I am in the final months of a year-long NEH research fellowship for my third project, on African North Americans crossing the U.S.-Canada border after the Emancipation Proclamation. (Want to learn more? See here, from the New York Times Disunion series.)
Then, starting September 2014, I have a year to write up this research on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Millard Sheets Studio work for Home Savings & Loan, thanks to Howard Ahmanson Jr. and the Ahmanson Foundation. So I will be much more active here, and around southern California, starting then.
In the meantime, I am happy to share this wonderful video, created by the Beverly Hills Cable TV team, on “The Mosaics of Beverly Hills by Millard Sheets.” They did a beautiful job, and I am glad to have played a part (and to have such a large role in the narration.)
Happy Birthday, Millard Sheets!
In honor of the occasion, I am back with another guest post at KCET’s SoCal Departures Writing on the Wall blog, thanks to an invitation from Ed Fuentes.
So click over there to see my Top Ten places you need to see the Millard Sheets Studio artwork in person. With about 200 to choose from, any such list is sure to be controversial!
(In the background news, I have finished a first draft of the first chapter written for my Home Savings and Sheets Studio art, architecture, and urban context book. So it is now about 20% closer to completion!)
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).
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?
Here’s another image from my days driving around LA and Orange counties, scouting out Home Savings locations I hadn’t seen before.
As we saw last week at Rolling Hills / Rancho Palos Verdes, the designs after the mid-1970s begin to experiment with new forms, new themes, and new shapes for the artwork. Whether this reflects the ideas of the new Home Savings management after Howard Ahmanson’s death in 1968; the changes related to Frank Homolka becoming the primary architect for Home Savings buildings; and/or changes coming from Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel as Millard stepped back from the day-to-day involvement with this artwork, we can discuss.
I have written earlier about the use of the historical triptych by Denis and Sue in their own, 1980s commissions for Home Savings, but looking back at my Torrance pictures today, I was struck not only by the asymmetrical, cut-out-of-travertine shape you see here (a feature also present in contemporaneous Sheets Studio work for Van Ness in San Francisco and Tujunga) but by how this image–described in the shorthand in the Sheets Papers correspondence as “Rancho San Pedro, Red Car maintenance, family living” demonstrates that historical arc we see at Northridge–European origins in the region; classic Victorian-era nostalgia; something modern—for what I think is the first time in Home Savings art.
According to the files, there were wall hangings there once, likely long gone. But this triptych will stay with me, know, as another subtle-but-important “first” in the evolution of the Home Savings art style, and its integration of local history.
As I mentioned last week, the Sheets Studio granite supplier, Carnevale & Lohr, has played a key role in the preservation and restoration of Home Savings mosaic art — first at this site, in Rolling Hills / Rancho Palos Verdes, and then in the re-installation of the Beverly Wilshire mosaic.
Opened on May 8, 1974, this branch holds art in three forms: the mosaic, credited to Millard Sheets on the wall and Nancy Colbath, Denis O’Connor, and Sue Hertel in the files; John Edward Svenson‘s leaping dolphins, forged in Oslo; and the stained glass, inside, a collaboration between Hertel and John Wallis Stained Glass.
The result, I think, is one of the most beautiful branches, just down the hill from the stunning views of ocean and shore that crown Rancho Palos Verdes. The size and complexity of the work leads to a large file in the archives, but the effect is simple–an improvement on existing Home Savings forms. I was particularly struck by the stained glass, as I think I had never seen it, whereas the leaping dolphins make the front of the branch quite iconic.
The innovations in the forms–new background material; combining sculpture imaginatively with the mosaic wall of sea foam; and the use of a more naturalistic color palette with a traditional set of children and domestic animals–suggests subtle adjustments to traditional Sheets Studio-Home Savings artwork, the kind of tinkering made possible by artists secure in what was expected of their work but trying not to be bored.
The surprise of the stained glass is another reminder how, like so much excellent architecture, even the repetition of form and style can hold surprises in a new context.
After a bit of a delay, I am back with posts — and this week’s post is guest-posted at KCET’s SoCal Departures Writing on the Wall blog, thanks to an invitation from Ed Fuentes.
Eric Abrahamson’s new book, Building Home, describes the first interactions between Millard Sheets and Howard Ahmanson, and says some about the National American Fire Insurance building. It is crucially important but hard to document, since its demolition in the process of the construction of the Ahmanson Center.
The images you see here come from the remarkable collection of mostly color sketches for sale via Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, in San Francisco; these and more appear on their website, with prices and other details. But my work in the Ravenna Mosaic Company papers have provided more insights about their fabrication and installation.
In the early 1950s, Sheets and the Ravenna Mosaic Company did work for Mike Lyman’s restaurant (unclear which one — they were once at 424 W. 6th St, on Pershing Square according to designs in the Library of Congress Winold Reiss collection; and 1627 North Vine in Hollywood and Hill at 8th downtown, according to this matchbook or Mike Lyman’s flight deck at the airport, in this old footage— all now demolished) as well as the Precious Blood church in Los Angeles. They also discuss a General Insurance building mosaic on Wilshire — which may have been for the building at Wilshire and La Brea by that name — but if so, it is gone too.
What we do have, however, is discussion of “the Firemen’s Panel” that the Ravenna Mosaic Company had done for Sheets–and the installation diagrams.
The mosaics were of course to large (and too heavy) to ship all put together, so the practice was always to create segments of the mosaic–normally pasted, face first, onto paper–and then stack and ship them to the installation site. (As we have mentioned here, you have to be careful to keep them safe from water as well as infestations, lest the paste be eaten and the design destroyed.)
And so, in order to get the installation correct, you needed a map of the mosaic, matching the pieces back into the correct order. They existed for every installation, but they were mostly destroyed — but it just so happens that the Ravenna Mosaic Company kept a copy, when they sent another to Sheets for installation.And though it is referred to as the “General Fire Insurance Company,” and it is also along Wilshire, it is clear from the shape that it was the mosaic over the door at the National American Fire Insurance Company of Howard Ahmanson, at 3731 Wilshire — and the start of a remarkable partnership in art, architecture, and urbanism.
Apropos of my talk this month in St. Louis, many of March’s posts will draw upon the eye-opening information in the Ravenna Mosaic Company files at St. Louis University, which John Waide has helped me access.
The files on this mosaic from Garden Grove have helped me resolve an ongoing question raised by conversations with mosaicist and mosaic historian Lillian Sizemore: Where does the Sheets Studio mosaic style come from, and why does it change so often? We have discussed the Ameses, the role of Martha Menke Underwood, and the later innovations of Denis O’Connor, and the last mosaics fabricated in Italy, but the questions around the initial mosaics, 1954-1960, remained: Is the style the work of Millard Sheets, or the imprint of his fabricators? Were the fabricators Italian, or Ravenna Mosaic (who are actually German), or Sheets’s own studio?
Now the Ravenna Mosaic Company records can provide an answer, in the form of a complaint.
On February 29, 1960, Arno Heudeck, of the Ravenna Mosaic Company, wrote to Millard Sheets about the cartoon received for the “proposed mosaic mural for the Home Savings & Loan Association. Garden Grove,” saying “we have studied it quite carefully.” But then there is a concern:
“You have indicated…your suggestion for handling the style, size, and texture treatment of the tesserae for this mural, including large sized tesserae. Your selections of colors and shading are beautiful, but very vast in numbers. I think it is clear that you are indicating a great deal more time-consuming work for us in your specifications. All our tesserae, it seems, will have to be cut and fitted in irregular patterns and fields; even you plain gold areas are broken up in an interesting, but obviously more time-consuming manner for us.”
And so they wrote with a higher price quote–which Mary Dane, secretary-treasurer (and all-around keep-things-working administrator) for Millard Sheets accepted on April 1, stating as “I relayed to you via telephone sometime ago: It is not necessary to break up all the areas that way (refering [sic] to your letter)….those area which are not definitely cutup [sic] into patterns may be done with regular cutting…For example, the foliage on the trees could be done with some areas fitted in regular pattern and most areas cut simply.”
On September 14, 1960, Heudeck wrote back, to ask for photographs of the finished installations, and “to ask how these last two murals we executed for you were received by you and your clients,” given “the unique manner in which you installed these mosaics into the sandblasted recessions of the marble,” and their “interpretations of the cartoons into the mosaic medium.”
Thus, it is clear that the innovations of Sheets’s design that gave it depth and life– the plane-splitting diagonal lines, the articulation of variegated color, and the contrasting colors — were innovations for the Ravenna Mosaic Company, and required a new technique (and greater cost) than their normal procedures.
Given a discussion of work for Arcadia (see my next post), it seems the Sheets Studio was already doing some mosaic work in-house–likely including the small paintings/mosaics for Compton. But by 1961, with the arrival of Martha Menke Underwood and then Denis O’Connor as members of the Sheets Studio, they began to do all this work themselves, beginning with the Scottish Rite Temple in Los Angeles. But this letter — its surprise, its wonder, and its admiration — demonstrates when Sheets’s new style for mosaics began to emerge, despite the difficulties it left for his fabricator.
Businesses need brand logos. And so, though the art and architecture of Home Savings were their own sort of branding–prominent corners, eye-catching art, local themes–in 1955 Home Savings needed a brand logo, and Millard Sheets designed this shield. Some of its earliest renditions were in the traditional Home Savings form — mosaic.
Like many successful logos, the Home Savings shield seems simple, through a number of careful design choices. Here words are scaled according to their relative importance–the concept of “HOME” as well as its use as a nickname for the savings and loan makes it an obvious choice for being largest. Next comes “Savings” — you can see below, in other versions, that its prominence was kept, while “loan” began shrinking.
The calendar caption, saying that the shield was “comparatively ‘new'”, reflects the Home Savings gospel that the business went back to 1889–an idea Sheets incorporated into the shield itself. But Howard Ahmanson bought Home Savings in 1947, and all transformations date from there. (See more in Eric Abrahamson’s new book, Building Home.)
Home Savings locations also had the griffin, designed by Albert Stewart via a Sheets connection, which was the symbol of the larger Ahmanson holding company, and today is the symbol of the Ahmanson Foundation. It passed a key test for modern logos — good at all sizes — that recently got the UC system logo in trouble. But nothing about it said banking exactly, despite the reference to the winged lion of St. Mark, symbol of Venice, a longtime global trading hub.
The shield is obviously a symbol of protection, and the background–which at first seems to be an abstract design, like on a tapestry — shows small trees, reinforcing the idea of growth, seed capital, and the power of long-term investment.
But then there is the problem of how to make the shield stand out in two dimensions. In my conversations with George Underwood, who oversaw the inside publishing and advertising efforts that brought us the calendars, advertisements, stationery, and more, he spoke of the agony of figuring out how to make the shield look good.
We can see two of those solutions here: the laying down shield (a photograph of a three-dimensional shield at a dramatic angle) was often used in print and television ads; it positions the viewer as looking up at the shield, as we might from the sidewalk to the side of a building. And it always helps a brand to feel folks are looking up to it!
Then there are the subtle but important design changes in the shield above, in the midst of the rainbow of color. To emphasize the depth and weight of the shield even in a two-dimensional rendering, the top line is bowed out, as in the photograph, and the placement of the letters are also distorted across what would be the bulge at the center of the shield, strengthening the illusion of three dimensions.
Such an important symbol as the Home Savings shield eventually made its way into interior-illumination signage, sometimes on buildings but mostly on standalone signs. The plastic version was crafted by Tony Sheets, and some still exist; at right is a case of how Chase has reused on such existing sign, in Garden Grove. (I haven’t seen examples of how Washington Mutual used the street signs in this way, but they must have done so at least in this location.)
Though the Chase symbol seems incongruous here, the survival of the shield, even as transformed, is something to celebrate. Architect and historian Alan Hess just showed me a Mobil red pegasus that Sheets and his network of sculptors had created for a station at Harbor and Katella in Anaheim though it is long gone. Right now, fellow roadside-architecture preservationists are hard at work trying to save the Unocal 76 balls from being replaced with signs that merely show a picture of them.
When a company disappears or modernizes, preserving items with its logo in public places can be difficult. But, from the Queens Pepsi-Cola sign to the Hollywoodland real-estate origins of that iconic sign, it is possible — and worth doing!
Art in public always has an edge of controversy — what gets included, and what gets left out? What gets preserved and cherished, and what gets removed, destroyed, or painted over? Add to that public sponsorship of iconic art, meant to represent a political body like the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and something is sure to burst.
Millard Sheets never shied away from public art, nor from including figures, icons, or religious symbols that he felt were appropriate to the cause. In 1953, Sheets struck a bargain with L.A. Supervisor John Anson Ford to take over the Los Angeles County Art Institute, better known as the Otis College of Art and Design.
Given Sheets’s role and his ties to the Board, perhaps it is not surprising that Kenneth Hahn, another county supervisor, chose Sheets to turn his vision into the new Los Angeles County Seal in 1957. The design represented Los Angeles with a mix of environmental, economic, and historical icons: sun, mountains, and the sea; Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees; an engineer’s triangle and caliper; a tuna for the fishing industry; oil derricks; and the “champion cow Paulette”; the San Salvador, Cabrillo‘s ship; and the Hollywood Bowl, with two stars (for motion picture and television) overhead–and a cross also there, in the sky.
In 2004, the seal received three changes: a Native American woman holding a basket replaced Pomona; the oil derricks were dropped and replaced by the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel; and the Hollywood Bowl shifted up–and lost its cross. Together, the three changes tell an interesting story about the changing self-perception of Los Angeles industry and history — but the removal of the cross (done in response with other controversies about Christian symbols on public lands, public buildings, and in official icons) angered some residents, who have, so far, lost their court cases about the change.
What would Millard Sheets have thought? In 1955, under the headline “Art Must Serve Two Masters,” Sheets wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “A good designer has always had to deal with real clients whether king, bishop, or a commercial agency, satisfy their needs and never compromise his [sic] own aesthetic judgment,” and he praised the Board of Supervisors for giving LACAI the ability to train those artists and designers. My sense is that he would have understood that a county seal is a very political item–and so, as times changed, the decision to represent the county differently might come along, no matter what an artist had created.
Thanks to Eric John Abrahamson’s new book, Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream, out now from UC Press, for the reference to that Los Angeles Times piece. Attend a launch event for the book, and/or get your copy today!