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Happy Birthday Millard Sheets: Top Ten Public Art Projects to See in Person

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KCET Departures' "Writing on the Wall" guest editorial series continues with a return visit from Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history, University of Texas at El Paso. His blog is dedicated to research on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Sheets Studio, with a special focus on its work for Home Savings and Loan. "I hope to inform the owners of these unique properties, and to get them in touch with living Sheets Studio artists and trained preservationists to help maintain this public art for generations to come," says Arenson, who lives in Los Angeles. Here is a Top Ten must-see list to mark Millard Sheets's birthday. Sheets was born in Pomona.

By Adam Arenson

On June 24, 2013, Millard Sheets would have turned 106. That is quite old, but Sheets was in the lasting business: "I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now," Howard Ahmanson said to Sheets in 1953, offering him the chance to design the Home Savings look.

Sixty years later, the buildings and their mosaics, murals, stained glass, and sculpture seem on their way to that mark.

In honor of Sheets' birthday, I provide a Top Ten list of Sheets's public art projects worth seeing in person. All such lists have their flaws -- and it was so hard to choose -- but here we go.

This highlight some of the very best among the close to 200 works of public or corporate art created by Millard Sheets and his studio of artists between 1939 and the early 1980s. And you'll see I've slipped in some locations nearby my choices, in case you are ready to tour.

10. Lubbock Memorial Civic Center

Tribute to our Heritage by Millard Sheets I Courtesy Civic Lubbock
Tribute to our Heritage by Millard Sheets I Courtesy Civic Lubbock

To see how Millard Sheets interpreted the history and community identity of a place far from his California home, see the "Tribute to our Heritage" mural in the Lubbock, Texas, Memorial Civic Center. While there, check out the Lubbock National Bank mosaics, including one with a lemonade stand.

Texas too far? Consider the reinstalled mural at the San Jose airport as an alternate in the place-of-assembly category.

9. "Word of Life" mural, University of Notre Dame Library

Word of Life on the Notre Dame campus, aka Touchdown Jesus I Photo: Jim Denham via flickr
Word of Life on the Notre Dame campus, aka Touchdown Jesus I Photo: Jim Denham via flickr

Perhaps the most seen Sheets artwork -- though not recognized as such--this figure known to fans of the Fighting Irish as Touchdown Jesus represents Sheets's largest of formats, this time with granite of different colors, and surfaces treated for subtleties. The scale and complexity of such work can only be engaged in person.

For alternates, consider the "Four Elements" mosaic at the Interpace headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey. A pale substitute but a nice place to visit are the rainbow towers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu. The Millard Sheets mosaics on Los Angeles City Hall East are also on ceramic tiles.

8. U.S. Department of the Interior Building, Washington, D.C.

...Cultural Development of America I Department of the Interior
Cultural Development of America I Department of the Interior

These panels, on "The Negro's Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of America" are likely the most unknown of Sheets's public works, and nearly the most unseen. Available to be seen by tour reservation, these paintings depict Arts, Science, and Religion, with wonderfully rendered, gesturing figures in richly detailed scenes, reminiscent of the Home Savings murals.

In L.A. County, consider the political messages in the sketches for the Golden Gate International Exposition, which have been displayed in the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at L.A. Fairplex in recent years, or the "History of Communication" tapestry in the Loyola Marymount University Foley Communication Arts Center.

7. Buena Park's two branches

Millard Sheets (1950s and 1978) and Frank Homolka (1978), Buena Park branches at Las Palmas and Beach Boulevard
Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

For a study in contrasts, visit the two former Home Savings branches in the same intersection in Buena Park, just across from Knotts Berry Farm. The milkmaids on the first branch represent an early, cut-out-of-black-granite model for installing the mosaics, before the Sheets Studio was completing all of the work in-house, and then an imaginative look at the figures of the American West--feather headdress, locomotive, grizzly prospector--done by the Sheets Studio team of Denis O'Connor and Susan Hertel, filled with color.

6. Hollywood branch, Sunset and Vine

Millard Sheets in Hollywood I Photo Arenson via CurbedLA
Millard Sheets in Hollywood I Photo Arenson via CurbedLA

For a classic diagonal-to-the-corner Home Savings branch, Hollywood is the best choice, though Anaheim, Studio City, Santa Monica, and the different design at Rolling Hills-Rancho Palos Verdes also deserve mention here. These are maximal Home Savings designs, with a wonderful interplay of mosaic, stained glass, sculpture, and paintings, all working together to give a feeling of the place.

Hollywood wins out because of 500 names in the Roll of Stars, all done in mosaic; the three-film-reel stained glass window, showing the Keystone Kops, the Marx Brothers, and cowboys and Indians; the 2-ton "Flight of Europa" statue in a fountain on the plaza out front; and a mural honoring the site as the location where the first feature film, The Squaw Man, was filmed.

5. "River of Knowledge" mosaic, Detroit Public Library

Courtesy Detroit Library
Courtesy Detroit Library

When it comes to pairing words and images, this intricate mosaic from 1963, with its quotes from Emerson, Whitman, and others, really wins my heart. With the mosaic panels spaced around red columns, the bold use of line to cut up figures into near-abstract patterns, some of the artistry that came to dominate the best of the Sheets-O'Connor-Hertel collaborations are on display here, in a work that rarely finds its context within the Sheets Studio fold.

An L.A. example of the Sheets Studio working with a different kind of history is in the Scottish Rite Temple on Wilshire, where the sculptures and four-story mosaic are apparent, but the artwork hiding within is, alas, inaccessible.

4. Lombard/Van Ness branch, San Francisco

Sheets in San Francisco I Photo: Adam Arenson
Sheets in San Francisco I Photo: Adam Arenson

For a historian, this branch is wonderful: two narratives of San Francisco history coat the branch, inside and out. The inside one, a curving mural, tells centuries of history, and Sheets provided the caption: "San Francisco: Magnetic and beautiful, grew on land once home to Native Americans, host to Spanish explorers, enricher of ranchers and gold seekers. Horses, ships and the railroad brought commerce and people from every corner of the earth to build the best city by the bay. Partially destroyed by earthquake and fire, the city grew again. Victorian mansions, banking centers and hotels were built, and the legendary cable cars, parks and bridges welcomed the world. Today, the spirit of the city's people is building a community both international and unique."

Outside, mosaic vignettes retell the city's history, much like the snapshots of history at the Studio City branch, but here the background granite holds a silhouette of the city skyline. Unfortunately, the trees have grown up so tall that one must stand right under the mosaics to get a glimpse of them - hence the high ranking for a visit.

3. Millard Sheets Studio, Claremont

Millard Sheets studio I Photo Arenson via CurbedLA
Millard Sheets studio I Photo Arenson via CurbedLA

When it comes to understanding what Millard Sheets set out to do, it is hard to pick a better place to understand it than the studio where most of the art and architecture was designed and created. Though now an optometrist's office, the Sheets Studio buildings have been preserved, from Sheets's own office, in the building straight ahead, to the projection room and mosaic-composition areas in the taller building to the right. Details throughout the property--the mosaic birds, the stained glass, the terrazzo cat in the floor, the name Millard Sheets Designs" still on the travertine block--still hint at its original purpose.

If imagining the work being constructed can't work for you, take these materials from the L.A. Conservancy tour of the variety of Sheets Studio designs in and around Claremont and Pomona, including the Garrison Theater, Pomona First Federal in Claremont, the mural at what is now AMOCA in Pomona, and the Second Street Tower designed for Home Savings to anchor the Sheets-designed Pomona Mall.

2. 9245 Wilshire, Beverly Hills

Millard Sheets in Beverly Hills
Millard Sheets in Beverly Hills

Though the interior remodeling has ruined the effect of the stained glass window, the original Home Savings branch at 9245 Wilshire Boulevard, the oldest extant collaboration between Sheets and Howard Ahmanson, remains the best place to understand how the germ of an idea grew into such a distinctive collection of architecture.

Here sculpture, stained glass, and mosaics are on display; in the executive offices, more artwork likely still lurks. While you are there, stop by 9145 Wilshire, where the former Ahmanson Trust & Savings gives a good sense of what the original Sheets interior looked like (though the fountain is gone).

An alternate: A beautiful example of Sheets Studio art in multiple media is the branch in Encino, with a cavalcade of stained-glass farm animals, a cowboy portrait overhead, a mosaic, and Betty Davenport Ford's wonderful Big Cats out in front. Only the original branch's history kept in on top here.

1. Your Local Artwork.

Mosaic by Millard Sheets studio in Riverside, Calif. I Photo by Bebe Kropko
Mosaic by Millard Sheets studio in Riverside, Calif. I Photo by Bebe Kropko

The most important work of Millard Sheets's public art is your local example--the Sheets Studio branch for Home Savings, the paintings in the local art museum, or the mosaics called upon to crystallize the essence of your community.

Whether you love the message or you find it outdated, the Sheets Studio artwork has likely done its work--you can't imagine your community without such beauty in it. So, in honor of Millard Sheets's birthday, celebrate that artwork -- and help guard it for another 75 or 106 years.

Pictured Above: The Millard Sheets mural that Adam Arenson grew up with in La Mesa, California. Photo: Andrea Flint-Gogek

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