Famous Artwork on the Front of a Local Bank
There’s a very famous piece of public art on the edge of the Crescenta Valley that few locals have ever acknowledged. It’s mounted on the front of a local bank that I, and I’m sure most of my readers, have driven by hundreds of times and never given a second glance. I only became aware of it when researching the origin of the unusual bank building it adorns. When I did an internet search on the bank I found scores of websites and articles – not on the bank, but on the mosaic mural on its front face, some of the websites European in origin. That bank is Chase Bank on the corner of Foothill and Tujunga Canyon boulevards, and the artwork is one of the 100-plus so-called “Home Savings and Loan Murals” done by the Millard Sheets Studios from the 1950s through the ’80s.
In 1952, the art-loving billionaire Howard Ahmanson, who would later help found the County Museum of Art and the Music Center, had acquired Home Savings and Loan, and intended to build more branches. The businessman fired off a terse letter to Millard Sheets, a leading L.A. artist famed for his watercolors.
“Have traveled Wilshire Boulevard for 25 years. Know name of every architect and year building was built. Bored! Need buildings designed. I want buildings that will be exciting 75 years from now.”
He gave Sheets, who had no architectural background, complete creative control. When Sheets called Ahmanson later to ask what his restrictions were on cost, Ahmanson simply hung up on him. In other words, he didn’t care about the cost. Sheets designed over 40 buildings nationwide and adorned them and many more with artwork from his studio, all of which paid homage to the area in which they were to be displayed. The Palos Verdes Bank featured horsemen, a nod to the area’s equestrian roots. Hollywood’s branch had murals and stained glass portraying various movie stars, and Beverly Hills had artwork about money. In other words, each location had artwork that said something about the community. I wish more architects and designers followed that credo.
The Tujunga branch Home Savings was built in 1978. The building is tall, white and modern, but with a classic flavor. Small stained glass windows near the top portray birds, but the big show is the mural on the front of the building. It’s a large mosaic tile work, portraying appropriately Indians and vaqueros. On the left we see Indian woman gathering food in baskets beneath a tree, and a man hunting with a bow, reflecting the hunter-gatherer activities of the native people who roamed Tujunga and the Crescenta Valley for thousands of years. To the right, a Spanish vaquero ropes a steer, a nod to the Spanish and Mexican conquerors that ranged cattle in our valley. The two groups do not interact, separated by tall plants, maybe indicating hostility or the vast separation of cultures between them. Those plants look like river plants, perhaps to show that the headwaters of the Verdugo Creek are very near this spot.
The mosaic was designed by artist Susan Hertel and executed by sculptor Denis O’Conner, frequent collaborators with Millard Sheets. In fact, the design shows the influence of a Sheets painting done many years before.
Home Savings, which commissioned the piece, was bought out several years ago by Washington Mutual, and again by Chase Bank a couple of years ago. Chase Bank has been a good conservator of the murals and artworks, many of them in L.A., and they are aware of the significance of the pieces. In fact, when I visited the mural, the bank officer I spoke to seemed well aware of it, and I got the impression I was not the first to visit the bank just to see the mural. The L.A. Conservancy has been active in appreciating these overlooked art pieces all over L.A., and the Autry featured them in an exhibition a couple years ago.
So stop by and view this important public art you’ve passed for decades, but never really seen before.