April 3, 2017
Nearly four years after it was nominated by the Landmarks Commission, the former Home Savings building at 26th and Wilshire, and the parcel on which it is located, have been designated as a landmark by the City Council.
The history of the nomination has been fraught with controversy. The Landmarks Commission voted 6–0 (with one abstention) to designate the property in December 2013. The owner appealed, but agreed to delay the hearing until the Zoning Ordinance Update was completed and the development potential with and without designation was determined. When the matter finally came before the Council in November 2016, a recent court decision had placed Santa Monica’s process of allowing proactive designation by the Commission in question. Staff recommended sending the matter back to the Commission to be heard by the four members appointed since the original nomination.
A public hearing was conducted in February, and the Commission voted 3-1 in favor of designation, resulting in a “technical denial” since Commission rules require approval by four of the seven commissioners. The Conservancy appealed this decision, on the grounds that there was overwhelming evidence that the structure met five of the six criteria for designation, as supported by the Staff Report, Consultants’ Reports from 2013 and 2017, as well as letters from noted Millard Sheets expert Adam Arenson and architectural historians Alan Hess and Margarita Jerebek.
At the Council hearing, Conservancy representatives and numerous local residents wrote letters and/or testified in favor of the designation, with only the owner’s attorney speaking in opposition to the appeal. Council voted 6-1 to designate both the structure and the parcel on which it is located.
Completed in 1970, Santa Monica’s Home Savings is the 25th of a group of approximately 40 branch banks resulting from the unique collaboration of financier Howard Ahmanson and artist Millard Sheets. Sheets was an eminent artist based in Claremont, acclaimed for his watercolors as well as for his leadership in arts education, promoting art programs in the region. He chaired the Scripps College Art Department (1932-55) and the Otis Art Institute (1953-1960), directed the art program at the L.A. County Fair (1931-1957), helped hire artists for the Federal Art Project, and mentored many renowned artists.
Ahmanson commissioned Millard Sheets, beginning in the 1950s, to create a visual identity for Home Savings that would convey an image of security and financial stability, and that would incorporate decorative artworks with imagery relating to the local community in which each building was sited. The monumental geometric masses, clad in travertine marble with gold trim, incorporating mosaics and sculpture and stained glass, became the signature style of the Home Savings branches. Sheets was given complete artistic freedom in designing these buildings with his collaborators in the Sheets Design Studio.
The Santa Monica Home Savings design had two significant innovations– the site plan and the scale of the mural. The building is placed at a 45 degree angle to the corner, set back so that two wings extend outward to embrace an open plaza, with a sculptural focal point. Sheets liked this so well that he repeated it in Anaheim. The mosaic mural is larger than typical for Sheets’ work, and is scaled for the monumental architectural forms and its setback from the corner.