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

How Your Term Paper Is Like an Episode of CSI

Dear Students,

The semester is drawing to a close, so it’s time to get serious about that research paper.

Wait—you are headed to the couch to watch some TV?

Ok, that seems a reasonable way to prepare to write it.

How so? Suspense-filled half-hour and hour-long shows are effective at providing a compelling question, keeping focused on the argument at hand, condensing research into its most effective form, making the investigators the stars, and finishing with a flourish, right on time.

In the spirit of term-paper season, I want explain how that crime, medical, or legal drama might be your best writing coach.

Providing a compelling question. It happens so often it’s a cliché: the crime procedural opens with a regular life being interrupted by the discovery of a dead body. Attention-gripping, to the point: this is not an introduction that starts as so many student papers do, with some paean to how “throughout time, wars have plagued human societies.” Here’s a dead guy, and we’re going to spend an hour figuring out how he got here, and whether the perpetrator will be punished.

Take the lesson to heart: in your title and your opening paragraph, provide a compelling image, a sharp-edged argument, a reason for your reader to want to keep going and not change be channel to another paper.

Keeping focused on the argument at hand. Television shows create and solve problems so well that they need to create dead ends and dismissed possibilities to keep viewers along for the ride.

Your research and writing process will have a lot of dead ends of on its own: hunches that don’t pan out, sources you can’t find, ways of framing the argument that turn out to be all wrong. Unlike TV, we generally don’t want to hear about them, but it is worth including a few of the alternative explanations that rival your argument, and demonstrate why your thesis is the one that will carry the day, not that idea the police captain at the desk insists is correct.

Condensing research into its most effective form. Do you notice how television shows ask for DNA evidence and get it immediately? Or say they will go through all the surveillance footage for the past three weeks, and then cut to the telling clip? That’s because they don’t have time to show you how long these procedures really take, between the actual labor and the lab backlogs (which are months, years, and even the equivalent of forever on rape kits in some states). Skipping the tedium, and the waiting, and the uninteresting dead ends means that results magically appear: the perfect evidence for the search is revealed succinctly, and the chase moves on.

Your research paper should do the same thing. For a quality research paper, you will read lots and lots of things that aren’t relevant to your paper, and find evidence that isn’t quite good enough to make it into the text. That’s the nature of the business—so don’t put that dross in your paper. It can all go in your bibliography, and some can go in your citations as “For similar cases, see…”. Even an invaluable source will go on at length, and that isn’t an invitation for a long block quotation. Take the juiciest bits, string them together with an ellipses, and keep moving.

Making the investigators the stars of the show. That colorful character you meet in the first minute of a procedural, who you know will be dead soon? The aggrieved widow or mother or brother, who might also be the culprit? The child rushed into the emergency room? That crying client with sympathy but not the law on their side? Your are immediately captivated by them—but, after watching a few episodes, you know that they are only the prelude. The shows don’t really begin until they call up the familiar cast of police detectives and medical examiners, prosecutors and judges, doctors and nurses. It’s called a procedural because the real stars are those who dramatize the everyday working of the police, hospitals, and courtrooms with their Hollywood-endowed credentials.

In your paper, you and your argument should similarly receive starring roles. Some sources are so eloquent or so compelling that you are tempted just to let them fill the space, but what makes it an essay rather than just a transcript is your intervention—the moments when you guide the reader to see what is important, or contradictory, or wrong based on other sources and traces of evidence. A paper can’t just be an impersonal gathering of the evidence. While the first-person “I did this” or “I think” won’t work for most paper styles, insert your argument as the director does: in the scenes you select, the order you choose for them, the decision of who gets the close-up and when. How you signal your argument’s importance is the interesting part, even if a thousand other television shows or student papers have been down this road before.

Finishing with a flourish, right on time. Whether it is Lennie Briscoe finishing with a wisecrack or the ER team sharing a beer, lots of procedurals finish their work with a few seconds to spare, so that the main characters can sit back, relax, and reflect one more time on the bigger picture. Then the credits roll and the next half-hour of television can fall right into line.

There are three lessons here for the paper-writing: leave a concluding space for the big picture; fill the space allotted; and get finished by your deadline. The latter two are rather obvious—and, in the age of digital submissions, we know when you messed with the margins or the font size to make it artificially longer or shorter. But the first one is very important: just as the investigator relates all the pieces of the case to the suspects, and they finally break down and admit what they did, a good summary always is a good choice.

That final breather is key, where you can step back and tell us why your argument matters not just for the evidence here, but for the wider field of study, how questions like these are essential to some wider, perhaps even universal truth. Pulling the camera back from that porch, and flying up over the town, as the sun is setting—that’s the kind of magical paper writing that can earn an A.

So happy term-paper season. For you and your favorite television show, I hope the ratings are good.

Documentary Premiere March 22: Millard Sheets and the Claremont Art Community, 1935-1975

Design for Modern Living: Millard Sheets and the Claremont Art Community 1935-1975

Sunday, March 22, is an important day for admirers of Millard Sheets and the work of the Claremont arts community: it’s the premiere of Paul Bockhurst’s documentary Design for Modern Living: Millard Sheets and the Claremont Art Community, 1935-1975 at the Garrison Theater. All the information is herebuy your tickets now! I’ve bought mine!

Paul is the winner of five Emmy Awards, who has long been fascinated with the accomplishments of the Claremont art community. This film highlights how Sheets, Albert Stewart, Betty Davenport Ford, Karl Benjamin, Harrison McIntosh, Sam Maloof, and others made Claremont a major center for art, craft, and architecture in the postwar period. The project spawned a second documentary–Claremont Modern: The Convergence of Art + Architecture at Midcentury–in which he and I discuss my research on the Sheets Studio art and architecture for Home Savings.

As I complete my book and work to create a related museum exhibition, it is heartening to see Paul’s hour-long film completed. Come celebrate it on March 22, at an event co-sponsored by the Claremont Museum of Art (the film’s co-producer), the Clark Humanities Museum, and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College. See you there!

         Millard Sheets in his Padua Hills studio in the early 1950s. Photo for Life Magazine from Sheets Family Archive.     Paul BockhorstFrom my interview with documentary filmmaker Paul Bockhorst, photographed by David Shearer.

From my interview with documentary filmmaker Paul Bockhorst, photographed by David Shearer.

Update, and Home Savings Branches outside California in Context

Bank of America, former Home Savings branch in Berwyn, Illinois. Image from Google StreetView; see below for details.

Bank of America, former Home Savings branch in Berwyn, Illinois. Image from Google StreetView; see below for details.

Hello again!

As we reach the end of 2014, I wanted to give you an update about all that is happening behind the scenes–as well as to share some thoughts about those Home Savings branches constructed outside California, and the effort to add them to the story.

It has been a productive fall! With support from Howard Ahmanson Jr. and the Ahmanson Foundation, I have been on leave, writing my book on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Sheets Studio work for Home Savings. Four of the planned seven chapters are drafted: The Story, Origins, Location, and Reception. That leaves Process, Meaning, and Legacies as the chapters to draft this spring. I am also speaking with presses about a full-color, heavily illustrated book, as well as museums about a possible exhibition. And, on Monday, I was interviewed by Paul Bockhurst for his documentary projects about Millard Sheets and other Claremont artists, and I toured Claremont Heritage.

Both the Location and Legacies chapter have sent me back into the records to track down dates and addresses–and so this week I published a full revision of the Definitive List, with more locations, and more accurate construction dates. There are two maps: one mapping all of the 168 former Home Savings locations, and the other with all the 159 other Sheets Studio public art sites. I welcome more information about their current status as well.

The question of current ownership–and whether those owners realize what they have–has finally driven my new post off the to-do list and now to your screens.

Vacant former Home Savings location at Bannister Mall, Kansas City. Image from Google StreetView; see below for details.

Vacant former Home Savings location at Bannister Mall, Kansas City. Image from Google StreetView; see below for details.

From 1947, when Howard Ahmanson purchased it, Home Savings had regular periods of growth, through acquiring other savings-and-loans, petitioning the state to expand their territory, and final due to changed regulations that allowed expansion throughout California, in around 1976, and then across the nation, in the mid-1980s. Though Millard Sheets had completed retired from the studio in 1980, Sue Hertel and Denis O’Connor, who had worked with Sheets on these commissions for decades, continued to produce similar work. Around 1990, Home Savings also commissioned some other artists, such as Marlo Bartels, Astrid Preston, and Richard Haas, to produce branch artwork, with a similar focus on community identity and history. These locations were constructed in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Texas.

In 1998, Home Savings was sold to Washington Mutual, and then in 2007-8, Washington Mutual was seized by the government and rapidly given to JP Morgan Chase. At both moments, some of the locations that the Sheets Studio had designed and decorated for Home Savings ceased to be banks. In 1998, some of those properties were sold to Met Life and managed by CB Richard Ellis, such as former branches in Santa Monica, Coronado, Montebello, and the Home Savings headquarters in Irwindale, along with some locations that are still banks, such as Santa Barbara and Riverside, presumably based on the value of their locations. Since Washington Mutual acquired a number of financial institutions before its collapse, other branches in an area where multiple banks were acquired, such as La Mesa and Redondo Beach, were sold off to other commercial-real-estate holders at other times. (I don’t have a master list of Washington Mutual locations from 2007; if you do, perhaps in a booklet form, I would love to see it!)

Chase was interested in taking Washington Mutual from the federal government in part because of its network of locations on the West Coast, where Chase had not had a presence; according to my list, Chase currently owns at least 69 locations with Sheets Studio artwork, mostly former Home Savings locations.

Wells Fargo, a former Home Savings branch in St. Petersburg, FL. Image from Google StreetView; see below for details.

Wells Fargo, a former Home Savings branch in St. Petersburg, FL. Image from Google StreetView; see below for details.


But what gets really interesting is what happened to the 52 Home Savings locations with Sheets Studio artwork outside of California. Home Savings had for decades used their art and architecture as part of how to stand out against their traditional competitors in the West, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, both based in San Francisco at the time. While both had some tradition of historic artifacts or mosaic banks, these seemed pale imitations to the number and uniformity of the Home Savings locations.

Yet, outside of California, I have found that, over and over again, it is Wells Fargo and Bank of America that are using the former Home Savings buildings–either purchased outright, or by acquiring banks that had acquired the location, such as Wachovia in Florida. Whether these locations were sold off by Washington Mutual in 1998 or Chase in 2008, I am not sure, but it seems that the California banks understood the power of this art and architecture, and they wanted to be first in line to pick up the former competitors’ locations in other states. I have found 12 locations owned by Bank of America, mostly in Illinois; 12 by Wells Fargo, mostly in Florida; and a few by US Bank in California, and then local credit unions and banks and trust companies elsewhere.

Thus, in a way, even when these banks are isolated–only five in all of Ohio, six each in Texas and Missouri, fifteen in Illinois, nineteen in Florida, just one in New York–they actually are still part of a conversation with Home Savings, carried on by its once-rivals that survive as well as by Chase, the steward of the largest number of these buildings.

Below I post the full details for these outside-California Home Savings branches with Sheets Studio art and architecture, to aid those in these communities in seeing their value and working to preserve them.

If an address brings you to this post, please contact me so I can connect you to the wider history of these buildings and their artwork.


Home Savings 3090 (3050) Aventura Blvd Aventura FL 1990 Safra National Bank GoogleStreetView tile mosaic; O’Connor plan “beach scene (maybe Santa Monica)” Richard Haas; O’Connor
Home Savings 9035 Boca Fontana Blvd 33434 Boca Raton FL 1986 Fifth Third Bank GoogleStreetView mosaic: fish and snorklers Denis, Sue, Alba, Jill, Darin O’Connor
Home Savings 7380 Manatee Ave west Bradenton FL 1990 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView tile mosaic: city map, sword, compass rose Richard Haas
Home Savings 25749 U S Highway 19 Clearwater FL 1985? Perenich and Coldwell Banker; covered? GoogleStreetView painted mural: segulls in flight O’Connor
Home Savings 3325 W Hillsboro Blvd Deerfield FL 1986 TD Bank; shows no art? GoogleStreetView galleon and deers? Denis, NOVA Designs? O’Connor
Home Savings 1483 Main Street Dunedin FL 1989 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView egret and pelican over water; city shield? Marlo Bartels; Denis, Sue O’Connor; and
Home Savings 4875 N Federal Hwy Fort Lauderdale FL 1986 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView tower
Home Savings 12370 S Cleveland Ave Fort Myers FL 1986 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView mosaic: text tell history from muddy road to palms; Macgregor Blvd and mention Edison, Hendry, Terry, McGregor, Miles Denis, Sue, Homolka-Gilkerson O’Connor
Home Savings 1701 East Young Circle Hollywood FL 1988 demolished? GoogleStreetView “egrets” Denis, Sue O’Connor – CF Arlington Heights
Home Savings 9899 NE 2nd Ave Miami Shores FL 1986 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView pelicans, boats Denis, Sue, Alba, Jill, Darin, Martita O’Connor
Home Savings 900 Neapolitan Way Naples FL 1987 put on hold
Home Savings 12440 Pines Blvd 33027 Pembroke Pines FL 1988 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView Marlo Bartels
Home Savings 702 N University Dr Pembroke Pines FL 1985? Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView cows in enamel tile mosaic Fox Tile?
Home Savings 3340 N Tamiami Trail Port Charlotte FL 1985 Charlotte Heart & Vascular Institute GoogleStreetView mosaic: Caloosa Indians, cattle, eagles, Seminole Indians, wildlife, shels, ranching, galleons, egrets, black woman, pelicans, fishing, phosphates, palm trees Denis, Sue, Alba, Annie, Pete Knersel? O’Connor
Home Savings 2891 South Tamiami Trail, US Highway 41 Bougainvillea Sarasota FL 1987 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView circus animals, including monkeys, elephants, camels Denis, Franco -Nova Designs, Frank Homolka Jess Gilkerson; Studio MosaicArt Colledani Milan/NOVA Designs O’Connor
Home Savings 1901 Alton Road 33139 So. Miami Beach (Alton Rd.) FL 1987 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView mosaic – fish Denis O’Connor
Home Savings 4100 4th Street North St. Petersburg FL 1987 Wells Fargo GoogleStreetView 2 mosaic: dolphins and fish; just dolphins Denis O’Connor
Home Savings 2050 U. S. Highway #1 / 8th avenue Vero Beach FL 1990 tile mosaic Richard Haas
Home Savings 6000 Okeechobee Blvd, Drexel Plaza W. Palm Beach FL 1986 CDA Financial Plaza GoogleStreetView mosaic: polo players Denis, Franco; Studio MosaicArt Colledani Milan/NOVA Designs O’Connor
Home Savings 415 E. Rand Rd Arlington Heights IL 1989 Bank of America GoogleStreetView mosaic: “racetrack – horses & jockeys” Denis, Sue; Italian O’Connor
Home Savings 6400 W Cermak Rd (at Ridgeland) 60402 Berwyn IL 1991 Bank of America GoogleStreetView mosaic: theater showing The Ragman with Jackie Coogan; streetscape Denis, Sue, Gina Lawson, Leland Means, O’Connor
Home Savings 6115 S Pulaski Rd Chicago IL 1989 Bank of America Google StreetView mosaic – snow scene, ice skating Denis, Sue O’Connor are these interior? Not there?
Home Savings 1300 Oakton Ave, 60018 Des Plaines IL 1988 demolished? mosaic: “street w/ people in front (brass band)” Denis, Sue, Franco O’Connor
Home Savings 1000 S York Rd Elmhurst IL 1990 Bank of America Google StreetView interior mural “another artist”
Home Savings 1336 Chicago Ave 60201 Evanston IL 1991 Bank of America Google StreetView mosaic – men putting boat into lake; their wagon Denis, Sue, Gina, Kathy, Leland Means, Studio Marble O’Connor
Home Savings 2108 W Jefferson St Joliet IL 1988 Joliet Bank & Trust Google StreetView mosaic – birds; Roger Nelson inside painting of fields Denis, Sue, Roger Nelson O’Connor
Home Savings 8745 N Waukegan Rd Morton Grove IL 1988 Bank of America Google StreetView Denis, Sue, Frank Homolka, Franco O’Connor are these interior? Not there?
Home Savings 1080 S Elmhurst Rd Mt. Prospect IL 1989 Bank of America Google StreetView mosaic of columns Denis, Sue, “others” O’Connor
Home Savings 1301 E Odgen Rd 60540 Naperville IL 1990 Bank of America Google StreetView mosaic: fire company, wagon, bicycles; painted mural; is it mosaic: “volunteer fire dep”? Denis, Sue, Studio Marble O’Connor
Home Savings 4200 W 95th St Oaklawn IL 1989 Bank of America Google StreetView mosaic – RR< family scene, animals, church Denis, Franco O’Connor
Home Savings 15826 S Lagrange Rd Orland Park IL 1988 Bank of America Google StreetView mosaic: pointy trees; children as well? Denis, Sarah, Alba, Katy, Frank Homolka O’Connor
Home Savings 501 N Greenwood Ave Park Ridge IL 1986 Bank of America Google StreetView mosaic: wagon and children O’Connor
Home Savings 5033 Dempster St  Skokie IL 1986 PNC Bank Google StreetView Henry Harmes, children, Market Day, Blameuser’s saloon, baseball team, hardware store, Amelia Louise Klehan doctor Denis, Sue, Jill, Alba O’Connor
Home Savings 6300 S Kingery Hwy Suite 500 Willowbrook IL 1987 mall; unclear Google StreetView mosaic – birds, squirrels, and owl that looks too happy? Denis, Melvin Wood, Franco Merli, NOVA Designs O’Connor
Home Savings 1700 Clarkson Rd Chesterfield MO 1991 First National Bank Google StreetView mural: “German immigrant farmers” field of corn Leland Means O’Connor
Home Savings 201 N. Florissant Rd Ferguson MO 1987 US Bank Google StreetView mosaic: figures from Indian to conquistador to train conductor in front of train Denis, Sue; Nova Designs O’Connor
Home Savings 5720 E Bannister Rd Kansas City MO 1986 vacant Google StreetView sculptures Denis; Betty Davenport Ford? O’Connor
Home Savings 321 W Battlefield St Springfield MO 1986 Hawthorn Bank Google StreetView mosaic Denis, Sue, Studio MosaicArt Colledani Milan/NOVA Designs /studio shots — from CA or Italy?// O’Connor
Home Savings 3921 Hampton Ave St Louis MO 1980s Lindell Bank Google StreetView Ford? Sculpture
Home Savings 3727 Frederick St. Joseph MO 1988 Citizens Bank and Trust Google StreetView painted mural: Pony Express Denis, Sue, Rebecca Guzak O’Connor
Home Savings 108-36 Queens Boulevard (at 71 Rd) Forest Hills NY 1989 Commerce Bank Google StreetView tile mosaic of New York horizon, trains; DOC painted mural : bluebirds? Richard Haas; Denis discussed CF in O’Connor Papers
Home Savings 3174 Tremont Rd Columbus OH Jul-84 removed and preserved ceramic tile mosaic: cityscape and state symbols Marlo Bartels
Home Savings 95 E. William St Delaware OH 1989 First Merit Google StreetView “Little Brown Jug harness race” Denis, Sue, Franco/NOVA O’Connor
Home Savings 6280 Sawmill Rd Dublin OH 1989 Diamond Cellar; art removed Google StreetView mosaic: Wyandotte Indian, homesteader, dam, child on horse in cornfield, Victorian lady, University Hall Denis, Sue; NOVA Designs O’Connor
Home Savings 150 S State St Marion OH 1987 Huntington Google StreetView mosaic birds sitting on vines frieze over the doorway Denis, Sue O’Connor
Home Savings 1055 W Fifth St Marysville OH 1988 The Bank Google StreetView abstract tiles? Plan of mosaic of townscape Denis, Richard Ewen O’Connor
Home Savings 10721 Preston Rd Dallas TX 1989 Chase? Vacant? Google StreetView map of Texas, rodeo, Exxon Mobil pegasus, more Denis, Sue, Studio Marble O’Connor
Home Savings 12802 Memorial Drive Houston TX 1986 Chase Google StreetView Thundering Horses on the Open Range Denis, Sue, NOVA Designs O’Connor
Home Savings 14550 Memorial Drive Houston TX 1986 Chase Google StreetView painted mural: church, farm scene, tractor, trees Denis, Jude Freeman, Kathryn Yelsa
Home Savings 4081 F.M. 1960 West 77068 Houston TX 1987 Chase Google StreetView “rodeo” Denis, Sue, Frank Homolka; Studio MosaicArt Colledani Milan/NOVA Designs O’Connor
Home Savings 10011 FM 1960 Bypass Road West Humble TX 1986 painted mural: oil derrrick, cowboys, longhorns, train Denis, Sue, Kathryn Yelsa O’Connor
Home Savings 2201 N.W. Military Hwy San Antonio TX 1987 International Bank of Commerce Google StreetView mosaic: family group and livestock; H. Lee Hale: “use scenes of early Texas Pioneer cultures (German, English, Irish) overlaid on a background of wild flowers as the subject” – DOC – “No Alamo – Mexicans, etc.” Denis, NOVA Designs O’Connor

A Millard Sheets video and the year ahead

"The Mosaics of Beverly Hills by Millard Sheets,"

“The Mosaics of Beverly Hills by Millard Sheets,”

Hello everyone!

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! A Top Ten List

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!)

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?

The First Home Savings Triptych, in Torrance

Sheets Studio, Historical Triptych for Torrance Home Savings, 1979. Frank Homolka, Architect.

Sheets Studio, Historical Triptych for Torrance Home Savings, 1979. Frank Homolka, Architect.

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.

Horses Inside and Out at Rolling Hills / Rancho Palos Verdes

Sheets Studio, Home Savings Rolling Hills, leaping dolphins sculpture and horses mosaic, 1974, Photo by Adam Arenson, 2012.

Sheets Studio, Home Savings Rolling Hills, leaping dolphins sculpture and horses mosaic, 1974, Photo by Adam Arenson, 2012.

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.

Sue Hertel and John Wallis and Associates, stained glass for Rolling Hills, 1974. Photo by Adam Arenson, 2012.

Sue Hertel and John Wallis and Associates, stained glass for Rolling Hills, 1974. Photo by Adam Arenson, 2012.

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.



Millard Sheets Mosaic Back in Beverly Hills

Beverly Wilshire Hotel mosaic being reinstalled at Beverly Hills Civic Center, 2013.

Beverly Wilshire Hotel mosaic being reinstalled at Beverly Hills Civic Center, 2013.


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.

So click over there to see pictures of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel‘s Millard Sheets Studio mosaic as it once was, and now as it is being re-installed in at the Beverly Hills Civic Center!

UPDATE: This week I saw that the installation is done, and it looks great!Beverly Wilshire mosaic as reinstalled at Beverly Hills Civic Center, April 2013