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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Home Savings branches were expertly sited — placed on prominent corners, so drivers could know, instantly, which financial institution it was. The original branches had gold tiles and brightly colored mosaics, like these birds. (The mosaic seems to involve less sophisticated cuts, and the location has no file in the Millard Sheets Papers, suggesting it was completed before 1961.) Funny to see the gold tiles replaced by the brown-and-red colors of Wells Fargo!
Of course, other banks and savings and loans understood the value of a location on a prominent corner as well. The rounded-square signs over rounded-to-the-corner buildings mark the former Crocker National Bank locations. Even though Crocker was acquired by Wells Fargo, I find that many of their former locations in Los Angeles are now Bank of America, a result of the waves of bank expansion and consolidation that have shaped banking since the 1980s.
This is a similar story: though Wells Fargo also owned the American Trust Company, and hence has a connection to other Sheets Studio artwork, I think this location is the only former Home Savings that is now a Wells Fargo, and the only location with artwork completed before 1980 that is a financial institution other than JP Morgan Chase.
I assume Wells Fargo and Bank of America had internal conversations about the Home Savings commitment to art, history, and community, and whether their banks needed to do similar work to compete — the San Mateo branch of Bank of America honors the bank’s founder, A. P. Giannini, with a front facade covered in mosaic designed by Louis Macouillard. But, despite their more public archives, I have yet to hear about records of these conversations. If you know of any, do let me know!
Happy Holidays! The blog will return with new posts in January.
As promised, I am back this week with another case of Sheets Studio work covered to protect it. The Burbank zoo mural is supposedly encased for its protection, and the Long Beach Home Savings mosaic is painted over, so still there but hiding. Now the treatment comes to stained glass, at the Santa Monica Wilshire location.
Now, windows are for light, so a walled-in solution would not work well (and would have to be applied on two sides, which would get messy). But what if the new business does not think a joyous Sue Hertel / John Wallis creation, described in the Sheets Papers as “a continuation of the theme…pleasures of swimming, beach games, figrues with animals, all designed to to give a kaleidoscope of beach activity,” will fit the mood of the stores, or seem dated?
The translucent screen seems like an intriguing idea, bringing in that multicolored light while hiding (but not damaging) the stained glass behind it.
But, to me, it just begs for the viewer to peek back there and say what are they hiding, anyway? It just sends more people to the parking lot, to consider it from behind.
Come back next week for the last post of the year — another case of Sheets Studio Home Savings artwork re-imagined for a new owner.
It’s a busy time of year, but I noticed that I have not posted about the iconic Home Savings branch at 2600 Wilshire in Santa Monica — one of the best known and, depending on who you are, loved/hated branches.
Do you love it? You have lots of company — it is routinely the first branch mentioned to me, especially by LA Westsiders. And so discussions about other Sheets Studio work in Santa Monica and the lost Denis O’Connor-Sue Hertel mosaic that was on the Third Street Promenade tends to start with a glowing conversation about this branch.
John Edward Svenson has a soft spot for the sculpture of the girl riding the dolphin, over the parking lot door; his daughter served as the model. And the Ahmansons seem to as well: in a visit to the Ahmanson Foundation offices, I saw the small maquette of this sculpture prominently displayed.
And I think the building owners (MetLife, I assume, managed by CBRE) and their tenants after Home Savings — a mattress store, a cell-phone store, and now New Balance — have maintained the artwork in great condition. (More next week about how it is hard to see one element, though.)
But what if you hate it? Some love the Richard Ellis family group in front; others don’t understand the connection. Most who dislike the building focus on the mosaic, disliking the fabrication, by Denis, Sue, and others on a team led by Nancy Colbath – especially of the sunbathing youth (probably a girl and a boy, but because it is hard to tell, that adds to the grumbling).
If you do dislike it, you have company — in this case, Millard Sheets himself. Check out this quote, from a Smithsonian Archives of American Art oral history:
Interviewer Paul Karlstrom: I know the one, for instance, on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. I used to live right nearby. That’s I think at 25th or around there.
Sheets: I think that’s one of the poorer buildings.
Sheets: Now that’s my feeling. I always felt that I. . . . I didn’t like the way that one’s _____ was done.
Even more critiques from Sheets about this locale appear in a UCLA oral history. Just a reminder that the best artists can use their aesthetic sense to criticize problem art and architecture — even when it is their own.
Thanks to my colleague Pete Leonard for the images. Stay tuned for more about changes to the blog and more work on the book version ahead in 2013.
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.
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 1619–1621 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.