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Classical but not kitsch, Millard Sheets' art and architecture in Pomona and Claremont

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

No, this isn't a Christo art project; it's the Chase Bank Tower in Pomona, which is threatened with demolition, despite its Millard Sheets pedigree, including the mosaic on the left.

Pacific Standard Time is not just gallery and museum shows. It also includes events, like "Millard Sheets: A Legacy of Art and Architecture," which happens Sunday, March 18 in Claremont and Pomona. This tour of the work of native son Millard Sheets is put on by the L.A. Conservancy, which is fighting to preserve Sheets' work, including his many bank mosaics.

Off-Ramp host John Rabe spoke with the Conservancy's Modern Committee chair, Regina O'Brien, about the tour.

Sheets is famous for the bank mosaics O’Brien’s committee is trying to protect, murals with brightly-colored ceramic tiles puzzled together to form a massive scene. O’Brien calls it classicized modernism.

“He always used these rich materials – travertine and marble cladding, beautiful tiles and gold friezes – some have said, in talking to people who worked at his studio, that this was influenced by his trips. In WWII he worked in India. He saw these beautiful buildings and he would always come back with something,” she said. “He came back from Guatemala with a blouse and then had a terrific idea for a mural that was kind of inspired by that."

O’Brien revealed that though the architect has designed over 50 bank branches, he was never licensed to do any of it.

“He always had to have someone else put their stamp on any official documents. And he had a couple of collaborators, David Underwood among them, who would serve that purpose," said O'Brien. "Basically, Millard had a very holistic idea about what he wanted, and very meticulously designed every single part of the building – the light fixtures inside, the staircase, the mosaic."

The architect’s work is also extremely sculptural. “When I was talking to Brian Worley, he worked on a lot of the mosaics with Millard, he was explaining to me that it’s not only in the selection of the colors for shading, but also in the cut,” O’Brien recalled. “Sometimes he'd see something that was looking flat and he'd, say, every foot, randomly drop in a lavender tile, and that would pop the whole thing to life."

Sheets’ fame had grown by 1963, so the city of Pomona was happy to let him experiment with other ventures. He designed the first pedestrian mall west of the Mississippi with the idea of bringing people together, a motif in his buildings.

“Every single one of the Home Savings of America [banks] and almost every project that Millard undertook was done with a great sense of the community, so if you're passing by any Home Savings branch, it will have something to do with the community,” O’Brien explained. “The one in Hollywood is all about the history of Hollywood. The original Beverly Hills branch has a beautiful stained glass that’s all about the history of banking."

O’Brien said that after Home Savings closed, the property was passed to Washington Mutual. Now that Chase owns all the buildings, their futures are uncertain.

“Chase had mentioned that they were thinking of tearing the building down,” O’Brien said. “Now we are hoping that Chase will do an about face on this and recognize what a wonderful resource they have."

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