Issue: Winter 2023


Banking on Art

Beginning as a quaint farming community, Hollywood exploded in population and importance in the early Twentieth Century as the silent motion picture industry moved west from New Jersey, turning the sleepy burg into the filmic El Dorado. Such impressive structures as the Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Bowl, the TCL Chinese Theatre, and the iconic Hollywood Sign lent additional esteem to the booming entertainment capital. 

Thanks to visionary financier Howard Ahmanson Sr. and multi-talented artist Millard Sheets, the exquisite Hollywood Home Savings Bank (aka JP Morgan Chase Bank) at the famed Sunset and Vine intersection lavishly illustrates this Hollywood history through glamorous decoration in a landmark blending of art and commerce.

Architect and Hollywood Heritage founder Fran Offenhauser best describes the artistic signifcance of the cherished bank building. “Some people say that while Hollywood didn’t get the movie museum it always deserved, the Home Savings branch was our museum for decades—built on the site of the filming of Hollywood’s first feature length motion picture The Squaw Man; paying homage in building-high mosaics to the giants of acting; filled with architectural art portraying Hollywood history.”

Banking executive Howard Ahmanson purchased the valuable piece of property in 1967 to serve as the Hollywood branch and artistic flagship of his over-40-branch chain of Home Savings and Loan banks across Southern California, all designed by Sheets, whom author Adam Arenson in his book “Banking on Beauty” calls “an innovative artist and designer who made new, Midcentury Modern buildings seem timeless.”

Born July 1, 1906 in Omaha, Nebraska, Ahmanson grew up in Los Angeles and began selling fire insurance for National American Fire Insurance in the late 1920s and purchased property during the Great Depression. After World War II, Ahmanson invested in savings and loans before buying Home Building and Loan, later known as Home Savings, in 1947, which quickly expanded during the Los Angeles area post-war real estate boom.

Art prodigy Sheets was born June 24, 1907 in Pomona, California, one of Southern California’s most prolific and pioneering painters. The young artist began winning art competitions as a high schooler for his dynamic, colorful California landscapes, going on to study and teach at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles Times described his work as a “joyful and buoyant response to the picturesque aspects of life in Southern California.” Sheets studied mural and mosaic work, established Scripps College Fine Arts Department and eventually transitioned into architectural projects and designing such buildings as the Wilshire Boulevard Scottish Rite Masonic Temple.

At a time when commercial buildings seemed utilitarian and bland, Ahmanson determined to jazz them up and bring both beauty and history to the communities he served. The executive stated that, “by providing truly an appropriate landmark, we can show our gratitude to a wonderful community which has been so nice to Home Savings and Loan.” The inspired banker turned to the renowned Sheets in 1953 to make his banks “timeless yet modern,” telling him “I want buildings that will be exciting 75 years from now.”

Using the same rectangular shape for all the Home Savings bank buildings, Sheets adopted the New Formalism Style, employing classical elements with highly stylized decoration. Given total freedom in his creative designs by Ahmanson and following his dictates, Sheets’ decorative designs saluted the local and cultural history of each location in their decorative art.

The Sunset and Vine property originated as part of Col. Robert J. Northam’s 1901 ranch, featuring a small barn at the Northeast corner of Selma Avenue and Vine Street that later became known as the Lasky-DeMille Barn and now serves as the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Purchased by Fullerton real estate man Jacob Stern in 1904, the barn and surrounding lot operated as a rental motion picture studio operated by Harry Revier and Louis Loss Burns beginning in 1912.

Subleased by first-time director Cecil B. DeMille in 1913 to serve as headquarters for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co.’s 1914 production of The Squaw Man, the first feature length film shot in Hollywood, the little barn served as the birthplace for what is now Paramount Studios. After the studio moved to Melrose Avenue in 1926, the original buildings were demolished.

Small businesses occupied the site until National Broadcasting Company (NBC) purchased the property in 1936 to construct their West Coast headquarters. A lush Streamline Moderne building, NBC Radio City was designed by architect John W. Austin and opened in 1938, featuring the impressive two-story mural The Spirit of Radio created by Edward Trumbull in its lobby.  Moving their West Coast headquarters to Burbank in 1964 just 28 years later, NBC destroyed the handsome structure. In 1967, Ahmanson purchased the esteemed former site of NBC Radio City at the northeastern corner of  Sunset and Vine to serve as Sheets’ Hollywood canvas.

Sheets focused all decorative elements for the jewel box bank on the site’s former entertainment history. Creating a plaza by angling the building to the corner, the designer installed Paul Manship’s Art Deco sculpture Europa and the Bull to face the intersection. The sleek exterior travertine walls celebrated movie stars in their iconic roles through vibrant multi-colored mosaics. Such icons as Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, sexy “It” girl Clara Bow, and cowboy hero William S. Hart graced both front and rear walls, while scores of other celebrity names were etched in gold beside them.

Interior art eclipsed the exterior. Sheets himself painted a colorful mural highlighting DeMille’s 1914 film The Squaw Man on a lobby wall. Studio artist Susan Hertel crafted a breathtaking massive stained glass window at the rear entrance featuring great chases in film, art, and literature. Keystone Kops, cowboys and Indians, trains, and even Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock tower in the film Safety Last dazzled the eye as they greeted guests.

In 2020, Hollywood Heritage, Inc. submitted a Historic Cultural Monument nomination for the majestic structure. Giving the submittal a personal touch, Kathryn Ahmanson, great-great niece of original owner Ahmanson, researched and wrote the detailed history and background for the report. Recognizing the cultural and historic significance of their classic and exquisite building, JP Morgan Chase supported the nomination. After almost a year-long process, the City of Los Angeles approved the Hollywood Home Savings Bank as an official Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument in September 2022.

A “happy combination of artistic beauty and functional simplicity,” the stunning Hollywood Home Savings Bank still attracts art and film history lovers who recognize its enduring beauty, demonstrating Sheets’ own words that “This building has become a kind of landmark in many ways for a lot of people.”