Falling short of landmark status, the building faces demolition but its mural will be saved

By Danny Karel

The Home Savings branch at Wilshire and 26th was commissioned by savings-and-loan giant turned philanthropist Howard
Photo by Peter Leonard

From the 1950s into the 1970s, a fertile partnership between artistically-minded businessman Howard Ahmanson and architectural designer Millard Sheets produced 40 fortress-like Home Savings bank branches throughout Southern California.

The one at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 26th Street in Santa Monica, Sheets’ twenty-fifth, is unique among them in that the façade features a sprawling, 40’x16’ beach-themed mosaic mural between wings of the building pitched at 45-degree angles. Two related sculptures punctuate the premises, and an interior stained glass design completes the ensemble.

A Cellular Fantasy franchise purchased the historic building in 2000 and has shared the space with a New Balance franchise store since 2010. Now, according to a report by the Santa Monica Conservancy, its demolition is imminent.

Following years of legal back-and-forth over obtaining an official historic landmark designation for the building, a settlement reached at the end of last year allows the property’s current owner to remove the artworks and tear down the building. He seems poised to do so, and soon.

“We supported preserving the entire building,” explained conservancy board member Ruthann Lehrer. “All of the artworks and the architectural setting were designed as a unity — they were intended to work together. When you start dismembering a landmark, you lose its significance.”

The loss will disappoint many — including this writer, who grew up blocks away from the Home Savings building — but the story has a silver lining. With the help of a small cadre of invested parties, including the late Millard Sheets’ son Tony Sheets, the building’s unique artwork will be relocated to the Hilbert Museum of California Art in Orange County.

Tony Sheets, also an artist, said his father’s large-scale mosaic will be installed on the exterior of the building and face a busy train station. He was also quick to dispel rumors that building owner Mark Leevan had been attempting to crudely expedite the removal.

“He’s been terrific,” Sheets said. “I was given the impression that he was trying to shortcut it, and turns out not at all. He’s been very conscientious, and he’s paying for the removal of everything — he certainly didn’t want to destroy it.”

The bank buildings that Sheets designed for Ahmanson is the subject of a book by Adam Arenson, “Banking on Beauty,” describes how the artist designed each building to celebrate local history while projecting an aura of financial stability.

But there was still one more rumor that Tony Sheets wishes to dispel: that his father disliked the 26th and Wilshire mosaic. During a Santa Monica City Council hearing in 2016, a recording was played that seemed to show his father, who died in 1989, claiming that he would “wince every time” he passed the building. According to Sheets, the recording was presented out of context — “that was not true in the slightest,” he said.

But even if Millard Sheets found aspects of his handiwork disappointing, the sentiment wasn’t shared by the community. For almost 50 years, it has been a revered symbol of our city’s intimate and essential connection with the beach.

“The building has been a defining feature of Santa Monica since it was built,” said Lehrer. “It’s going to be a real loss.”