The First Home Savings: Stained-Glass Windows

Stained-glass windows at the original Home Savings and Loan, 1955

Stained-glass windows at the original Home Savings and Loan, 1955

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

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.

Icon tiles, Home Savings and Loan, 9245 Wilshire, 1955

Icon tiles, Home Savings and Loan, 9245 Wilshire, 1955

But today I want to focus on what surprised me most when visiting the bank this month: the stained glass. I have written about the importance of stained glass at a number of marquee Home Savings locations, and I have found other inaccessible pieces of stained glass.

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.

"Roman Thrift and Savings," banking image detail

“Roman Thrift and Savings,” banking image detail

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.”

"Banking," Claremont Studio

“Banking,” Claremont Studio

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.

Intricate Scottish Rite History on Wilshire

Millard Sheets and Studio, Scottish Rite Masonic history mosaic, 4357 Wilshire, 1963

Millard Sheets and Studio, Scottish Rite Masonic history mosaic, 4357 Wilshire, 1963

Last week, I was able to drive along Wilshire Boulevard and see my local string of Sheets Studio art: three banks and this monumental building, the four-story former Scottish Rite temple designed and decorated by the Sheets Studio in 1963.

The property is currently for sale; the Los Angeles Masons (Scottish Rite is one of the traditions of the Freemasons, a fraternal organization with many ties to the symbolism of the United States, as Nicholas Cage and Dan Brown remind us) lost a series of court cases over noise complaints and zoning for the building, and as of 2008 the California Supreme Court denied them the right to lease the property for commercial use.

The legal fight means that the building has been mostly closed since 1993, and completely closed since 2006, so I have not been able to see the Sheets Studio work inside the building (which I hear is extensive).

George Washington, Mason, at 4357 Wilshire

George Washington, Mason, at 4357 Wilshire

4357 Wilshire entrance, with text drawn from U.S. founding documents

I provide here only a few examples of the sculpture and quotations from the building; following the tradition of Masonic structures such as the ornate George Washington National Masonic Memorial, built in 1932, that bridge the known history of the Masons (reaching back to the Enlightenment) with the order’s mythology, reaching back to the time of King Solomon’s Temple, with (as this mosaic and group of sculptures gives evidence to) detours into the law-giving and correct-living precepts of Hammurabi’s Code, a number of early Greek and Roman leaders, the builders of medieval cathedrals, Renaissance leaders, and finally American Founders. As anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists are quick to point out, the vast majority of U.S. Presidents have been Masons, along with other kinds of community leaders. But, without any internal knowledge, I have always seen that as a reflection of these individuals’ power, respect, acumen, and ability to network, rather than its cause.

From what I gather, the 1950s and 1960s was a high point for recent Masonic activity in the United States — a premier networking and campaigning venue, among an association of the established. And, as the later zoning fight about this building reveals, the prominent location on Wilshire, in what is otherwise a residential neighborhood, flanked with massive Protestant churches, indicates the influence of the Masonic group that built this structure.

detail of Babylon with signature, 1963

Detail of Babylon with signature, 1963

Two elements of this mosaic interest me, the first being  its deeply historical nature. Did this commission push the Sheets Studio toward using more history in the Home Savings banks? Next week I will discuss the first Home Savings location, also on Wilshire, that has a mix of historic and ahistorical imagery. Sheets spoke about how he had almost no guidance from Howard Ahmanson–simply a directive to make the art beautiful. Clearly the Masons had very specific ideas about who should be highlighted, what text should be included, and what gestures, symbols, and clothing would best express Masonic principles. I wonder if Sheets and his collaborators enjoyed the research project, and/or if the reception suggested more historical images would work well.

The other element is the mosaic’s style. Thanks to my experience with Alba Cisneros a few weeks ago, cutting tile and comparing Byzantine and Italian tile styles, I can recognize this Scottish Rite mosaic as a transitional moment. In his oral interview in the 1980s, Sheets discussed how the original mosaics were made in Italy, but that, given his disappointments with the results, he began to train himself and his studio in the creation of mosaics. This mosaic was made in California, but the signature technique — Byzantine tile, carefully cut and shaped — is not present throughout; there there are large sections of flat, square Italian-style tesserae, which are machine-made. Perhaps the sheet size of this four-foot mosaic is to blame, but I wonder if Sheets, Denis O’Connor, and others were still perfecting their mosaic tile. More interviews and more time in the archives will tell.

Image of the Week: Dating Mosaics and Thinking of Home in San Diego

"The Harbor," Mission Bay Drive at Garnet, San Diego, c. 1975-1977

"The Harbor," Mission Bay Drive at Garnet, San Diego, c. 1975-1977

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.

San Diego Children's Zoo, c. 1975-1977

San Diego Children's Zoo, c. 1975-1977

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.

The Case for Preservation in Pomona (and for Communication from Chase Bank)

Home Savings tower, Pomona, 1963

Home Savings tower, Pomona, 1963

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:

Susan Hertel and Millard Sheets, Pomona, 1963

Susan Hertel and Millard Sheets, Pomona, 1963

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.

Pomona mosaic, 1963

Pomona mosaic, 1963

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:

Pomona painting and Plexiglass

Pomona painting and Plexiglass, Chase Bank, 2010

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.