Revealing my Book Cover and Upcoming Events

Banking On Beauty

Banking on Beauty:
Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California

Available February 2018 • University of Texas Press

Expansively researched and illustrated, this lively history recounts how the extraordinary partnership of financier Howard Ahmanson and artist Millard Sheets produced outstanding mid-century modern architecture and art for Home Savings and Loan and other commercial clients.

Meet the author at upcoming events. 

See the list of Home Savings art and architecture locations and Millard Sheets Studio commercial commissions.

Read my one hundred blog posts about my research in creating this book.

My book will be published in the first half of 2018

Hi everyone!

I know it has been quiet on the blog — because I have been perfecting the book manuscript!

I’m proud to say that the book — covering the Home Savings art and architecture commissions from the 1950s to the 1990s, and the entire scope of Millard Sheets’s public and commercial art and architecture commissions — will be published by the University of Texas Press in the first half of 2018,  with 150 color illustrations. I will post the exact title, cover art, and pre-order information when they are available.

I enjoyed speaking at Palm Springs Modernism Week about the project, and I plan to speak in many locations about it in 2018.

As for right now, be sure to catch the exhibition on Millard Sheets, Tony Sheets, and Rick Caughman at the Ontario Museum of Art and the Chaffey Community Museum of Art, through March 26.

Spring 2016: Do you have any Sheets Studio or Home Savings images?

Home Savings and Loan mosaic from expansion of the Encino branch with segment tags, laid out on the Sheets Studio floor, 1977. Courtesy of Brian Worley.

Home Savings and Loan mosaic from expansion of the Encino branch with segment tags, laid out on the Sheets Studio floor, 1977. Courtesy of Brian Worley.

Hello again! After wonderful and encouraging events last month in San Francisco and this month at the Columbia University Seminar on The City, I am happy to report that I have serious interest from a few publishers, as well as some conversations ongoing with museums about an exhibition.

A history of the collaboration between the Millard Sheets Studio and Home Savings and Loan, studded more than one hundred color images and beautifully designed, is on its way!

My target publication date is Fall 2017, in time for your holiday purchases. What that means is,  between now and July 1, I will be gathering the very best images–archival or taken yesterday–for every building, angle, process, or detail I would like to include. I will also be revising what I have written with the goal of entering production this fall.

If you have places I should speak, or media outlets I should alert, let me know — I can add them to my planning list. But, for now, think if you have an image you haven’t seen on the blog, or that might not be in the Millard Sheets, Denis O’Connor, or Home Savings archives. I would love to know about it, and if we can create a high-resolution digital scan and include it, I will credit you as my source in the final publication.

Please be in touch, and I will provide an update once the images are assembled and the text is honed.

Towards 2016 — An Upcoming Event and Work in Progress

Millard Sheets Studio, murals in the Scottish Rite Center, San Francisco, completed c.1965

Millard Sheets Studio, murals in the Scottish Rite Center, San Francisco, completed c.1965

Hi everyone! My first semester teaching at Manhattan College is winding down, and so I finally have a chance to update things here.

I have a full draft completed for my book on the art and architecture of the Millard Sheets Studio, and I have conversations ongoing with publishers and museums (though your leads welcomed!), as I edit and I plan an exhibition.  I am also connected to new archives, and I am helping with preservation for Sheets Studio artwork from Los Angeles to Texas and beyond. Hopefully I will have a chance to write more about it here soon.

I am pleased to announce I will start 2016 with an event January 14 at the Scottish Rite Center in San Francisco with Millard’s son, the artist Tony Sheets; mosaicist and scholar Lillian Sizemore; storyteller Jim Cogan, and more. “CREATIVE COLLABORATION – Honoring Millard Sheets: Master of Art & Design” will be a great day, organized by Peter Mullens, the Tile Heritage Foundation, and the Stone Foundation, among others. Learn more here and join us!

Millard Sheets Studio, Scottish Rite banquet hall, c. 1965

Millard Sheets Studio, Scottish Rite Center banquet hall, c. 1965

Millard Sheets Studio, mosaic panels and grille, Scottish Rite Center, c. 1965

Who Paid for That?: Exhibition Review, Pacific Standard Time Presents Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future

The Art & Architecture Case Study houses and the Monsanto House of the Future were never mass-produced, even though both concepts were created with that goal. Why? The Monsanto house, intended to be cheap, modular, and replicable, was not; the Case Study houses, made out mass-produced industrial materials, could not find financing from lenders worried they were atypical, too small, too unusual.

I finished my grading for the semester and I rewarded myself with a trip to the Getty to see the Pacific Standard Time Presents exhibition, focused on LA architecture in the period of the successful PST art shows, 1945-1980. (Glad to be back on the blog; I have a lot of writing and research commitments in the months ahead, so my pace may slow down–but some of what you don’t see here will eventually mean more articles, books, and exhibitions on the Sheets Studio and the Home Savings and Loan influence, so don’t despair!)

At the exhibition, I found a lot of what you might expect as touchstones in a postwar LA architecture-and-urbanism show — the car, Googie, the freeway system, aerospace, LAX, Sunset and Wilshire streetscapes, Disneyland, Mid-Century Modern houses, the Music Center, Bunker Hill, the Watts Towers, the Chavez Ravine evictions and Dodger Stadium, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and concepts, built and un-built, from big-name architects from Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry to Morphosis. If, like the PST shows, the PST Presents shows are setting a baseline for the history of LA postwar architecture, this is all required for the survey.

Then there were the pleasant surprises: the focus on religious architecture, from an un-built mosque designed by Richard Neutra and Sinai Temple by Sidney Eisenshtat to churches, large and small, architect-designed and vernacular storefronts. I thought the attention to dingbat apartment buildings and Park La Brea was great, as well as the discussion of architecture for retail space, from the Kate Mantilini restaurant to Universal CityWalk, and the architecture paid for by higher-education institutions. The single biggest eye-opener for me was the temporary architecture and design work done for the 1984 Olympics — the video segment, all hot pink and electronic music, evoked the age wonderfully.

The Getty is an art museum, and their engagement with architecture here is mostly aesthetic — beautiful drawings, photographs, and models, and not a ton of text on the wall, advancing contextual or historiographic arguments. Maybe my years as a professor are getting to me, but I like a strongly argued exhibit, and I didn’t see any strong argument here (other than those made at the level of inclusion and exclusion). I flipped through the essays by noted historians and architectural historians, among others, in the 300-page accompanying volume, and I found mostly overviews of the existing consensus on suburbanization, LA’s relation to open space, to freeways, its architectural schools and the like — nice, but I am not sure they rise above the reference-work level.

And, throughout the exhibit and 300 pages of the book, there was no reference to Millard Sheets.

Of course this blog is biased on that point. And there was a large drawing of the Ahmanson Center, with the Home Savings & Loan name prominently displayed, in the exhibit. Choosing the most atypical Home Savings & Loan design, by big-name architect Edward Durrell Stone rather than the Sheets Studio or Frank Homolka, demonstrates the show’s biases.  The financing of homes gets a mention in the book, though no discussion of the specific role played by the S&L’s in financing and promoting LA’s main-commercial-street-and-tract-home-suburb-connected-by-freeway vibe. Howard Ahmanson’s name doesn’t appear – and they don’t have Eric John Abrahamson’s great new book for sale (nor anything by architectural expert Alan Hess).

Edward Durrell Stone, Ahmanson Center color sketch with unrealized tower. Courtesy of the Ahmanson Foundation

Edward Durrell Stone, Ahmanson Center color sketch with unrealized tower. Courtesy of the Ahmanson Foundation

And that got me thinking: Who paid for it?

Who paid for Googie architecture, and the Disney Concert Hall? Who paid for the Case Study homes, and the imagineering of Disneyland? You show me the gleaming cars and the drive-ins, but who was the customer, and who the producer? What economy made this possible, and what happened to that economy since?

I know the answer, and you may too, but it felt like the economic history of architecture and urbanism needed a larger role. The classic commercial and civic architect of LA in these years is Welton Becket — his name and designs are all over the exhibit, on almost every wall, but we get no image of him (except in a video of the dedication of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) and no discussion of his life, his views, his experiences. (It doesn’t seem anyone has written anything significant about his firm in decades —  a great research opportunity!)

I am not asking for Millard Sheets and his studio to be featured. But it seems not giving this attention to Becket (or any of the other architects) means we don’t learn what vision they had, how they were trained, who paid the bills, and what constraints they faced. In urban architecture, especially for commercial or civic clients, these seem essential concerns.

Perhaps this is what makes me a historian first, interested in politics, economics, and then culture, rather than an art historian. But it felt like ignoring the industry and financing of the architecture left the exhibit a bit shallow.

If the goal of the show was to demonstrate how LA constructed a futuristic city, isn’t the financing, the politics, the urban planning, the historical and political context, and the public reaction important? Those motivations drive my interest in the Sheets Studio work for Home Savings & Loan — why a commercial enterprise would invest in first-quality art and architecture in these exact years, depicting southern California community history and events, in an effort to change the landscape and cement their legacy.

Business, economics, and politics behind (and, often, in) art and architecture — seems like pretty powerful stuff to me. It will get its due in my Home Savings book and exhibit, one of these days. Perhaps the Getty can help us see these connections for the architecture and urbanism they have on display — in their next PST exhibits?

Grasscrete at the Los Angeles Downtown Home Savings

GrassCrete at the Los Angeles Home Savings, 7th and Figueroa (demolished). 1977 Home Savings calendar, courtesy of George Underwood

GrassCrete at the Los Angeles Home Savings, 7th and Figueroa (demolished). 1977 Home Savings calendar, courtesy of George Underwood

When discussing the mosaic panels once at 7th and Figueroa, I thought of this image, of the Grasscrete parking surface once used at this location. (It also confirms the mosaic’s placement at that site, before removal.) A colleague at the L.A. Conservancy said this was her strongest memory of visiting this branch in the 1970s and 1980s.

As the caption from this 1977 calendar proclaims, “combining real grass with concrete patterns that support the weight of cars, GrassCrete brings much-needed green belts to the central city.”

GrassCrete seems to be the brainchild of the Bomanite corporation, one of their ways to create “ornamented concrete.” Boman was an artist turned industrial contractor — clearly, a career path Millard Sheets would have admired.

The number of marketers and technical papers online suggest it is still possible to order and install GrassCrete, which I have encountered, here and there, in public plazas.

One wonders why (cost? impracticalities? mud?) this simple way of greening parking lots and sidewalks did not catch on.

Ghosts of Home Savings: Bay Area Finance and First Federal

S. David Underwood and Millard Sheets Studio, Fred L. Roberts Enterprises and Bay Area Finance, Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.

S. David Underwood & Millard Sheets Studio, Fred L. Roberts Enterprises-Bay Area Finance, Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.

To continue looking at the work of S. David Underwood as principal architect for the Sheets Studio, I present these buildings, built (and unbuilt?) for financial institutions other than Home Savings.

First, the built: a delicately curving building at 16191621 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The color logo tiles and the terrazzo floors being the best hints at this building’s Mid-Century Modern past — given that the inside spaces were long since gutted. Note also the alley-side view in the picture above: for a building not on a prominent corner, the marble siding stopped when the facade did.

Sheets Studio, logos for Fred L. Roberts Enterprises and Bay Area Finance and "JI," Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.

Sheets Studio, logos for Fred L. Roberts Enterprises and Bay Area Finance and “JI,” Santa Monica, built 1957, photo 2012.

The tile logo letters show an attempt, contemporaneous to the Home Savings work, to find a quick, recognizable way to mark the business with a colorful, artistic icon — closer to the style of abstracted corporate icons for franchise recognizability that has become a permanent part of U.S. roadside architecture, from the Golden Arches to the Swoosh to JP Morgan Chase’s interlocked pipes-become-octagon.

Could such a logo have worked for a bank in the 1950s? This sketch, for an apparently unbuilt First Federal Savings and Loan (perhaps intended as a branch for the bank in the larger Dallas project where Sheets and Turner met) shows a bank design much like the Home Savings banks, but with such a logo instead of mosaics or the gold tiles. (It reminds me of I.Magnin store designs, and others on view here.)

S. David Underwood, sketch for First Federal Savings and Loan, n.d., S. David Underwood Archive.

S. David Underwood, sketch for First Federal Savings and Loan, n.d., S. David Underwood Archive.

These works show that, while the art and architecture being created for Home Savings was the most prominent and memorable of the Sheets Studio work, those other projects, designed by Sheets and Underwood and completed by others in the Studio, demonstrate the wider role of their architecture in shaping the Mid-Century Modern look of commercial spaces, in Los Angeles and beyond. We can hope these contributions will be included in the exhibits, lectures, and discussions around the Getty’s Los Angeles Architecture initiative next spring.

Bob’s Big Boy “Burgers with Culture” in Phoenix

Millard Sheets Studio, Native American themes in mosaic, Bob's restaurant, Phoenix, 1954. From "Burgers with Culture," TILE Magazine, 1955. S. David Underwood Archive.

Millard Sheets Studio, Native American themes in mosaic, Bob’s restaurant, Phoenix, 1954. From “Burgers with Culture,” TILE Magazine, 1955. S. David Underwood Archive.

As discussed last week, S. David Underwood, the Sheets Studio’s principal architect, got his break working for a Glendale chum, Robert C. Wian, as he expanded Bob’s Big Boy into an iconic franchise.

The Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank is a Googie icon, designed by Wayne McAllister, is a historic landmark. But the Phoenix’s Bob’s restaurant, designed by Underwood — which had mosaic work designed by Millard Sheets — seems to have been destroyed.

Underwood’s extant drawings show the Phoenix franchise was conceptualized as a near-copy of the Burbank location, but that subsequent designs changed the elements, though still within the Mid-Century Modern/Googie/drive-in styles.

S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob's exterior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.

S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob’s exterior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.

A large, billboard-like neon sign with the Bob’s name, arches flying over the driveway entrance, and alternating black and white panels mix the feel of Sheets Studio designs–and this was one–and the Bob’s Big Boy checkerboard pattern. Sketches and photographs show how the wall design and counter layout were all carefully planned, with the Sheets Studio sense of interior precision.

S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob's interior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.

S. David Underwood, Sheets Studio, sketch for Bob’s interior, Phoenix. c. 1954 S. David Underwood Archive.

But what might surprise even the Bob’s aficionados is the Millard Sheets-designed mosaic of Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo (or Hopi?) “gods and legends,” known to us through this September 1955 article in TILE magazine.

The largest mosaic, seen above, depicted sun symbols and used background tiles from the Mosaic Tile Company, mosaic “specks” (their word) and ceramic cast pieces designed by Sheets and made at the LA County (Otis) Art Institute under the supervision of W.A. Perry, whose tile and marble company on E. Indian School Road in Phoenix then completed the installation. (This is more interesting data for the discussion of who fabricated the mosaics in the Sheets Studio before the arrival of Denis O’Connor in 1961.)

Though we only have a black and white photograph, the TILE magazine caption sounds like classic Sheets Studio work: “Vivid white, black, red and green colors on a blue background provide a pattern in harmony with the surrounding western landscape.” Sheets himself is quoted in the article discussing the tile’s durability, suggesting such outdoor, artistic use was unfamiliar. As for the American Indian nations as the source of a theme, Sheets had designed the Thunderbird air fields in the California and Arizona deserts and utilized Native American imagery there as well.

Where is this work now? This restaurant was at N. Central Avenue and E. Thomas Road, which Google StreetView suggests two massive office buildings, an empty greenspace, and a strip mall exist today. So chalk this up as another lost Sheets artwork.

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.