Santa Monica’s Loss is Orange County’s Gain

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A 40x16 foot mosaic mural by noted California artist Millard Sheets (1907-1989) is being moved from Santa Monica to Chapman University’s Hilbert Museum of California Art in Orange. 

The mural “Pleasures Along the Beach” on a former Home Savings and Loan building has faced Wilshire Blvd. for almost fifty years. But in spite of having been landmarked (along with its Millard Sheets-designed building) by the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission, a long series of legal set-backs lead to the designation’s reversal, threatening the mural’s future. 

That’s when Tony Sheets, the artist’s son, and Brian Worley, a Sheets colleague, realized they would have to find a new home for the mural. The Hilbert Museum, whose collection is focused on California art, stepped up as a fitting site. The original building’s stained glass window and sculptures, by the Sheets studio, will also be moved. The property owner who is demolishing the existing building is paying for the removal of the art to Orange.  

The mural will be located outside at the Hilbert, though the exact placement has not been determined.

Beginning in 1953, Howard Ahmanson, head of Home Savings and Loan, commissioned Sheets to design a series of branches integrating Sheets’ art work. Sheets and Ahmanson shared a common vision that art should be part of daily life, not just in museums. Art should be visible out on the streets to be enjoyed by everyone. That was the idea that inspired some 120 Home Savings buildings, including the one at 2600 Santa Monica Blvd. that is now threatened. 

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The Santa Monica mural reflects Sheet’s signature style: realistic but abstracted, with a rich use of color, and a strong multi-layered geometric composition. Similar Sheets murals already grace former Home Savings buildings in many Orange County cities, including one in Anaheim, a virtual twin of the Santa Monica building but with its own distinctive mural custom-designed by Sheets for that city. Artists Nancy Colbath and Denis O’Connor in Sheet’s studio executed the Santa Monica mural to Sheets’ design. 

Though well-known as an artist, Pomona Valley native Sheets is now being recognized for his architectural designs. Though he was not a licensed architect, his architecture like his art reflected his original view of Modernism, embracing historical as well as contemporary ideas. He integrated art and ornament into his buildings just as architecture has since ancient times, but his buildings also have the clean planar geometries of 20th century Modernism. The Santa Monica and Anaheim buildings, for example, have a boldly monumental presence suited to a respectable public institution.

The painstaking process of removing Santa Monica’s 16.5-ft by 40-ft  mural of mosaic glass tiles is underway. Tony Sheets (an artist himself) has made it his mission to save as many of his father’s art works as possible. He does not take “no” for an answer; When San Jose officials determined that a painted Sheets mural at a soon-to-be-demolished air terminal was impossible to move in 2010, Tony went to see for himself. He discovered that the enormous mural, painted on canvas and glued to the wall, could easily be detached. It has now been re-installed in the new terminal building.

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Historian Adam Arenson, author of Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California, wrote that the Santa Monica artwork “represents the height of the Sheets Studio commissions for Home Savings, integrating architecture, mosaic, stained glass, sculptures, and interior design elements.” He also calls the Santa Monica building — identical to the existing Anaheim building on Harbor Blvd.— “the most important, and often the most successful, of the Sheets Studio-Home Savings designs.”

The mosaics, paintings, sculpture, and stained glass windows that Sheets and his atelier created for the Home Savings and Loan branches beginning in 1954 usually reflected the local history or culture of the branch’s city. Santa Monica’s mural features children playing on the beach in the bright sunshine.

Orange County already boasts several Sheets murals on former Home Savings and Loan buildings that also reflect their host cities. 

The Anaheim Home Savings at 101 S. Harbor at Lincoln — now a Chase Bank — is the same design as the doomed Santa Monica branch. In addition to its mural of scenes from the city’s nineteenth century founding, it also has a south-facing stained glass window and a sculpture of a child riding a dolphin — once part of a fountain, now a planter. 

The Santa Ana Home Savings at Washington and Main — also now a Chase Bank — depicts the life and evolution of Santa Ana, including its agricultural past, its rapid growth and building in the twentieth century, and at its center a young family living the good life. 

Buena Park boasts two Sheets murals at two buildings at the corner of La Palma and Beach across from Knott’s Berry Farm: a smaller, earlier Home Savings, and a larger later building (depicting a railroad, a prospector, a Native American, and what appear to be two ‘bad guys,’ reflecting the Old West themes of Knott’s.)


Howard Ahmanson also had connections to Orange County. Though he lived in Los Angeles, he owned a vacation house in Newport Beach designed by Lloyd Wright, a prominent Southern California architect and son of Frank Lloyd Wright. Originally designed for violinist Jascha Heifetz, Sheets remodeled the house for Ahmanson. It no longer exists. 

Ahmanson grew Home Savings and Loan into one of the leading home mortgage lenders in California during the boom years after World War II. As one of the state’s wealthiest residents, he also became a major philanthropist, donating the Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center, buildings at his alma mater USC, and making the major donation that allowed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to be built.

For an artist of Sheets’ standing, his public art on commercial buildings has not been treated well. As the Home Savings branches were closed or sold off, the murals were sometimes painted over. Holes were drilled through them to add awnings, or they were defaced by commercial signage. 

Over the last decade, some threatened murals have been moved to safety from buildings in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, San Jose and San Antonio. A damaged mural in Palos Verdes has been restored in place.

Though many Santa Monica citizens, including the city’s Arts Commission, wanted to keep the mural in their city, a series of bureaucratic snafus undermined their efforts. 

LAist quoted the Santa Monica Conservancy’s Ruthann Lehrer saying, ”We feel extremely sad to lose this remarkable work of public art to a distant location. Not only is it a tremendous loss to Santa Monica, but it forecasts the removal of the other artworks — the sculptures and stained glass — from this site, leaving a stripped down and dismembered building.”

Though Orange County will gain by having this major work of public art at the Hilbert Museum, we should not forget the equally fine Sheets artworks we still have on the streets in Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Buena Park, still enjoyed by everyone as they go about their daily lives, as Millard Sheets and Howard Ahmanson intended. 

Jessica Rousseau