mall section was reopened to cars, and now the fountain sits a bit isolated. But the history the mall represents is still a powerful sign of the Sheets studio’s urban vision, one rooted in the history of California as they understood it.
I have lived in Los Angeles for a month now, and I have the chance to encounter the work of the Millard Sheets Studio constantly — when sought out in Pasadena, at the offramp to the Westminster Mall, all around the Claremont area. I have had the occasion to discuss my interest in the mosaics, murals, and sculptures with those who knew Sheets, with the children of those who worked in the studio, with (thankfully understanding) bank managers, and with librarians, curators, archivists, and historical preservation activists, whether professional or amateur.
I’m learning a lot about the process by which the art was conceived, designed, and created by Millard Sheets, Sue Hertel, and Denis O’Connor, and I am thinking more deeply about their influences and goals, and how it relates to my original desire — to learn how banks designed and decorated after World War II came to reflect the earliest histories of California, as well as the region’s glorious flora, fauna, and diversions.
To start rolling out those ideas, and to keep the slew of other professional work (like my just-finished book) from sidelining this investigation, today I inaugurate a new series on the blog: Millard Sheets Studio Image of the Week! I’ll pull an image from my travels, or my extensive archive of Sheets-and-co. images, and give you a sense of what I think we’re seeing.
Above is a small, whimsical Sheets creation in an unusual plane for the studio’s work — the floor! As you enter what was the Sheets-and-co. studio at 655 E. Foothill Ave, you would have encountered this cat, ready to greet you with a flower in its mouth. (The current ophthalmology office still uses the same reception area, but they had the cat covered with chairs.)
I visited the office yesterday with Brian Worley, a Friend of the Blog and a onetime worker in Sheets’s studio, helping with everything from background work on the mosaics to installation and documentation of the work once completed. The visit will provide a lot of images and information, but today I’ll relate how this cat came to mind as the perfect image of what I now know about Sheets — curious, creative, and seeking to infuse his designs with joy and fun.
The work of the Sheets Studio has a lot of animals, a lot of families in loving embraces, or out having fun, and the artwork of the studio complex (more in coming weeks) reflects this interest. Brian told me there used to be a birdcage right in the center of the two buildings, their color, activity, and song presumably filling the space between Sheets’s office and the large production studio, the shelves stacked with cans of mosaic tesserae.
So Sheets’s clients would see the exterior decorations, hear the birds, and then come inside to await their appointment — and see this wonderful cat, embracing the moment with a flower in its mouth.
We can feel welcomed to explore the Sheets Studio work, too.
With the boxes mostly unpacked and lots of folks away on summer vacations, I am finding a chance to get back to search for the works of the Sheets studio. I have a checklist of about one hundred Millard Sheets news items, tips from readers, and more to follow up, so as I process them there should be lots new on the blog.
Also, I have learned that my paper on these murals and their meaning was accepted for presentation at the Urban History Association’s biennial meeting in Las Vegas, October 21st at 10:30am. (Program here).
Paper proposed for a panel on “Urban Historians and Foundation Myths,” Urban History Association conference, Las Vegas, October 2010
My paper is titled “The Memory of Californios in Nixonland: History in Millard Sheets’s Home Saving Murals,” and will appear as part of two panels on “Urban Historians and Foundation Myths,” alongside work by Bell Clement on Washington, D.C,; David Schley on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; and Bill Issel on San Francisco. I am looking forward to it.
Finally, when I went out to the movies with The Blog’s Partner the other night, we walked right by the exquisite mural at Sunset and Vine (above), and I felt happy once again to be living in LA. I snapped this photo from my newest smartphone, just after sunset.
So watch this space for… weekly?… updates in the months ahead…
The semester is over, and the sun is out here in West LA — the new home of these blogs!
(We went to the beach yesterday, and did not drive by this mosaic, but we could have. Any news on the building’s status? I hear it is/was between owners.)
Thanks to all those who have continued to comment and add locations to the Home Savings blog, and to those who have expressed interest in the Civil War Era in the American West.
We are still unpacking boxes and getting our coordinates, but I wanted to let you know that new posts will be coming soon — and I will have a chance to check out more sites in the Southland in person, at least during the summer and other school breaks.