Previewing Home Savings with American Trust: The Pageant of History and The Panorama of Today in Northern California

Millard Sheets, The Pageant of History in Northern California, for American Trust Company of San Francisco, 1954

Millard Sheets, The Pageant of History in Northern California, for American Trust Company of San Francisco, 1954

In historical research, the most important sources often come to you incomplete.

So it seems with these remarkable images, done as a lithograph to celebrate the centennial of the American Trust Company, which was founded in 1854 as the San Francisco Accumulating Fund Association by Ephraim Willard Burr, who went on to be mayor of San Francisco. The company, which once owned a lot of northern California land, merged into Wells Fargo in 1960. The company president, James K. Lochead, was proud to introduce them as commissions from Millard Sheets, “himself a Californian.”

I first saw these prints at the UCLA Special Collections, and then I was fortunate to find copies for sale from Alan Wofsy Fine Arts; Alan also has the 4-page brochure where Sheets explained the images in detail (six paragraphs per image, like a long version of what the Van Ness branch has) and concludes this was where “the past becomes legend and the present, soon to be legend, begins.”

The images tell the history of the greater San Francisco Bay area, and they are a remarkable preview of what will appear in Home Savings images later: vaqueros and missions; wagon trains and railroads; women at the beach and sailboats out at sea; eagles and skunks and deer and lots of cows and horses. There are also other historical scenes that do not appear later: Fort Ross; the takeover of Monterey and the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic; the Ferry Building; the UC Berkeley Campanile; the Capitol building; large airplanes crossing the bay and grain elevators on the landscape. The farm equipment and industrial agriculture buildings likely reflected some of American Trust’s customers; the proliferation of American and Californian flags makes one wonder why these did not play a larger role in the later Home Savings works.

The American Trust and Savings branch at 10th and L in Sacramento once had three painted panels by Sheets — were these of the same them, or different? And who created the design for these works, and how did they relate to the Home Savings commission, the same year, which moved from a general and abstract history of finance and California life to the kind of specific history you see here?

I have tried the Sheets Archives without much information, and the Wells Fargo history center without getting a response; ideas and tips welcomed! I do think these remarkable prints hold a key window into the choice of historical scenes for the Home Savings buildings.

Millard Sheets, The Panorama of Today in Northern California, for American Trust Company of San Francisco, 1954

Millard Sheets, The Panorama of Today in Northern California, for American Trust Company of San Francisco, 1954

Millard Sheets Week: Hiding in Plain Sight at Manchester and Sepulveda

Bill Megaw and Millard Sheets Studio, sculpture for bank, before 1975

Albert Stewart, Bill Megaw and Millard Sheets Studio, “Horse and Man” sculpture for United Savings Bank, Manchester and Sepulveda, 1957

Hello! Curbed LA has been posting great materials for their Millard Sheets Week, drawing on this blog, the L.A. Conservancy tour last March, and their reporting. Great stuff, and welcome to their readers!

I am back to teaching at UTEP and so back and forth from LAX a bunch again. And so I have had occasion to visit this Millard Sheets Studio sculpture, originally commissioned for United Financial (or Imperial Bank — see below), and to observe it odd bedfellows on the corner of Manchester and Sepulveda.

From the Sheets Papers, it seems the sculpture is of marble, and is credited to Bill Megaw. (UPDATE: The commission is listed in the Albert Stewart memorial volume as “Horse and Man,” 1957.) It reflects, to me, the pose in George Caleb Bingham’s Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap and some pioneer sculptures around the country, as well as Lawrence Tenney Stevens’s Monument to Young Farmers which I just saw again, along with Tony Sheets and his wonderful exhibit at the L.A. County Fair. According to the correspondence from 1975 between Sheets and Kenneth Childs, once a Home Savings executive, it is marble, and by Bill Megaw. BGuilt for United Savings Bank, there was an effort to move it for Imperial Bank. Clearly, it stayed in place!

Bank sculpture and its current setting, 2012

Bank sculpture and its current setting, Manchester and Sepulveda, 2012

It is also a reminder of how many projects the Sheets Studio did. S. David Underwood, the subject of some upcoming posts, was the primary Sheets Studio architect, and with Rufus Turner and others they worked on Home Savings, but also on interiors, remodels, and other buildings that sometimes showed the same style–and sometimes were completely different. In the “definitive list,” which needs updating, there are lots of occasions where the Sheets Studio did a mosaic, or ordered furniture, or something, and so many traces of their influence on Mid-Century Modern art and architecture  hiding around town–or already lost.

More examples in the weeks to come, but just one here: late in life, Millard Sheets provided a video oral history for Home Savings at his home in Gualala, taped by a time led by George Underwood. In that account, he mentions that Howard Ahmanson contacted him about the Home Savings work after seeing a March 22, 1953, article in the L.A. Times about Sheets’s work for Pacific Clay Products, at 4th and Bixel, which helps date their collaboration. The building is now the offices of the Children’s Home Society of California, and I don’t think the interior or exterior show influence of Sheets’s work — if so, let me know! — but it did launch a legendary partnership. And that is the most prominent of the ways the Sheets Studio work is hiding all around us.