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Millard Sheets Mosaic Back in Beverly Hills

Beverly Wilshire mosaic installed.jpg

KCET Departures' "Writing on the Wall" guest editorial series continues with 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. He has news on a Sheets mosaic.

By Adam Arenson

This month, for the first time in thirty years, a Millard Sheets mosaic is being installed.

The mosaic is the only one of the artworks by Sheets (1907-1989) and other artists from his Claremont studio (active late 1950s-1991) to be on the move in recent years.

As JP Morgan Chase has renovated the former Home Savings branches they acquired from Washington Mutual after the financial meltdown, and as other buildings have changed hands, Millard Sheets murals have been rolled off the walls in San Antonio and San Jose; the wood-panel mural of the Rose Parade has been removed from a former Home Savings location in Pasadena and is now at Pasadena City College; and, unfortunately, there are instances in which Sheets Studio artwork has been painted over, in San Francisco, Redwood City, and Long Beach.

Mosaic in storage, Carnevale & Lohr | Courtesy of the Ahmanson Foundation.
Mosaic in storage, Carnevale & Lohr | Courtesy of the Ahmanson Foundation.

My weekly trip to the farmers' market was brightened recently by the sight of the mosaic being re-installed near the heart of the Beverly Hills Civic Center, on front of the complex's garage.

The mosaic's story begins on the Camino Real, the historic road established by the Spanish to link together the missions of Alta California in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1971, as owners Hernando and Marcelle Courtright pondered renovations to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, they contacted Millard Sheets, whom they knew via Howard Ahmanson (Ahmanson had died in 1968).

Part of the Camino Real ran through the Beverly Wilshire property, and, capitalizing on this fact during renovations, the Courtrights lined a motor court with Scottish gaslights and Carrara marble and crowned it with a Sheets mosaic to create "the most unique hotel entrance in the world." In Marcelle's words, the mural was "an early California scene depicting a noble caballero and his lady on horseback." Millard Sheets was quoted as saying "the theme would be 'Mi casa es su casa -- a welcome to the home of a Caballero."

The mosaic holds five figures, with two ladies and a young girl turned away from us, to focus on the pair on horseback. Though Marcelle explained they were "surrounded by fascinating vegetation," the trees were far less fanciful and vibrant than in other Sheets creations (the trees in the mosaics at the Burbank and Westminster branches of Home Savings come to mind), which, along with the gentle color palette, lend the mosaic a relaxing, generally subdued tone. The ornate patterns on the dresses show the craftwork of Sheets Studio mosaicists Denis O'Connor and Nancy Colbath, and Sheets' interest in reproducing vibrant fabrics in the more difficult medium. Overall, the sense of welcome and arrival is palpable, and it feels timeless, part of centuries of travel along the Camino Real.

Marcelle was confident that the mosaic "will be admired forever by the international list of countless guests of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel." Apparently, forever was over by 1987, when the hotel paid for the mosaic (which had always been embedded in tiles, possibly with the expectation of a move) to be uninstalled. It was donated to the city of Beverly Hills, with a down payment on reinstallation costs.

Now, after 25 years in storage, thanks to the Ahmanson Foundation and Carnevale and Lohr -- Sheets's granite supplier and recent restorer of the Rolling Hills-Rancho Palos Verdes branch mosaic -- the Beverly Wilshire mosaic can finally, wonderfully, reemerge, cleaned, repointed, and ready. A rededication ceremony, including Millard's youngest son Tony, is expected in May.

Mosaic on the Beverly Wing of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel | Courtesy of the Ahmanson Foundation
Mosaic on the Beverly Wing of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel | Courtesy of the Ahmanson Foundation

Top: Beverly Hills Civic Center mosaic installed. Photo by Adam Arenson

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