The Global Process of Home Savings Mosaics

Denis O'Connor, Sue Hertel, and Studio MosaicArt di D.Colledani-Milan, mosaic, Savings of America, Springfield, Missouri, 1986. Note the goof at installation that reversed the SH of Sue's signature at bottom right.

Denis O’Connor, Sue Hertel, and Studio MosaicArt di D.Colledani-Milan, mosaic, Savings of America, Springfield, Missouri, 1986. Note the goof that reversed the SH of Sue’s signature at bottom right.

Mosaic is an ancient art. Around the Mediterranean, but especially in Italy, mosaic traditions go back millennia. And there was nothing obvious about Millard Sheets’s decision to include mosaics in his initial designs for Home Savings — though, along with stained glass, travertine, gold leaf, and classicist references in modernist designs — they contribute to Sheets’s goal of helping a new financial institution feel timeless, perhaps even eternal.

Lillian Sizemore, a mosaicist and a scholar of mosaics, has helped me understand more about the unusual/innovative choices made over the decades by the Sheets Studio, primarily by Denis O’Connor, in the fabrication of the Home Savings mosaics. She and I have discussed how the Sheets Studio likely garnered its mosaic skills from Arthur and Jean Ames, who created New Deal-era mosaics at Newport Harbor Union High School, and taught technique to students (including Martha Menke Underwood and Nancy Colbath) at the Claremont Colleges.

My research has suggested Millard Sheets first designed mosaics that were fabricated by the Ravenna Mosaic Company of St. Louis, in the 1930s and 1940s, before building his own fabrication team. And, like mosaicists around the world, the Sheets Studio ordered its best tiles from Italy (with some additional ones from Mexico), making it hard to use materials to track the mosaic fabrication process.

What we see here is the other end of the spectrum — when, after Millard Sheets retired, Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel continued the business — they became overwhelmed by the requirements of the rapidly expanding Savings of America.

Lillian has helped me see how and where O’Connor ordered mosaics to be fabricated in Italy, at less cost, via a broker named Franco Merli at NOVA Designs. (Denis segregated the records about these Italian-fabricated mosaics, either as a matter of file management or to keep this change out of the spotlight.) The work was done by Studio MosaicArt di D.Colledani-Milan, which has a nice website highlighting their ongoing mosaic work.

Offshoring the mosaic fabrication was cheaper, but, as Lillian has shown me, it also led to changes in the fabrication techniques, which she is tracking. Unfamiliarity with the themes, figures, and even animals intended by the sketches lead to discussions, in a mix of Italian and English, in the files.

This mosaic, in Springfield, Missouri, then suffered another goof — the fabricators did not correctly reverse Sue Hertel’s initials — and no one at the installation noticed to fix it.

For one of the new national Savings of America branches, far from other branches and from the context and story of the Sheets Studio and Home Savings, this was insult to injury.

One expects there were foreheads smacking from Missouri to California to Italy when the mistake was pointed out.

Jean Goodwin Ames and Arthur Ames: Ancestors of the Sheets Studio Mosaics

Jean Goodwin (later Ames), “Three Women Gathering at the Sea Shore,” Federal Art Project mosaic for Newport Harbor Union High School, 1937.

When Millard Sheets first designed mosaics, he sent them off to be fabricated by the Ravenna Mosaic Company of St. Louis, run by the German Heudeck family.  It was only after he crossed paths with Jean Goodwin Ames and her husband Arthur Ames that Sheets could imagine fabricating mosaics in California.

Jean and Arthur met in a MFA ceramics class with Glen Lukens, at USC, where Jean created her first majolica tile mural in the Science building, Youth and Science, as her MFA thesis (image here).

Arthur Ames, “Three Fisherman,” Federal Art Project mosaic for Newport Harbor Union High School, 1937.



Goodwin and Ames both were involved in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, and Jean, in an oral history, said that Arthur’s professor at the California School of Fine Arts, “Ray Boynton…inspired me to do the work in mosaic and so we were one of the first to do mosaic work in California and it was through his expression we did that.” (They also mention the influence of Dr. Robert King and the help of Bob Vohe.)

Bruton Sisters, “St. Francis” mosaic, San Francisco Zoo, 1934. Image via Vicki & Chuck Rogers on Flickr.

The Ameses were part of a veritable movement of artists, especially in California, learning the art of mosaic in the 1930s. According to the research of Lillian Sizemore, mosaicist and mosaic researcher, as well as Sharon Musher, a historian of the New Deal arts projects, Maxine Albro and the Bruton Sisters were employed through the Federal Arts Program in the Bay Area (including at the San Francisco Zoo), where, in the words of the Ameses, they acquired mosaic skills from “imported workers” from Italy who had come to work on mosaics at Stanford, among other locales.

The mosaics that the Ameses produced for Newport Harbor

Union High School were likely among the first public mosaics fabricated by Americans in the state of California. The preponderance of square tiles; the heavy, dark lines; and the massive, static feel of the figures do not bear the mark of the later Sheets Studio mosaics, reflecting more the large figures of the contemporaneous Mexican muralists, and Soviet Socialist-Realists.

The material is also different. As Jean later said, “at that time it was almost impossible to get the Byzantine [glass] mosaic [tesserae] that is used in Italy, and we used native material,” hard, high-fired matte vitreous (clay) tiles from scrap heaps as well as tile from manufacturers such as Gladding McBean. But the interplay of colors to create depth, and the cut tiles that provide hints of motion—in the women’s hair, in the pelican’s feathers—show the promise of how their technique evolved.

Jean and Arthur Ames were married in 1940, and Millard Sheets recruited Jean to the faculty at Scripps College, while Arthur became Professor of Design at Otis Art Institute.  Their artwork moved progressively through a number of media—paintings to mosaics to woodcuts to copper enamel to tapestries, and, in most cases, from figurative to abstract compositions.

Jean and Arthur Ames, tree mosaic for Ahmanson Trust, 9145 Wilshire, 1959-1960

The Ameses did a few mosaic commissions for the Sheets Studio – at Claremont United Church of Christ; at the Mercantile National Bank building in Dallas; at Ahmanson Trust in Beverly Hills; – as well as enamels and a lion for the first Home Savings, at 9245 Wilshire.  Their interview also mentions a majolica tile mosaic for Guaranty Savings in Fresno, and work for “the Pomona Loa,” under the direction of Millard Sheets — but I am unsure what exactly that was, and its fate.

The influence of the Ameses at the Sheets Studio was mostly through the skills endowed to their students who worked in mosaic – Martha Menke Underwood and Nancy Colbath most prominent among them. The mosaic at the first Home Savings mosaic, completed 1955, is signed with the names Millard Sheets, J.E. (likely James Edgar) Michalski, and Ronald Gerber—and I am still trying to track down who these last two individuals were.

Millard Sheets, J.E. Michalski, and Ronald Gerber, mosaic for Home Savings, 9245 Wilshire, Beverly Hills, 1955. Photo via Vickey Kalambakal.

From Millard’s encouragement and Martha’s skill, the Home Savings mosaics emerged—small in size and intricacy at first, and then ever larger and more complex. After 1961, when Denis O’Connor came into the studio, Lillian Sizemore has described to me that this shift marked “a more modern trend in the Studio’s handling of the mosaic surface.”

In 1999, Newport Union demolished the building where the mosaics were, outside facing a patio—but, thankfully, their wall was preserved. They now occupy pride of place in a hallway at the entrance to the school, with a plaque describing their history.

Next week we will look at what happened after the grand era of Denis O’Connor mosaics for Home Savings — when his smaller operation could not handle the timing demands of Home Savings, expanding across the nation.

Putting (Home) Savings of America on the Map

Savings of America maps, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Savings of America maps, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Happy 2013, everyone!

On Monday, I had the opportunity to interview Larry Upham, who worked for nearly three decades on the construction of new Home Savings branches. (He even got his start, after Korean War service, in rock work at Millard Sheets’s Claremont studio via Arlen Eddington – and later did the same at Barking Rocks, in Gualala.) Upham’s career at Home Savings spanned the expansion throughout the LA Basin, on to San Diego and San Francisco, and then to other states, where Upham oversaw the construction of branches in Missouri and Illinois.

Savings of America New York locations on road map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Savings of America New York locations on road map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

He had an album of great photographs of these more farflung branches, where artwork was designed and fabricated under Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel after Millard Sheets had retired from the Home Savings artworks. More of these to come — but today I will highlight something I had not seen: Home Savings road maps.

As I mentioned in posts about Home Savings/Savings of America in New York, the bank had to introduce its traditions to a new audience across the nation, often doing so through its ongoing commitment to public artwork about a community and its history.

Savings of America Illinois map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Savings of America Illinois map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

But these maps demonstrate another element of that connection: literally putting Home Savings locations on a local map, and integrating the bank’s generosity (in this case with directions) with its local presence — and its prominence on key street corners, for an ever-expanding automobile culture. As one (at right) declared, “Wherever you may live or visit in Illinois, you’ll not be far from Savings of America,” and the map “is best carried in your car for ready reference.”

The Auto Club of Southern California maintains great archives, demonstrating more than a century of reorienting Americans to the view from the driver’s seat. And a raft of great books describe the growth of roadside architecture.

My scholarship on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Home Savings buildings will tell part of that story, of roadside postwar America — and these maps are just another reminder that Home Savings’s influences on the cultural, economic, and urban landscape were part of an intentional strategy.

Here’s to another year of great contacts, interviews, new sources, and more writing — and, as always, I welcome your suggestions of people to speak with and sources to see.