S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio Architect

S. David Underwood, Sentinel Savings and Loan, San Diego, 1962 (demolished); photograph by Busco-Nestor Studios. S. David Underwood Archive.

S. David Underwood, Sentinel Savings and Loan, San Diego, 1962 (demolished); photograph by Busco-Nestor Studios. S. David Underwood Archive.

In July 1948, Millard Sheets typed up a followup note to Jack Beardwood, a TIME bureau chief and Millard’s connection to LIFE magazine. “It just occurred to me,” he wrote, ” it might be wise to suggest…that the magazine should not use the word ‘architect’ in the article in connection with my name.” As Sheets noted, “not having an actual architectural degree, along with many others who design,” he had no need to claim the title and “wav[e] a red flag in front of the A.I.A.,” architecture’s national professional association.

Sheets made clear that he did the overall design, approaching it as art in its totality–but that there was always an architect there to sign off, to make working drawings, and to see to it that regulations were followed. In the letter from 1948, Sheets mentioned Benjamin H. Anderson as the architect of record on the air school projects; as we have discussed here, Rufus Turner has shared memories of the studio beginning in the late 1950s.

But, as soon as there was a Sheets Studio to be part of, the studio’s principal architect was S. David Underwood. Rufus Turner has memories of seeing Underwood hard at work in Sheets’s large personal studio at the Padua Hills house–and even of Underwood having a cot there to sleep, before the Foothill Boulevard studio was constructed, after a 1958 groundbreaking.

Born in Montreal in 1917, Underwood had grown up in Glendale, California, and his first commercial architecture was for a schoolmate, Robert C. Wian, designing distinctive, “landmark” architecture for the new branches of his hamburger stand, Bob’s Big Boy. This iconic work (see next week’s post) stood out among roadside architecture, much as Sheets would need for Home Savings.

Underwood came to work with Sheets in 1955, just as Sheets’s work in murals and interior design was blossoming into the design of complete buildings, with the mainstay of the office’s work, at the behest of Howard Ahmanson, begun with a phone call in 1953, for both Home Savings (Underwood worked on 16 locations, 1956-1962) and Guaranty Savings and Loan (three locations, including Redwood City) in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Underwood made all this work possible, Sheets understood. Millard wanted to sketch the silhouette of the building and design its artistic flourishes, but he wanted someone else to decide how to route the pipes, support the roof, or create drawings for permits and contractors. This synergy of vision and technical details was all necessary for the art to emerge–and the next few weeks will highlight these designs, from subtle to spectacular.

Like the work of Sue Hertel, Denis O’Connor, David’s wife Martha Menke Underwood (married in 1962, they divorced in 1979) and others in the Sheets Studio, Dave Underwood’s work was publicly regarded as Millard Sheets Studio work, without much room for individual credit.

By 1962, Underwood left the studio to set up his own architectural office in Claremont, though he continued to collaborate with Millard Sheets on some projects, including the Garrison Theater (updated link here). Underwood continued to design buildings, including a lot of distinctive office space in Claremont, including the San Jose Avenue office building for the Carpenters’ Union (updated link here), and the Midland Mutual Insurance building at Harvard and Fourth, until his retirement in 1990. Underwood died in 2002.

As all the references above suggest, there are a lot of buildings I could have chosen to introduce Underwood on the blog. But one stood out–because it was a memorable landmark of my childhood.

S. David Underwood, Sentinel Savings and Loan, San Diego, 1962 (demolished); S. David Underwood Archive.

S. David Underwood, Sentinel Savings and Loan, San Diego, 1962 (demolished); S. David Underwood Archive.

The Sentinel Savings and Loan building was built on Camino del Rio North in San Diego, near the intersection of Interstates 8 and 805 was constructed in 1962, one of Underwood’s first projects to be listed under his own architectural firm, after his time with the Sheets Studio.

"Adrian Chapelo," Mission Valley, San Diego, 1965, via Flickr, with permisison

“Adrian Chapelo,” Mission Valley, San Diego, 1965, via Flickr, with permisison

As this photograph demonstrates, by 1965 the Sentinel Savings building anchored a trio of distinctive modernist structures in Mission Valley. In 1971, Sentinel Savings was purchased by Great Western, the name on the building in my childhood. Of these three, now only the First United Methodist church remains.

Though quite different from the Sheets Studio architecture for Home Savings, the clean geometric lines, use of solid and airy forms, and the use of the tall interior space suggested some of the same eye-catching choices, and show also the affinity of all this bank architecture to some of the most well-regarded examples of Mid Century Modernism. (See this example, a round bank in Sunnyvale from 1963 — is there some direct link to Underwood?)

Come back over the next few weeks to see more examples of Underwood’s work, before, during, and after his Sheets Studio work.

Thanks to Brian Worley, Rufus Turner, Steve Underwood, “Adrian Chapelo,” and Jane Kenealy of the San Diego History Center for their help with information for this post.

The Permanent Home for Temporary Mosaics: Home Savings’s Last Headquarters in Irwindale

"Millard Sheets Designs," temporary mosaic panel, one of three, c. 1974, now in Irwindale

“Millard Sheets Designs,” temporary mosaic panel, one of three, c. 1974, now in Irwindale

For decades after its acquisition by Howard Ahmanson in 1947,Home Savings and Loan had its headquarters along Wilshire Boulevard — first in Beverly Hills, and then in Los Angeles, and finally, in 1985, to a campus in Irwindale. When Home Savings was purchased in 1998, the headquarters was transferred to Washington Mutual.

Now they are two of the three buildings in the renamed San Gabriel Valley Corporate Campus, its office suites are leased by CBRE, the large commercial real-estate services firm (which also manages former Home Savings properties in Coronado, Santa Monica, and Montebello, among other locations, sold by Home Savings to Met Life in the 1980s).

Some wonderful art–mosaics, paintings, fountains, and sculptures–were commissioned for the campus from Joyce Kozloff, Richard Haas, Astrid Preston, and others. (A nice post and illustrations of Kozloff’s work from friend-of-the-blog Vickey is here.) All of it seems to be still on site except the Preston works from the cafeteria walls, which JP Morgan Chase took after they acquired Washington Mutual, and no one quite seems to no where they went. (Leads, as always, welcomed.)

"Millard Sheets Designs," temporary mosaic panel, two of three shown, c. 1974, now in Irwindale

“Millard Sheets Designs,” temporary mosaic panel, two of three shown, c. 1974, now in Irwindale

But the most remarkable find on campus for me were these three mosaic panels, installed on a brick wall to the right of the second building’s entrance. Showing a woman and children on horseback, a woman lifting a child into a tree, and a Dalmatian frolicking alongside, these joyous mosaic panels highlight the family themes so common in Sue Hertel’s work for the Millard Sheets Studio, as well as the angular trees, touches of gold, and intricate patternwork that Sheets himself was fond of.

Unlike any other Home Savings work I have seen, the panels are signed MSD — for Millard Sheets Designs, perhaps marking another moment in the evolving attributions in the Studio’s mosaics, from just Millard’s signature to a period of no signatures and then works completely designed, fabricated, and signed by Sue Hertel and Denis O’Connor. (In this case, Brian Worley has a distinct memory of doing that Dalmatian.)

These are intimate family scenes, but not linked to any specific place. To me, they suggest Sheets Studio designs elsewhere: the woman holding the child echoes Burbank and Pomona, while the children on horseback in a forest echo Burbank and Highland Park. A number of Sue Hertel’s designs show frolicking animals; for dogs, the Studio City stained glass and the mosaic in Anaheim come to mind.

These hints, once matched with Brian’s recollections, helped me realize what they are: the temporary mosaic panels, made in frames and intended to be installed in temporary Home Savings branches throughout the Southland, while their permanent buildings were built. (My research suggests they were built for a temporary location in downtown Los Angeles, possibly at 7th and Figueroa, 1974, and may have been displayed at later temporary branches in Westminster, Riverside, and Santa Cruz.)

I can’t say this is the most prominent file home for these mosaic panels, but they do seem appreciated by CBRE, on a campus that once thronged with Home Savings employees.

Thanks to Jason Bonomo of CBRE for giving me a tour of the Home Savings artwork on the property, and to Brian Worley for helping to identify the panels.


On Campus: Sheets Studio Artwork Found (and Lost?) at Mt. SAC

Millard Sheets Studio, Joe Mountie mosaic, Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut, c. 1965

Joe Mountie mosaic, Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut, c. 1965

With the semester well underway, I am spending time on my campus, grading and teaching, which made me think of one of the campus art completed by the Millard Sheets Studio.

The Garrison Theater and other spaces around the Claremont Colleges come first to mind, along with “Touchdown Jesus” at Notre Dame and the tapestry in the Foley Communication Arts Center at Loyola Marymount. But Mt. San Antonio College (lovingly called Mt. SAC by those in the know) provides a few intriguing examples — and a question of missing art.

As you walk into the newly renovated Mt. SAC library, there is a brightly colored mosaic of “Little Joe,” a retired version of the school’s Joe Mountie the Mountaineer mascot, grinning up from the pavement. Though the faux-Indian facepaint, the coonskin cap, and the rifle are more reminiscent of the Indian mascots and caricatures of 1964-1965, now mostly phased out around collegiate sports, the mosaic still catches the eye, and probably has a Sheets Studio connection (if more likely to be student work than the Studio itself.)

Sue Hertel, "The Water and The Lion," mural detail, Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut, c. 1965 (from Hall and Pietzsch, comp., 1996)

Sue Hertel, “The Water and The Lion,” mural detail, Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut, c. 1965 (from Hall and Pietzsch, comp., 1996)

But the clear Sheets Studio (and friend-of-Sheets Studio) work for Mt. SAC was (is?) the set of library murals created by Susan Hertel and Tom Van Sant. According to the 1996 Mt. SAC history, Van Sant created murals symbolizing the social sciences and humanities; Hertel’s showed physical and biological sciences, with The Bull, The Flowering Tree, The Horse, and (as seen here) The Water and the Lion. From this photograph — all I have seen of the work — it is clearly linked stylistically to the wood panels and mosaic work of the Sheets Studio for Home Savings, especially (at this moment) reminding me of Pomona and Arcadia.

But where are the murals? If on wood panels, they could easily have been removed; canvas murals from the Sheets Studio can also be rolled up. Are they in storage? Covered? Egad, destroyed? I wish we knew more. (I asked around the library in June, but haven’t heard anything.) I hope these murals can be placed back in the public view, ideally at Mt. SAC art gallery or in a public, secure place nearby.

Please be in touch if you know more about these works!