By Adam Arenson
Adam Arenson. 2018. Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California. Austin: University of Texas Press, 368 pp. 157 color and 17 b&w photos. ISBN: 978-1-4773-1529-3 $45. Hardcover.
“I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now,” financier Howard Ahmanson told visual artist Millard Sheets, offering him complete control of design, subject, decoration, and budget for his Home Savings and Loan branch offices.
The partnership between Home Savings — for decades, the nation’s largest savings and loan — and the Millard Sheets Studio produced more than 160 buildings in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri between 1953 and 1991. Adorned with murals, mosaics, stained glass, and sculptures, the Home Savings (and Savings of America) branches displayed a celebratory vision of community history and community values that garnered widespread acclaim.
Banking on Beauty presents the first history of this remarkable building program, . drawing extensively on archival materials, site visits, and more than seventy oral history interviews with artists, Home Savings executives, employees, community members, and preservationists. Arenson completed the first thorough examination of the Smithsonian’s Millard Sheets Papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and the sketches, installation slides, project files, correspondence, and other materials in the Denis O’Connor Collection at the Huntington Library.
Banking on Beauty begins with architectural and commercial precedents for such works, including California world fairs and Rockefeller Center, and continues past the sale of Home Savings to Washington Mutual in 1998, and the seizure of WaMu in 2008, to explore the preservation challenges for this work today. The book tells a fascinating story of how the architecture and art were created, the politics of where the branches were built, and why the Sheets Studio switched from portraying universal family scenes to celebrating local history amid the dramatic cultural and political changes of the 1960s.
Combining urban history, business history, and art and architectural history, Banking on Beauty reveals how these institutions shaped the corporate and cultural landscapes of Southern California, where many of the branches were located. Richly illustrated and beautifully written, Banking on Beauty builds a convincing case for preserving these outstanding examples of Midcentury Modern architecture, which currently face an uncertain future.
Banking on Beauty is available February 1, 2018, but is available for pre-order now.
Image at top: Mural “The Arts,” by Millard Owen Sheets at the Department of Interior Building, Washington, D.C., Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
California native Adam Arenson is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Urban Studies Program at Manhattan College. He has written or coedited three other books on the history of the American West and the politics and culture of U.S. cities: the award-winning The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard, 2011; Missouri, 2015 paperback); Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (California, 2015); and Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (Penn, 2013). A graduate of Harvard and Yale, he has also written about history in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other venues. More information about this and other publications available at adamarenson.com.