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Saving the Banks’ Artistic Assets

April 24, 2009, 1:21 pm

[Editor's Note: Adam Arenson (bio below), a friend and occasional commenter here, has graciously provided us with a guest post. Thanks, Adam, for doing this.]

Quick: What does your bank look like?

I admit it; I don’t know either. There are glassed-in tellers. There’s a metallic sheen off the ATMs. Some peppy posters promoting savings plans for dream retirements. But it all adds up to a rather anonymous décor. More than once the names and the colors have changed, and I hardly noticed.

But there are banks I remember. Growing up in San Diego, I recall the grand lobbies of the Home Savings banks, some with gurgling fountains and sculptures. They had parking lots, and wide arches framed the entrances. Most spectacular were the mosaics: thousands of little tiles arranged to show carefree beach scenes, vaqueros from the Californio past, Victorian ladies in their bonnets, Chinese miners and Franciscan friars. Going to the bank was a history lesson and a celebration of California identity; it was a civic space, a place to linger, a landmark for a child who hardly knew pennies from dimes.

Home Savings of America is no more; in 1998, the bank was purchased by Washington Mutual, which last year was seized by the federal government and sold to Chase. Though the Washington Mutual name has lingered, it too is gone: this month, its depositors are receiving Chase ATM cards, and, on the East Coast, Washington Mutual branches are being closed and sold off.

In this moment of financial turmoil, however, we as Californians should ask that the cultural assets of the bank be preserved. These mosaics, paintings, and stained glass artwork are a unique California treasure deserving protection.

This art is the legacy of Millard Sheets. For most of his career, Sheets (1907-1989) served as director of the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), where the library is now named in his honor. Beginning in 1952, Sheets, Susan Hertel, and Denis O’Connor spent three decades designing Home Savings banks and providing them with memorable art: In the Lombard branch in San Francisco, a mural provides a timeline of local history from Native Americans to the Golden Gate Bridge; at the Pacific Beach branch in San Diego, mosaics of Spanish missionaries and soldiers stand guard; in Studio City, images of vaqueros over the door are joined by prospectors and movie directors. Sheets completed commissions for the Mayo Clinic, the Honolulu Hilton, and Notre Dame University, yet his masterpieces are here in southern California, and they have been left vulnerable.

After the sell-off of Home Savings branches in the late 1990s, Sheets’s mosaics have come to grace a barbeque-grill vendor in La Mesa, California, and a mattress store on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Are the landlords cognizant of their significance, and to renters maintain and repair them? The fifty-foot-tall mosaics on the marquee banks are probably safe, but what about the small, two-by three-foot panels of life on the sea floor, or the delicate paintings of palomino horses?

This artwork is vernacular, with humble materials and few pretensions. Yet it is still worthy of preservation and care, an important public treasure alongside the holdings of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the Getty Museum.

We must look out for these mosaics, these paintings and stained glass, especially when their current owners—banks and real-estate developers—are desperate to liquidate assets and regain their footing. I’ve begun compiling an inventory of this artwork online and welcome additions from readers. Those concerned might also contact their local preservation board to ask that this artwork receive landmark protection, or perhaps arrange transfer to a local arts council or museum.

During these days when Californians have come to associate their banks only with bad news, we have an opportunity to preserve some of them as unique chronicles of our local history. Future generations will thank us for recognizing that, sometimes, a bank’s most precious asset is the bank building itself.

Originally from San Diego, Adam Arenson is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he teaches nineteenth-century North American history, with a particular interest in the American West and its borderlands. He has published articles on Ansel Adams photography, library furniture, and more, and is co-blogger at makinghistorypodcast. He is working on a book manuscript,The Cultural Civil War: St. Louis and the Failures of Manifest Destiny, and co-editing a volume on frontier cities; more information here].

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