Friday, March 16, 2018

New Book: Banking on Beauty

If you ever followed this blog, you must know about Millard Sheets and Home Savings and Loan. 
Sheets was the artist behind the beautiful mosaics and murals on Home Savings Branches, once the largest chain of savings & loan banks in the US. 
The ultimate book has appeared about both: Banking on Beauty, by Professor Adam Arenson. It's a big, heavy, coffee table reference that was just published by the University of Texas Press. 
Inside the book, you'll find everything you could ever hope to know about all the design and art of the Home Savings and Loan branches: original drawings, dates, contractors, artists, concepts, more. It's a great reference, and I'm amazed, with all the artwork, that the price is only $45. Well worth it.
Last Wednesday, the Marciano Art Foundation hosted Profession Arenson and Laura MacDonald in a building designed by Sheets almost 60 years ago: the former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire Blvd, in the Windsor Square neighborhood.  Thank you, Flo Selfman, for letting me know about this, and making reservations!

These pictures show a couple of the mosaics over the side entrance of the building. Masonic symbols, all. Laura MacDonald talked about the history of Freemasonry as it relates to architecture, and how the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple reflected the principles of the order. 
After that, Professor Arenson talked specifically about Millard Sheets, about some of the myths and the complicated history of his design studio. All in brief, of course, because time was limited. The building was closing only 15 minutes after the talk, giving folks barely enough time to buy their books and get them signed.
Oh, and Tony Sheets, son of Millard, was also on hand to give support.
Adam Arenson has been working on this project for ten years now. I am so glad to see it published!
Was not able to take any notes during the talk, which was accompanied by lots of slides and photographs, but one thing that I remember is this: The Home Savings and Loan buildings where big, square, solid edifices with artwork, always. Like the Beverly Hills branch, (links go to my blog posts and pictures). The BH branch opened in 1956, and is the oldest surviving Home Savings and Loan Building. Big, square, solid.
After Howard Ahmanson died, though, his sons took over the business, and they were willing to vary the design a little. That's why some of the later branches, like Santa Monica's - which is now a New Balance Shoes store.  This branch is not square--it has "wings" spreading out from the front entrance.

There are amazing mosaics at The Marciano Art Foundation, as well, done by Sheets and by Susan Hertel. I've written about Susan Hertel before too, especially about the lovely birds in the mosaics at the Redondo Beach Wells Fargo (which started life as a temporary, prefabricated Home Savings and Loan).
I learned the other night that Hertel kept a bunch of pets at Millard Sheets Designs in Claremont, and those pets were the models for her very graceful artwork. 

A mosaic on the third floor of the building, sadly hidden by interior walls and impossible to photograph, has some of Susan Hertel's animals, including this fellow. I could not photograph the whole mosaic, because of that stupid wall. LA Weekly, where I found the photo below, also questioned the wisdom of hiding the mosaic behind a wall the room used to be a dining hall, with the mosaic in full view. 

Finally, here is a photo of the outside mosaic by Sheets, shamelessly copied from a Curbed LA post. The photo was taken by Elizabeth Daniels. The mosaic is on the east side of the building and shows the history of temple-building.

Friday, March 9, 2018

West Wing's Tornado Disaster

I just learned that the town hit by a tornado in the 5th season of The West Wing (episode "Disaster Relief") was actually represented by my home town, San Pedro. 7th Street and Centre Street, to be exact. 

Of course, lots of special CGI effects were added, but yup, that's us. The "Glenn R. Th" that you see to the right is actually the old Liberty Auditorium, which is now being refurbed and opening as the Port Town Brewery. 

The Brewery is not open yet; their Facebook page shows pictures of the construction and progress being made. Below is a picture of the building when it's not been ravaged by a TV-land tornado. 

The Liberty Auditorium was a dance hall built in 1918. Apparently it was a garage for a few decades too, but at the time the TV episode was filmed, it had been vacant for several years.

Right next door, with the Wiley Feeds sign, is All O Fit, a gym, and next to that a law office. It had a torn up awning in the show.

I understand the street scene, with upended trees and cars and debris strewn everywhere, stayed unpassable for close to three weeks while the show filmed. 

Below on the left, you see the back of what is now the Crowne Plaza that faces 5th Street.  Beyond that is the 7-story Municipal Building that had a jail on the top for many years. 

Across the street from this devastation was a vacant lot. It's vacant no more. The San Pedro Bank Lofts went up there about ten years ago. But the vacant lot made it easy to film, I'm sure. 

Go, President Bartlet, go. Lead us!

Behind the president and crew, above and to the right, are two more old, three-story buildings that are also gentrified lofts now, the LaSalle Lofts. These are all lovely, interesting, historic places to live in an area full of artists, but residents must deal with homeless folks on the street - something they probably didn't plan on a few years ago when they bought their lofts. 

I'll ramble a question here. What has worked to help the homeless? I hear lots of debate about why this or that plan will work or won't work, but surely there must be something that has worked well in other cities. Let's do that! 

Why am I just learning about this filming now? I never watched The West Wing when it was on. It's a long tradition with me, never watching popular and great shows when they are fist broadcast. I don't even watch Star Trek series until they've been seasoned for a few years. The advantage is that I can watch them all without waiting for next week and the new episode.

People have been telling me to watch The West Wing for years. I finally started, and now I'm hooked. I want this alternate history. With the real news that's on TV today, The West Wing has become my happy place.

Sadly, I have only one more season to go. But my plan is to start on Mad Men next.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Reading LA History: LAX, Cat & Fiddle, Van Upp

I've written about the mosaic walls at LAX before, but tonight I'll point you to an article in DesignObserver about Janet Bennett, who claims to have designed those mosaics. I hope enough people will pay attention to make it official.

As far as I know, Janet's boss in 1960 (when she worked for Periera and Luckman, the architects of the Los Angeles International Airport) never claimed credit for the mosaic walls. After he died, however, they became part of his legacy as the designer of the airport's interior - rightly or wrongly. Janet Bennett, who left Los Angeles for other projects before the mosaics were installed, says she designed them, and the fact that a fresh-out-of-school young female artist didn't get proper credit in 1960 probably surprises no one.

The Cat & Fiddle in Hollywood is gone, and the new tenants want to return it to its former days. Before it was a British-style pub, the restaurant with the huge patio was the Mary Helen Tea Room with an enchanted garden. In fact, that's how it started life in 1927, during Prohibition. A bit of its history is here, in posts from the Hollywood Gastronomical Haunts blog.

Eater (the source of this photo) has posts about the new folks moving in, chef April Bloomfield and restaurateurs Ken Friedman, and about the history of the place.

Ever hear of Virginia Van Upp? She was a screenwriter and became Hollywood's first female executive producer in 1944. Great success, and then a big, slow, fall from the heights. This piece in by Christina Newland goes as in depth as possible into Van Upp's career, but leaves a lot of questions.

Finally, here's a link to Zocalo Public Square's short article on a newly donated group of photographs of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. The collection of over 4,000 pictures came from Ernest Marquez, and was donated to the Huntington Library. This one shows the Arcadia Hotel in the background, while Victorian daredevils ride a roller coaster not far from the shore in Santa Monica in the 1880s.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Los Angeles' past and future ... and theatres

Two wonderful essays about Los Angeles that must be shared:

The first appeared in the March 3 Los Angeles Times. Under the guise of talking about the upcoming local election, Thomas Curwen gives us a summation of how Los Angeles has grown over decades and what that growth means to those who live here, and those who want to live here.

I love this line:

Chicago was lucky. San Francisco was lucky. One had a fire, the other an earthquake, each triggering a makeover, allowing each city to rethink its layout and identity.

Dang. We haven't been blessed enough to be destroyed and given the opportunity to rebuild.

Ed Ruscha remembers moving to LA in 1956 and having a neighbor tell him that around 1942, the place was paradise. Paradise!

Find an old man today, and you'll probably hear that in 1980 this place was paradise, says Ruscha. He's so right.

Curwen goes into the tunnel of the Hall of Administration to find records going back a century, showing how neighborhoods were laid out and prized properties designed back then. Los Angeles, where everyone had cars, could afford space for homes with yards, hundreds of them. Thousands of them.

But ... hundreds of thousands of them? Eventually, we hit a limit.

The second story is called "Inside LA STAGE History: Edwin Booth and Child's Grand Opera House," and takes us all the way back to Gold Rush Days and a teenaged Edwin Booth. Who becomes an adult Edwin Booth and saves Robert Lincoln, the son of the president that Booth's brother will assassinate a year later, from falling off a train platform.

Yes, this story is full of exactly the sort of digressions that I love.

But it's mostly about Los Angeles' opera house. This picture was taken shortly before the structure on Main Street was demolished in 1936.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Tar Pits Essay by David Ulin

I should have known: good articles always show up in threes or more. Should have held off on yesterday's post a day, because now I have something to add to it: an opinion piece fro David L. Ulin that appeared in the December 19 LA Times: "What Lies Beneath L.A."

It's all about the thin veneer of metropolis we trust so heavily in, and the fractured, tarry landscape beneath.

The Times ran a picture of the LaBrea Tar Pits diorama in front of the Page Museum, but I prefer this picture "borrowed" from another blog that shows tar seeping up through a sidewalk on Wilshire. This may be the very seep that Ulin mentions several times in his essay. I think it's a better illustration of the tar today (mammoths are nice and all but can we really relate to one being stuck in goo?) and the reminder of what's really beneath the solid ground on which we place our trusting feet.

The picture comes from a 2015 blog post by Geoff Manaugh. Actually his BLDGBLOG post is a reprint of a post he'd written for The Daily Beast, and goes into the same topics Ulin addressed, with even more details: the 1989 methane gas explosion that took out a dress store on a strip mall, also the fault of the tar pits beneath. The temporary nature of our structures compared to the forces of nature underlying them. How we've taught ourselves to ignore all this.

Both are fine reading, especially if you need a break from Modern Life.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas Vacation Reading for you

First, here are 25 Los Angeles area restaurants that happen to be over fifty years old. Some old favorites, of course, but also a few--like Cielito Lindo--I had not heard of or visited. You?

Second, seen this iconic photo from 1960? The Case Study House No. 22?

Los Angeles Magazine goes in-depth on its importance, with interviews with the architect (Pierre Koenig) and builders, the models in the photo, the owners of the home, and the photographer, Julius Shulman, who took this shot on May 9, 1960.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ooohhh ... Watch Los Angeles Grow!

This is for the dazzled kid in us. Los Angeles Magazine has put up a Google Map graphic of the Southland -- and yes, you can move around and zoom in on your part of town -- that lets you see the growth and change since 1984. It's great fun.

No street names, though.

Another recommended read is much more sobering: The Los Angeles Times published a haunting photo essay about visiting Tule Lake, one of the camps where people of Japanese descent were forced to live during most of World War 2. Fact: 62% of the 110,000 + people who lost homes and jobs and were forced into internment camps were American citizens.

The article shows other sites in California that are connected with racism over the years. For more info on the Internment of Japanese Americans, this is one instance where Wikipedia is a good place to start. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Weekend Reading: Cemeteries, Art Deco, Korean Bell, Take Out Pails

A selection of great articles on LA history came up. And while this blog is largely inactive, why not share?

  • The first four cemeteries in Los Angeles, going back to the 18th century: Where were they, what became of them, and what happened to the bodies? From LACurbed.

  • The NEW YORK Times has, over the last year or two, posted a lot of Very Good Stories about Los Angeles. I suspect ulterior motives, but I enjoy the articles anyway. This one is a tour of Los Angeles's Art Deco Buildings.

  • Since today is the 40th anniversary of the dedication of the Korean Friendship Bell in San Pedro, NBC posted a collection of photos of the Bell and park, including one of a couple making out in the foreground. 

  • Not limited to Los Angeles, but did you know that this ubiquitous take out container was invented in the 19th century and had nothing to do with Chinese food? 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Mosaic Monday Links to a Millard Sheets Birthday Tribute

In 2013, KCET celebrated the June 24th birthday of artist Millard Sheets by listing ten of his best-known, best-loved pieces of public art. They weren't all in California.

Which gives me a great excuse to show this picture of Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame in Indiana.

This is on the library at the school, and this article gives a pretty detailed history of how it came to be.

Back to KCET's celebratory piece by Ed Fuentes.

The list includes the Millard Sheets Studio, now an optometrist's office in Claremont, the Beverly Hills branch of Home Savings and Loan, which was not the first collaboration with Howard Ahmenson. But it is the earliest example of Sheets' work for Ahmenson that's still standing.

There are installations in Detroit, in Lubbock, TX, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Home S&L banks in the OC as well as the beautiful Hollywood branch.

Counting down to #1: What do you think? Since KCET is local, they named "Your Local Artwork" as the Number One site, and ran this picture of a mosaic in Riverside. The photo is by Bebe Kropko:

Happy 109th birthday, slightly belated.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sunday Reading: How LA's Boulevards Compare to Other Cities', and What That Means

Studying public spaces fascinates me.

Banking and business districts can be very forbidding, for example. Even the public art is cold and uninviting. I can feel excluded, as if I were being told to move on. There is no place to linger and enjoy the view outside most of those huge buildings.

They and their streets "create an interesting visual panorama, one as aggressively functional as an oil refinery."

That quote is from the article I link to, a few paragraphs down.

Makes you speculate on why. Why do those big banks make their buildings so impersonal, cold, and exclusive?

When you look at a city's public space -- even an ancient city -- you can learn things about the culture you might not have known.

  • Maybe it becomes clear that a lot of everyone's time is spent outdoors - certainly the case in Paris, above.

  • Maybe the division between rich and poor is sharp and drastic. (Let's say the big houses were up a hill. The sewage flowed downhill. Would not want to live there!)

  • Walls surround some areas -- were these ghettos? Enclaves of royalty? University grounds? Religious sanctuaries?

  • Do all classes shop in the same place? Like the Zocalo in Teotihuacan?

  • Did constructing new parks and broader avenues in an old city mean that social barriers were breaking down?

Public spaces can unify or divide people.

Which is why a very long article by Doug Suisman in Boom California has captured my attention, but I've had to read it in bursts, as if it had different chapters.

Suisman is an architect and urban designer. In this piece he examines all the different cities he's lived in, from his Hartford, CT childhood to Europe to NYC to LA, where he lives now. And he examines each as a part of his education, and tells us what he learned from the places and the way they were laid out.

In Los Angeles over 30 years ago, he finds a city made by engineers, and yet as you look down the residential streets you find colonnades of stately trees. Through the 1980s and 90s and into the 21st century, Suisman tracks the changes along our streets as his own architectural firm was involved involved in the transformations. Global climate change, terrorism threats, economic ups and downs, gas prices, and many other factors all play a role in how lively our streets are, and how we enjoy them -- or not.

I'd never heard of such a thing as studying and manipulating public space till 15 years ago. It's possible that in 30 years from now, all this speculation will be old hat.

But for now, Suisman's ideas make a great read for a hot Sunday.