In 1953, financier Howard Ahmanson, Sr. commissioned a watercolor artist by the name of Millard Sheets to make a mosaic for one of his bank buildings on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard. "I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now," Ahmanson told Sheets, offering him carte blanch to design the look of the Home Savings & Loan branch. Sheets went on over the ensuing three decades to create more than 100 mosaics, painted murals and sculptures for Ahmanson's banks, and the partnership continued after Ahmanson's death in 1968 and Sheets in 1989.
What's remarkable about this collaboration is not that Ahmanson abdicated complete control to Sheets for the design of his banks and their brand. Rather, it's that a private company got involved with public art, a field that's traditionally the province of federal, state and city governments because of the scale, cost and legal complexities associated with installing artworks in the public domain.
Ahmanson was a visionary. He believed that art could be used to win depositors and increase market share. Sheets was already the leading watercolor artist in all of California, and well on his way to making Andrew Wyeth's list of the 20 greatest American watercolorists to ever pick up a brush.
When that first mosaic was almost ready the following year, Ahmanson visited Sheets' studio, walked around silently, and then pronounced his approval. "Sheets then proceeded to the first Home Savings and Loan bank location, at 9245 Wilshire, decorating it with a four-panel, colorfully abstract mosaic portrait facing the street," writes University of Texas at El Paso Assistant Professor and Sheets scholar Dr. Adam Arensen in Huntington Frontiers. "It showed an ornate history of banking, from the Sumerians to the Renaissance, in stained glass, and the gold 'HS&L' tiles, for Home Savings and Loan, in columns under the windows."
The public reaction astounded Sheets and Ahmanson. “They stood in line on Wilshire Boulevard a block and a half long waiting to put money in, in the savings and loan,” Sheets later recalled. “It paid for itself in the first 10 days. It paid for the land, it paid for the building, it paid for the furnishings, landscaping. Everything.”
The bank sent out questionnaires to confirm what was happening, asking, “Why did you choose Home Savings?” Customers answered, “We like to be associated with something beautiful.”
Because of the complexity, sheer number of the ensuing HS&L commissions and other public art opportunities, Sheets hired more than two dozen assistants— engineers, registered architects, draftsmen, ceramic and fiber artists, sculptors and painters. Sheets placed his former student at Scripps College, Susan Lautmann Hertel, in charge of all operations at his design studio. "For a while," Arensen notes, "Sheets asked local Pomona Valley artists, including Martha Menke Underwood, to learn how to work with the unforgiving materials of glass-tile mosaics. But in 1960, Sheets found what he needed in Denis O’Connor."
After meticulously researching the history of the community where a mosaic was to be installed, Hertel, O’Connor, and their staff would spend weeks, even months, cutting small, textured glass tiles into the shapes desired for the mosaic, mixing shades to give the illusion of depth, movement and shadows. As they were cut, the tiles were pasted onto numbered sections of paper. "When the mosaic was ready, the entire studio would gather around as it was laid on the floor, and Sheets and the other artists would ascend a ladder to look down on the completed work, checking for any needed adjustments."
To install each mosaic, Sheets and his crew first had to apply a base layer of cement to the bank's travertine clading. Then they carefully inserted the mosaic tiles into the wet mortar, painted touch-ups, and sealed the joints with grout. If a tile fractured during this tedious, painstaking process, work would immediately halt as the installers made a frenzied search of their color bins for a replacement, which then had to be cut and fashioned for the open spot.
Howard Ahmanson's remarkable experiment to use community-based art to advertise his bank and win the hearts and loyalty of its depositors extended beyond his death in 1968 and Sheets' retirement in 1980. Hertel and O’Connor continued to complete Sheets' commissions until the sale of Home Savings to Washington Mutual in 1998 (some nine years after Sheets' death), and it was likely this tandem who was responsible for the dual mosaics on the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage bank building on Cleveland Avenue, just north of Val Ward Cadillac.
While it is unclear [to this writer] how much input Sheets had in the creative process after his retirement in 1980, Hertel and O'Connor certainly knew and emulated his style and technique, and all of the work that post-dated Sheets retirement and death in 1989 were nonetheless attributed to his studio, Millard Sheets Metal Design. By the time the Home Savings & Loan work ceased in 1998, Millard Sheets Metal Design had produced mosaics, painted murals and other artworks for some 175 branches in California, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Florida.
[N.B.: After the United States Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) seized Washington Mutual Bank on September 25, 2008, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) sold the banking subsidiaries to JP Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States and second largest in the world (behind HSBC). Many of the banks containing Sheets' mosaics and murals are today owned by Chase. Others have been sold to Wachovia, which merged with Wells Fargo in March of 2010.]