Here the “triptych” design is not chonological, but shows a farmer and a rancher, an orange tree and some cow grazing, flanking the central image of Edwards Air Force Base, with test pilots and planes from many eras, spanning the twentieth century. (Lancaster also has an Aerospace Walk of Honor, profiling pilots and displaying aircraft.)
This is the only Home Savings design by Anita Thomas, a Scripps and Claremont Graduate School graduate who was married at one time to Denis O’Connor. As she described it, “The process was fairly straightforward. The history of the area was simple to track down, then it was a matter of deciding how to organize it.” After input from Denis and Sue Hertel, the mosaic was fabricated by MosaicArt di D.Colledani in Milan, Italy, near the heart of world mosaic-smalti production and instruction.
When the mosaic was installed, the space shuttle reflected the current state-of-the-art in aerospace exploration; now, with the shuttles retired and making their way to museums around the country, this image reflects nostalgia for that recent past as well.
Thanks to Shel Weisbach, James Daniel of Daniel Designs, Kevin O’Connor, Alba Cisneros, Anita Thomas, and the Denis O’Connor Papers at the Huntington Library for helping to confirm information about the mosaic. (Even a short post can require a lot of research!)
Yesterday I enjoyed interviewing Marlo Bartels about his work for Home Savings and other corporate public-art clients, and I came back via a second tour of Orange County Home Savings locations, along the coast in Newport, Long Beach, Rolling Hills Estates, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and South L.A. More images from those locations will appear here soon, along with updates to the definitive list. Be in touch with any tips on others to interview or unique stories to tell.
On September 9, 1963, ten years into his nearly-30-year career of working for Home Savings, Millard Sheets resigned. “No designer in America has had greater opportunity to express himself than I have had…working with you,” Sheets began his letter to Howard Ahmanson, but now “I would like to resign from my present contractual arrangement with Home Savings,” Sheets wrote. “Let’s be friends apart from…irritation or tenseness, that now seems insoluble.”
Ahmanson and Sheets were both large personalities, and their working relationship was full of both trust and, at times, disagreement. But this resignation was less about that than another opportunity for Sheets: to become corporate design advisor for Interpace, the successor company to California ceramics leader Gladding, McBean & Company.
(Despite attempting to resign, Sheets stayed on with the Home Savings work, though handing more responsibility over to other members of his studio and the outside architectural firm of Frank Homolka and Associates. It seems the financial aspects of the arrangement were reworked as well.)
Millard Sheets thought of painting as his true passion–watercolors, mostly, and things that could fit on an easel. But in 1953, his frescoes, murals, interior design and architectural work had garnered Howard Ahmanson’s attention, and Sheets found himself at the head of a studio doing remarkable architectural, mosaic, painting, and stained glass work–making him even more prominent, though taking him away from the painting.
So in 1963 he sought to resign, and dedicate his efforts to a new venture: managing artists-in-residence designing ceramics, with uses from dinnerware to household decoration to large-scale architectural works.
As the recent American Museum of Ceramic Art show and essays by Hal Nelson, James Elliot-Bishop, and others describe its wonderful catalog, Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California, 1945-1975, explain, Sheets had highlighted these uses in his Arts of Daily Living show at the LA County Fair and in the resulting House Beautiful special edition, where the work was praised by Frank Lloyd Wright as a continuation of his ideals. Sheets hired Harrison McIntosh, Rupert Deese, Francis Chun, Dora De Larios, and others to hep design the work.
In memos, Sheets discussed the possibility of asking a remarkable range of artists to participate, naming Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Andrew Wyeth, David Alfaro Siquieros, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, Willem De Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Joan Miro, and Stuart Davis as artists to approach. To approach such artists for avant-garde designs for commercial ceramics demonstrates how Sheets, ever at the intersection of fine arts and commercial applications, foresaw the kinds of top-designers-for-Target/Walmart/etc. blurring of categories we experience today.
To Sheets, it must have seemed like a perfect marriage of traditional arts, top design, and commercial applications, as these tiles were uniform, mass-produced yet hand-colored, and perfectly suited for anything from a home wall accent to the massive projects they accomplished. This flexibility and modularity seems to fulfill some of what Frank Lloyd Wright had attempted with his textile-block designs, such as the Alice Millard House in Pasadena and the Ennis House in Los Angeles.
The Sheets-Interpace collaboration led to the creation of the Franciscan tiles used to accent Home Savings buildings, but also the large-scale ceramic-tile murals of “The Four Elements” for the Interpace headquarters lobby in Parsippany, New Jersey (1966); two murals for the Coco Palms Resort on Kauai (1968), which has been closed due to hurricane damage since 1992; a pair of mosaic murals, one for each side of the Hilton Rainbow Tower, in 1968; and a final ceramic-tile mosaic done for Sunset Magazine offices in Menlo Park (1973). (Mary Blair designed two murals at Disneyland, “The Spirit of Creative Energies among Children,” (1966), since hidden in place; one for the Disney World Contemporary Resort; and the It’s a Small World exhibit — see great pictures here. Another mural for the Coco Palms was designed by Sheridan Stanton.)
In 1967, Interpace chief executive Allan Hirsh resigned, and Elliot-Bishop argues this was the beginning of a significant change in Sheets’s involvement. Letters express continued frustration on all sides that the architectural and dinnerware tile work could not be done quicker and cheaper; Sheets eventually spent less time on Interpace work, downgrading himself to a mere consultant to the line before resigning outright in 1973, once again to “spend most of my time painting.”
This time, with his house in Gualala completed and work for Home Savings, Interpace, and others in good hands, Sheets mostly succeeded, but he kept a hand in these large-scale public artworks as well. And despite Sheets’s interest in emphasizing his paintings, these works of art and architecture seem destined to be an important part of his legacy of art as well.
As promised, I present the Northridge mosaic “triptych.” — the same format on a similar building that we saw last week in Downey. And, again, these late O’Connor-Hertel creations stretch from the very earliest of local history up to the present day.
In Northridge, the imagery stretches from a native Tongva man at an oasis to symbols of Anglo settlement, including the Hawk Ranch and the Southern Pacific Railroad, and walnut farming; to the claims to fame for twentieth-century Northridge, including Montie Montana at the annual Chamber of Commerce stampede, the local hospital, and some of Cal State Northridge‘s buildings.
The span of time and the effort to include such easily recognizable, present-day figures furthers the long-standing Home Savings goal of integrating HS&L seamlessly into new communities, and using the art to make a claim about their rootedness and permanence there.
As was common, the research files are filled with pictures photocopied from history books and historical-society brochures, the sources the studio used to find authentic figures to include. The notes often include captions or text not included in the final work, in this case:
Water was Welcome from the Beginning / Hawk Ranch • Farming • Walnut and Fruit Orchards • Housing • Trains • Commercial Development • Northridge Hospital • cal State Northridge / Chamber of Commerce Stampede and Barbeque
But despite labels and accuracy in many cases, a nice iconographic figure could fill in for the extensive research needed to get local conditions right at times. For example, the Native American in the files that is most closely reproduced here is a Kashaya Pomo warrior drawn by scientist Il’lia Voznesensky in 1843, in northern California near Fort Ross, as reproduced on page 307 of the (unidentified) book the studio consulted, rather than an actual Tongva image. (I have written about the importance of Fort Ross in the image of California in Ansel Adams’s photograph of a eucalyptus tree there; read it here.)
Such substitutions happen elsewhere as well — for example, an image of ice skating in Marquette Park, Illinois, draws on an 1872 sleighs and skaters in New York’s Central Park by Jules Tavernier for Harpers.
It’s a reminder that these artists are interested in history and community, but not always perfectly faithful to it. But of course we can forgive them, right?
As a 19th-century urban historian of the American West by training, I first returned to the art and artwork of these Home Savings and Loan buildings to see what they said about California history. But I have been happy to have been pulled fully into the business-history, art-history, built-environment, and urban-studies questions the Home Savings and Loan buildings can answer for the 20th century, investigating not just historical topics but art with subjects such as family, festivals, and local landmarks.
Given the recent transit of Venus and the successful docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the International Space Station, I will focus this week on when Home Savings art encountered the great beyond of outer space.
The planets, with their companion image of the space shuttle in Lancaster (to be featured here soon), are seemingly a break from the traditions of Home Savings art under Millard Sheets. But celebrating outer space is celebrating local community in Downey, where the former aerospace and NASA facility is now the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a hands-on learning center for space science and national living memorial to the lost space shuttle crew.
And its format shows a signature Denis O’Connor/Sue Hertel design: a timeline triptych, to be read left to right from the natural/pre-Columbian origins of the area, through a typical scene of late-19th-century American settlement, to an image of today. The pattern works on a similar building in Northridge, from Native Americans to Monty Montana, that I will discuss next week (see the center panel here).
All the full image reveals, there are birds flying up there, with the planets; a nice reminder that we can dream far away, but keep our familiar surroundings in sight as well.
Go to http://socal-bank-art.blogspot.com/ too see Downey and other locations.
This week I had the pleasure of discussing the Grand Central Art Center Millard Sheets Studio exhibit on the Creative Orange County radio show, alongside co-curator Wendy Sherman. Check it out — a 30-minute audio capsule of the history, artistry, and preservation work on the Home Savings banks, or head by the exhibit in Santa Ana in its last few weeks on display — Tony Sheets will be there Saturday night.
As I mentioned there, on my way back from the exhibit in early May I stopped at a number of Home Savings branches. I also drove right alongside Knotts Berry Farm to take this picture, of the two former Home Savings branches on two corners of Beach Boulevard and La Palma.
I have very little information about the first branch. From Eric Abrahamson, I know that Home Savings purchased the Savings and Loan Association of Anaheim in 1956, and that it came with Garden Grove and Buena Park branches (two of these buildings which fit an architectural model like the Compton branch). It seems sites for new branches were purchased in late 1958, with construction soon after — but, given the lack of detail in the Sheets Papers, it is possible the artwork for these branches was done elsewhere.
The larger second branch, across the street, shows a later style — the gold tiles are replaced with brown, and the branch sits diagonally across the corner, rather than snug and square like the first branch. Finished in 1978, it is a Frank Homolka design, with notes from Denis O’Connor, Sue Hertel, and others in the file describing the research of the Knotts Berry Farm themes and historical replicas, considered for inclusion.
I assume Home Savings built the larger branch because they outgrew the first one, but why build across the street? Why not build nearby, and have two branches? The branch at Pico and Doheny was built to handle overflow business from the 9245 Wilshire location in that manner, Bill Ahmanson Jr. told me. From a preservation standpoint, it is great they did not tear the first branch down, but it seems a peculiar business decision — as 7th and Figueroa and Lake & Colorado are branches that were torn down to make way for larger Home Savings towers, albeit at a later date.
Anyone who can help solve the mystery of two branches in Buena Park, please be in touch!
This week I am teaching an intensive course, so not a lot of time to post. But here I think the image says it all.
This is an 1958 original Millard Sheets Designs building, 1801 N. Long Beach Blvd., with the exterior architecture, mosaic, gold tiles, and even sculpture in place. (I assume the inside was gutted; I was there when it was closed.) Its theme–working me–fits with what I know of Compton as an up-and-coming middle-class African American community in the 1950s, making it unique among the neighborhoods where Home Savings located. And the style of these black-granite-background sites such as Whittier and the original Buena Park location are a bit of a mystery to me (though Lillian Sizemore is helping me figure it out).
But yet the alterations are somewhat extreme — and the building is again for lease (contact is Sam Kangavari).
Just a reminder of the research, education, and preservation work still to be done to protect these wonderful banks.
Millard Sheets cared deeply about his artwork, particularly his painting; he cared about his networks, and his ability to connect to people across career, political, or national divides; but he also cared deeply about his family, even when he was far from them. And these strands come together in the story of a painting, seen above, now hanging at the Parkway Grill in Pasadena.
Millard had known Mary’s older sister Elizabeth as a fellow student artist at the Chouinard Art Institute, and at a family dinner Millard met Mary. They hit it off immediately, I am told, but their lives seemed headed in opposite directions: Millard was gaining attention in New York and elsewhere for his paintings, and Mary was committed to her studies at UCLA (then called the Southern Campus of the University of California).
Mary, an art major in UCLA’s teacher’s college, rose to be president of her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta–and among its members in her class was Dorothy Grannis, later wife to Howard Ahmanson (suggesting occasions for an earlier connection between the two men than business breakfasts and a famous letter in 1953). Her presidency of the sorority Class of 1930 coincided with UCLA’s move to the newly constructed Westwood campus, and hence the building, funding, and decorating of the large new Greek houses in the neighborhood.
Millard wanted to get married, but Mary was also committed to finishing her degree — but in her last semester, in the spring of 1930, these two goals seemed impossibly opposed. Mary decided to leave school and marry Millard before his next trip East, to follow the whims of the art world. But there were also her duties to the sorority – how to placate them?
I am told this painting was the answer: a large oil
painting, showing a river landscape, given to the sorority in that spring of 1930, as the sorority president left to marry its artist. It hung for decades on the sorority walls, as a testament to the relationships between Millard and Mary, Mary and her sorority. The theme seems appropriate to such a moment of transition as it college — the crossing over of the river, the forking water path, and the question of what lies beyond, up upon those mountains.
It can now be seen amidst a wonderful collection of Millard’s paintings at the Smith Brothers restaurants in Pasadena. (UPDATE: I am told by Michael J. Johnson that a Giclée-on-canvas replica hangs in the sorority to this day. UPDATE 2: According to Susan Traister, who had the sorority’s paperwork on the transfer, “the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority at UCLA owns it and loans it out to the Smith Bros.”) Perhaps that is the perfect place to celebrate Mother’s Day this year, and think about the interplay of family, art, and community for Millard Sheets.
Thanks to Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle, Perry Jamieson, Christina Vader, and Bob Smith for providing/confirming elements of this story.
This week, I encourage one and all to come to the gallery show at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, showcasing the art of the Millard Sheets Studio at six Home Savings and Loan locations.
I will be presenting my research on a panel this Sunday, May 6, at 2:00 p.m., alongside noted architectural historian Alan Hess. I have been working with the exhibit organizers Concepcíon Rodríguez and Wendy Sherman for months, and I can guarantee this will be a great, ground-breaking show.
How did Home Savings/Savings of America express its affection for communities after they stopped paying for expensive artwork? Teresa Fernandez helped me again with a tip that some of the old Home Savings commercials can be viewed on YouTube.
Here, over a saxophone’s slow wail, images of multicultural New York flash by: the Brooklyn Bridge; a checker cab; Vesuvio Bakery; older (Italian?) men playing bocce ball; a baptism in a Catholic cathedral; a (Chinese?) girl whirling fans; a mother and son lighting Chanukah candles in the window; an African American band; an (Irish?) family dressed to parade with bagpipes; and then a return to those old men.
The commercial’s text, with pauses that make it feel like a poem, reads:
It’s a city
not just of people,
but of traditions,
that preserve the past
and enrich the present.
At Home Savings of America,
the nation’s largest savings bank,
we have a tradition
of conservative investing
that has made people like you feel secure.
for more than a hundred years.
In my mind, this is an exact continuation of the themes in Richard Haas’s Forest Hills mosaic and the general use of art and architecture to ground Home Savings, using quintessential (almost bordering on stereotypical) images of New York City and its traditional ethnic residents to express a sense of home, evoking personal routes and stories of migration through the city for those customers elsewhere, and a sense of pride for New Yorkers.
Home Savings put the tagline “Peace of mind since 1889” on its shield for many years — despite the fact that Howard Ahmanson only became the majority shareholder in the savings and loan in 1947. I see the same here, with a new bank determined to prove itself as an old, reliable friend. I find it very well done, the sentimentality full but not overdoing it, the “conservative investment” reassuring. And now, just like the mosaics, this 30-second commercial is now its own fascinating window on the past.
Over the past week I was far from Southern California, the part of the country most associated with Home Savings & Loan, in New York City.
Yet Home Savings (under the name Savings of America) expanded into New York, Illinois, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Texas in the 1980s and 1990s. The company worked to keep its brand assets in play there, with distinguished customer service but also distinctive buildings, with artwork that reflected the community. From the Denis O’Connor Papers, I have found some interesting conflicts between the local historical societies in these states and Home Savings, perceived as an outsider corporation. But the artwork did get done and installed in many of these locations.
There is one mosaic on a former New York Home Savings, in Forest Hills, at 108-36 Queens Blvd. It is by Richard Haas, an artist still active in New York City, who I had the pleasure of interviewing on my trip. Haas completed commissions for the 7th and Figueroa and Pasadena towers in Los Angeles, the Irwindale headquarters (all paintings) and designed mosaics for many of the Florida locations, with the mosaic fabrication done in Spilimbergo, in northeastern Italy. (He told me quite a story about the mural designed for Naples, Florida, that never got installed — the project was delayed, and the mosaic, all pasted to sheets, was put in storage. When they opened up the storage room to get the mosaics, they just found mounds of tiles — the industrious Florida insects had eaten the sugar paste off the paper, and destroyed the mosaic.)
Haas’s New York mosaic shows the Manhattan skyline in the distance, with the World Trade Center towers prominent; in between, the tracts of housing, tree-line streets, and larger developments create a patchwork. In a sign we are no longer in car-loving California, the bottom of the image is anchored by the historic Tudor-influenced train station nearby, for the Long Island Rail Road. Haas, a visual artist productively obsessed with the wonders of architecture, added house portraits of other local architectural gems to the upper corners, in the multi-view manner of 19th-century cityscapes.
Haas’s mosaic was installed on the curving facade of the Forest Hills Savings of America branch (shown here as a Commerce Bancorp branch, in 2007, before that bank’s merger). While, like so many Home Savings locations, this is a prominent corner, I am unaware of any other branches that have curving facades, instead of other approaches to the corner lot. The curve makes it hard to take in the full image as installed, so it is nice to have my rough photograph of the color drawing, above.
Haas’s work demonstrates how the Home Savings motif could translate to new locales such as New York. But this was the only mosaic completed for New York. Come back next week to learn about how some of the same themes were expressed in a different medium.