Home Savings Towers: Later Efforts at Distinctiveness

Home Savings and Loan tower, Covina

Home Savings and Loan tower, Covina

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.

Millard Sheets Studio, tower for Home Savings and Loan, Pomona, 1962

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.

Home Savings tower, Covina, side view

Home Savings tower, Covina, side view

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.

Martha Menke Underwood Dies: Pomona Valley Artist and Crucial Home Savings Mosaics Link

Martha Menke Underwood

Martha Menke Underwood

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 Menke Underwood, "stitchery," 1970

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 Menke Underwood tapestry behind freestanding Sheets Studio mosaic, Mercantile National Bank Building, Dallas, 1959

Martha Menke Underwood tapestry behind freestanding Sheets Studio mosaic, Mercantile National Bank Building, Dallas, 1959

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.

Millard Sheets, Martha Menke Underwood, and others in the Studio, Scottish Rite Temple exterior, 1963

Millard Sheets, Martha Menke Underwood, and others in the Studio, Scottish Rite Temple exterior, 1963

Steve Rogers at Sherman Oaks: Home Savings Art after the Millard Sheets Studio

Home Savings, Sherman Oaks, 1989 - bas-relief panels by Steve Rogers

Home Savings, Sherman Oaks, 1989 – bas-relief panels by Steve Rogers

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 Rogers in his Upland studio, 2012, with images from the Home Savings project

Steve Rogers in his Upland studio, 2012, with images from the Home Savings project

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.

Steve Rogers, Hanna's View - Parker Dam, LA Metropolitian Water District headquarters, 1998

Steve Rogers, Hanna’s View – Parker Dam, LA Metropolitian Water District headquarters, 1998



















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.

Redwood City, Menlo Park, and Other Mysteries of the Sheets Studio archives

Redwood City Chase, 2300 Broadway, via Google StreetView

Redwood City Chase, 2300 Broadway, via Google StreetView

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, and Update: 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.

Menlo Park, 650 Santa Cruz Ave, via Google StreetView

Menlo Park, 650 Santa Cruz Ave, via Google StreetView

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.