Before a standing room only crowd, Adam Arenson and Laura MacDonald presented their research on the life and work of Millard Sheets, best known for his work on local banks who also designed the Los Angeles Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, now the Marciano Art Foundation.
Laura MacDonald, a archaeologist with a master’s degree in Historic Preservation from University of Southern California where she wrote her thesis on Millard Sheets and his design of the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, presented her research on the Mason organization and the origin of their design concepts that reference King Solomon’s temple. The former Scottish Rite and the Shriners Auditorium are two excellent local examples MacDonald has studied.
With that as background and an appreciation for the building we were in, Arenson, an associate professor of history and director of the urban studies program at Manhattan College, presented an encyclopedic review of Sheets’s work and life. Special guests included Sheets’s son Tony, who worked with his father as a sculptor and whose quest to save a mural by his father sparked Arenson’s interest and ultimately his journey to write the book, “Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California,” and Marlo Bartels, a contemporary sculptor whose ceramics are featured in several banks as well as an installation downtown at Grand Hope Park.
Most of us are familiar with Sheets’s work for Howard Ahmanson’s Home Savings and Loan, now owned by Chase Bank but Arenson focused on the less well known story of how Ahmanson, determined to create memorable buildings that would inspire people to want to bank with his company, makes that architecture work to build his company. Starting with two buildings in 1956, together Sheets and Ahmanson would build dozens more on prominent local streets. Home Savings and Loan grew to become one of the largest and most successful savings and loans in the nation.
Arenson describes the buildings as “landmarks of Midcentury Modern commercial architecture. ‘There’s a Home Saving Office near where you live, work or shop’ was an oft used tagline. The buildings were featured in magazines and on the covers of calendars. They had starring roles in television commercials and they appeared in movies.”
“Home Savings is gone, and Washington Mutual is gone. But these buildings remain. They stand witness to a remarkable corporate investment in public memory, monuments to community created in the infamously anonymous postwar suburbs.”
Arenson said he wrote the book to tell the story of the how these buildings filled with wonderful art and sculpture that represent a local community’s story were created, in the hope that people would help preserve them.
“Home Savings commissions shaped the corporate and cultural landscapes of Southern California. The time has come to tell their history, to demonstrate their significance, and to argue for their preservation — before it is too late,” wrote Arenson.