In the 1950s, financier Howard F. Ahmanson Sr. and California artist Millard Sheets formed an unlikely partnership. Ahmanson, who’d bought several savings and loans, sent Sheets, a nationally recognized artist, a terse letter: “Have traveled Wilshire Boulevard for twenty-five years. Know name of architect and year every building was built. Bored.”
Ahmanson wanted Sheets—who had no architectural training—to design buildings for him, but gave him no guidelines. In fact, when the artist called weeks later for Ahmanson’s approval on art expenditures for his first building, Ahmanson hung up. He wanted lovely buildings; the details and cost were Sheets’ bailiwick.
Over 33 years, Sheets designed more than 40 buildings for Ahmanson’s companies, most notably Home Savings and Loan. To adorn the interior and exterior walls, Sheets created murals, mosaics, and stained-glass windows, always with a local theme. He was amazed at the freedom he had. As he told an interviewer for the Archives of American Art years later, “It was a hell of a job.”
Sheets had earned fame before he went to work for Ahmanson. His watercolor paintings helped define an image of California in the 1930s and ’40s. He served as director of fine arts of the Los Angeles County Fair (as his son Tony does today), organized and chaired the art departments at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate School, and served as director at the Otis Art Institute before his death in 1989. His own design company created art not only for Ahmanson, but also for other buyers—firms, homes, churches. He even painted a cover for Westways in 1950. But it’s through the mosaics for Home Savings and Loan that most Californians know him.
Today, Chase Bank, the current owner of many of Sheets’ buildings, works closely with the artist’s son Tony, an artist himself.
Their goal is to preserve his father’s art or find new sites for it. One example: Tony moved a Rose Parade mural painted on walnut panels from the Pasadena Chase Bank and will install it in a new public site this fall.
“Things change,” Tony explains. “Dad designed those buildings with the idea that people wanted to know their money was absolutely safe. So they built them around their vaults, and the vaults were very visible.” Today, security dictates that banks conceal their vaults and anchor Plexiglas in front of teller windows, which often obscures works of art like the Rose Parade mural.
The Pasadena mural is safe, but others haven’t survived. In 2008, a Sheets mural in a Chase Bank in San Francisco was painted over, igniting a firestorm among preservationists. Thanks to a combination of public outcry, the California Art Preservation Act, and Chase’s growing appreciation for its inheritance, that mistake won’t happen again.
Here are four of our favorite former Home Savings and Loan buildings where Sheets’ work is still on view.
Chase Bank Tower, Pomona
Chase Bank Tower, 100 W. Second Street
Pomona’s multistory Home Savings and Loan Tower opened amid great fanfare in 1962. Sheets, a Pomona native who lived in nearby Claremont, had been contacted by Pomona’s business leaders, who convinced him that they had a clear plan for revitalizing their downtown area. Sheets called Ahmanson. “I want you to buy me the best block in the center of town and develop it . . . I know you don’t have any special reason to come to Pomona—except you’re my friend, and I need your help.”
The result was the first pedestrian mall in California, anchored by the Home Savings and Loan Tower and a $4 million Buffums’ department store. Sheets designed the tree-lined walkways and fountains of the mall, as well as the bank’s mosaic. Time magazine wrote: “Downtown Pomona’s physical face lifting has led to a new élan among storekeepers and their customers. Shops have been refurbished, stocks have been replenished, new businesses have moved in.”
Westways ran a pictorial on the mall-in-progress in its November 1962 issue, saying it would look “more glamorous than a movie set.” Sadly, the halcyon mood did not last. Business dropped off, and by the early 1970s, 30 percent of the shops were empty. Streets reopened to traffic, but the bank remains. Chase Bank, the most recent proprietor, is researching renovation and will try to save the mosaic and artwork there.
Chase Bank, Beverly Hills
Chase Bank, 9245 Wilshire Boulevard
This is Sheets’ first Home Savings and Loan. A blazing golden sun shines over scenes of local history and industry, bronze sculptures of a family stand by the doors, and inside, mosaics adorn the executive offices and a stained-glass window illuminates the history of money and banking. Any doubts Ahmanson may have had about the wisdom of piling so much glittering art into a commercial building were quickly buried: In the first 10 days of business, the bank took in enough money to make up for what Ahmanson had spent on the entire project. “They stood in line on Wilshire Boulevard, a block-and-a-half long, waiting to put money in,” Sheets recalled with wonder 30 years later.
Chase Bank, Rolling Hills
Chase Bank, 27319 Hawthorne Boulevard
This former Home Savings and Loan is a success story, the tale of artwork saved by cooperation. Created in 1974, the outside mosaic features horses, riders, and dogs—a theme popular not only with folks on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, but also dear to Sheets, who was raised around horses. Moisture and sea air damaged the material that held the 12-by-37-foot mosaic together, though, so in 2008, art advisor and curator Jeannie Denholm initiated talks with then-owner Washington Mutual about restoring it. The bank began to research repairs—at that point so badly needed that scaffolding was put in place in front of the mosaic to protect customers from falling pieces of stone.
Before work could begin on the restoration, Washington Mutual was bought by Chase Bank, throwing the project into jeopardy. Chase came on board, though, to the tune of $400,000. In the spring of 2009, restoration began, conducted by the firm Carnevale and Lohr—which was fitting, since Louie Carnevale, stonemason and founder, had worked with Sheets on other art pieces. Thirty-six panels were removed, restored, and reinstalled. The restored mosaic was unveiled earlier this year.
Chase Bank, Hollywood
Chase Bank, 1500 Vine Street
Ahmanson died in 1968, just as the Vine and Sunset branch of Home Savings and Loan was about to open. He and Sheets had agreed that it should feature a tribute to Hollywood movies—after all, the location was the former site of NBC Radio City and sat a block away from the former DeMille Studios, where parts of the first full-length Hollywood film (The Squaw Man, 1914) had been shot.
This branch was one of Sheets’ favorites. The mosaics at the front entrance depict Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, and other luminaries, while at the back entrance, Julie Andrews, William S. Hart, Audrey Hepburn, and Charles Laughton beam down. Interspersed among the pictures, engraved in black marble, are the names of 480 other stars.
A stained-glass window pays tribute to classic chase scenes, featuring the Keystone Cops, the Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd. Sheets also installed a 64-foot-wide mural of key scenes from The Squaw Man.
At the gala opening in June 1968, Screen Actors Guild president Charlton Heston was one of many celebrities to attend. All of the actors in the mosaic were depicted in their most famous roles, and the bank stocked pamphlets to identify the movies for customers who got stumped.
Vickey Kalambakal blogs about Los Angeles history.
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