Bank Presidents and Branch Art in San Diego

First National Bank by Tucker, Sadler & Bennett. Photograph by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

When banks, and their Presidents, invested in the community they often doubled-down on art and architecture in San Diego

By Keith York
First National Bank by Tucker, Sadler & Bennett. Photograph by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

While there are many distinguishing characteristics that make San Diego’s bank buildings interesting – two examples highlight how executives, architects and artists together outfitted post-War bank buildings with murals, mosaics, paintings and sculptural elements on branches to attract and engage their customers.

Downtown, the Southern California 1st National Bank building of 1966, located at 530 B Street, by Tucker, Sadler and Bennett engaged passersby of its marble façade with contemporary lighting, a water feature that met customers outside of the lobby doors and drew them indoors where the water gently gurgled amidst the hustle of employees and their clients. Malcolm Leland’s bronze sculptural fascia running vertical flanking the entrance greeted visitors at the sidewalk, directing their gaze skyward to Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley’s piece titled ‘Variations on a Gold Theme’ (later removed when Union Bank reportedly remodeled the building in 1997 and gifted to the Mingei International Museum). Julius Shulman’s photographs of the site clearly demonstrate that the bank executives were willing to invest in art to engage the public.

Additionally, you have likely passed by one of Millard Sheets’ Home Savings and Loan branches. In San Diego, there are several notable examples. While onlookers likely view the buildings themselves as monolithic ‘New Formalism’ - nods to Greek and Roman traditions by architects like Edward Durell Stone and William Pereira in contrast to late ‘60s Brutalism – Home Savings branches offered a distinguished warmth and character of scaling, siting and adornment that is worth revisiting.

For decades, Millard Sheets and his studio of artists designed Home Savings sites “emblazing their iconic projects with mosaics, murals, stained glass and sculptures that celebrated both family life and the history of the Golden State.” Home Savings’ President Howard Ahmanson saw fit to collaborate with the Millard Sheets Studio across three dozen buildings between 1955-1968 while Ahmanson was still alive.

In Millard Sheets’ studio, in Claremont, California, the painter supervised designers in their production of mosaics, murals, stained glass, sculpture and fountains for the Home Savings branch offices – as well as for “restaurants, churches, hotels, airports, libraries, stores, government agencies, schools, hospitals, Freemasons and cemeteries,” according to the Los Angeles Times. While the Sheets studio worked across various media and types of buildings, the work for Home Savings demonstrated Sheets’ “commitment to making art that was at once aesthetically gripping and socially useful,” according to Adam Arenson author of Millard Sheets and Home Savings: Mid-Century Modern Corporate Art and Urban Identity for Southern California and Beyond.

Many of the mosaics adorning the Home Savings branches are by Sheets Studio designer Sue Hertel. Her work in San Diego, circa 1975-1977, references the San Diego Children’s Zoo, Balboa Park’s California Tower, the Star of India, and Cabrillo National Monument among other topics.

Art in bank branches is not always well-received. In fact, in 1956 painter Marj Hyde's work caused a stir in the Lloyd Ruocco-designed Security Trust and Savings Bank in Hillcrest. A group of Hyde’s “innocent, elegant” paintings were hung in the newly opened bank where they were supposed to remain for one month. Instead, the paintings came down after just two days, having provoked many complaints.

James Britton chronicled the Security Trust affair writing, “If my kid painted pictures like those, I’d give him a beating,” said one customer. That’s only a sample of the intolerant reaction heard by officials of Security Trust and Savings Bank when their handsome new Hillcrest branch opened with innocent, elegant paintings by Marj Hyde on the wall. How did the paintings get into the bank? It was architect Lloyd Ruocco’s idea, and he seems to have hypnotized bank officials with his sharply focused, insidious chatter about clean design, light design, bright design, right design. When it came time for the finishing touch of grace, Ruocco asked Miss Hyde to select paintings of hers that would complement his architecture. She understood they would hang for a month, after which another local painter of integrity would be dangled before the eyes of the money changing citizenry. Bank officials may have been hypnotized, but they snapped out of it when the lowbrow complaints started buzzing in their ears. They quickly ordered the paintings taken down, though only two days had elapsed of the month Miss Hyde expected. Said manager M.A. Herbert: “Only three people made favorable comments on the pictures.”

The work for Home Savings demonstrated Millard Sheets' “commitment to making art that was at once aesthetically gripping and socially useful,” according to Adam Arenson.
Photograph by Darren Bradley
Photograph by Darren Bradley

Home Savings & Loan Buildings with Millard Sheets mosaics

4650 Mission Bay Drive, Pacific Beach

5300 Jackson Drive, La Mesa

925 Orange Avenue, Coronado

444 Third Avenue, Chula Vista

150 Centre City Parkway, Escondido

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