Richard Haines, Ravenna Mosaic Company, and Another Downtown Los Angeles Mosaic

Richard Haines, "Recognition of All Foreign Lands," Los Angeles, 1963

Richard Haines, “Recognition of All Foreign Lands,” Los Angeles, 1963

As a quick follow-up to my recent posts about the Sheets Studio’s relationship with the Ravenna Mosaic Company and the questions of religious symbols in artwork for public patrons, I present these mosaics, designed by Richard Haines for the federal building at 300 N. Los Angeles Street in 1963.

Among other reasons for interest, this demonstrates the staying power of Ravenna Mosaic Company as the fabricator of choice. The use of mosaic with marble columns and the change of color planes divided by diagonal lines are very reminiscent of Sheets’s work—though I find this artwork flatter, in all senses of the word, than the Sheets Studio work. (Haines’s work at UCLA, on Schoenberg Hall and the Physics Building, seems more lively and fun.)

UPDATE: Just after posting,  I have learned via John Waide and the Ravenna Mosaic archives at St. Louis University, that Sheets, Haines, and a mosaic designer listed only as DeRosen (likely Jan Henryk de Rosen) had all bid for the UCLA Music Hall job in 1954, but that Haines eventually received it.

Richard Haines, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA. Photo courtesy of

Richard Haines, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA. Photo courtesy of

Beyond the design and the fabrication, the universalized themes of “Celebration of our Homeland” and “Recognition of all Foreign Lands” also contributes to that rather blah feel—perhaps a demonstration of the way, in the early 1960s, a government commission could be more limiting than work with a financial institution, despite the risk-averse and “conservative” nature of each. (For comparison, these mosaics appeared at that time at the downtown Home Savings branch—and Sheets’s tile mosaics for City Hall East are vibrant visions of a universalized theme. More on them one of these weeks.)

Richard Haines, "Celebration of Our Homeland," Los Angeles, 1963

Richard Haines, “Celebration of Our Homeland,” Los Angeles, 1963

The mosaic depicts many symbols of justice and harmony, showing two hemispheres, flowering trees, small images of animals and industry—and then collections of white-robed people, carrying gifts and tools. Though perhaps no more than one is holding an overtly religious symbol, the sense of a procession and of communal action in white robes is as evocative of a choir and a baptism as much as the Parthenon frieze or the art and architecture of the United Nations. But perhaps evocative is the key word–no explicit religious symbols, and hence no controversy?

Back next week to Sheets and Home Savings.

Home Savings on the California Landscape

California Home Savings locations on the landscape, Home Savings calendar, 1978. Courtesy of George Underwood.

California Home Savings locations on the landscape, Home Savings calendar, 1978. Courtesy of George Underwood.

As the semester revs up, longer and shorter posts will be alternating here, on somewhat of a regular schedule. Today, a short one, as a postscript to recent posts on the use of maps by Home Savings to connect to customers in Illinois, Missouri, New York, and other new states with branches in the 1980s.

Here Home Savings is put on the map of California, its home state — but in a very different format. This is from a calendar, rather than a road map, and that probably helps — the size of the state and the number of branches might overwhelm the other format (though I hear one exists).

While the eastern maps emphasize the convenience along the roads, here Home Savings is represented on a natural-resources map of California–emphasizing, in an even more dramatic way, the history and rootedness Home Savings strove for.

Here it seems the savings and loans are literally as old as the hills, and as permanent on the California landscape as the Sierras, the Mojave desert, and the Central Valley. (And how great it would be if those blue regional dividing lines were rivers instead!)

More in the weeks ahead about that Home Savings shield in the bottom left corner.

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.

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.)


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


National American Fire Insurance 3731 Wilshire: The First Sheets-Ahmanson Collaboration

Millard Sheets, National American Fire Insurance, 3731 Wilshire, 1954 (demolished). For sale at, Alan Wofsy

Millard Sheets, National American Fire Insurance, 3731 Wilshire, 1954 (demolished). For sale at, Alan Wofsy

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.

Millard Sheets, Firemen at Work sketch, for Ravenna Mosaic Company fabrication, 1954. For sale at, Alan Wofsy

Millard Sheets, Firemen at Work sketch, for Ravenna Mosaic Company fabrication, 1954. For sale at, Alan Wofsy

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.

Ravenna Mosaic Company, General [National American] Fire Insurance Building, Los Angeles, 1954-1955, courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections. Special thanks to John Waide.

Ravenna Mosaic Company, General [National American] Fire Insurance Building, Los Angeles, 1954-1955, courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections. Special thanks to John Waide.

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.


Garden Grove and the Birth of the Sheets Studio Mosaic Style

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.

Millard Sheets and the Los Angeles County Seal

Millard Sheets, Los Angeles County Seal used 1957-2004.

Millard Sheets, Los Angeles County Seal used 1957-2004.

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.

Los Angeles County Seal, as revised in 2004.

Los Angeles County Seal, as revised in 2004.

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!