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Banking on Beauty

Banking on Beauty
Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California

Expansively researched and illustrated, this lively history recounts how the extraordinary partnership of financier Howard Ahmanson and artist Millard Sheets produced outstanding mid-century modern architecture and art for Home Savings and Loan.

February 2018
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368 pages | 8 x 10 | 157 color and 19 b&w photos |

“I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now,” financier Howard Ahmanson told visual artist Millard Sheets, offering him complete control of design, subject, decoration, and budget for his Home Savings and Loan branch offices. The partnership between Home Savings—for decades, the nation’s largest savings and loan—and the Millard Sheets Studio produced more than 160 buildings in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri over the course of a quarter century. Adorned with murals, mosaics, stained glass, and sculptures, the Home Savings (and Savings of America) branches displayed a celebratory vision of community history and community values that garnered widespread acclaim.

Banking on Beauty presents the first history of this remarkable building program. Drawing extensively on archival materials, site visits, and oral history interviews, Adam Arenson tells a fascinating story of how the architecture and art were created, the politics of where the branches were built, and why the Sheets Studio switched from portraying universal family scenes to celebrating local history amid the dramatic cultural and political changes of the 1960s. Combining urban history, business history, and art and architectural history, Banking on Beauty reveals how these institutions shaped the corporate and cultural landscapes of Southern California, where many of the branches were located. Richly illustrated and beautifully written, Banking on Beauty builds a convincing case for preserving these outstanding examples of Midcentury Modern architecture, which currently face an uncertain future.


2018 Docomomo US Modernism in America Citation of Merit

Winner, 2018 PROSE Award for Architecture and Urban Planning, Association of American Publishers

  • Introduction: The Story, the Letter, the Building
  • 1. Origins: Millard Sheets, Howard Ahmanson, and Architecture before the Letter
  • 2. Creating the Millard Sheets Studio, Creating the Home Savings Style
  • 3. Building New Places
  • 4. Home Savings in Your Changing Community
  • 5. Expansion and Change after Howard Ahmanson
  • 6. Beyond Millard Sheets, Beyond California
  • 7. Preservation after Home Savings
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix A: List of Sheets Studio Artists and Contractors and Home Savings Artists
  • Appendix B: How the Sheets Studio Mosaics Were Made, by Brian Worley, Sheets Studio Artist
  • List of Interviews and Archival Collections Consulted
  • Notes
  • Index

New York, New YorkCalifornia native Arenson is an associate professor of history and director of the urban studies program at Manhattan College. He has written or coedited three previous books on the history of the American West and the politics and culture of US cities, including the award-winning The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War. Arenson has also written for the history blogs of several national publications, including the New York Times.


“Lovers of California art and architecture will swoon at the photos of the murals, statues and mosaics that Sheets designed for about 200 Home Savings and Loan branches between the 1960s and 1980s. . . . Banking on Beauty invites readers to remember a time when our captains of industry cared about public spaces as much as they did the bottom line — and it also challenges us to preserve those remaining buildings that possess Sheets originals.”
Los Angeles Times

“Once upon a time, a visit to a department store or a branch bank was a chance to be inspired by fine art…waves of corporate takeovers doomed most of the art, but some remain, like the 1968 masterpiece at Sunset and Vine that's now a Chase bank. This richly illustrated book finally tells their story.”
Los Angeles Magazine

“[L]avishly illustrated…If you'd like to explore [Millard Sheets's art] yourself, you won't find a better guide than Arenson's Banking on Beauty."”
The Objective Standard

Banking on Beauty…shows that commercial architecture does not have to be drab.”
World Magazine

“Arenson alternates between telling the story of, on the one hand, [Howard F.] Ahmanson and the growth of his savings and loan business, and, on the other hand, [Millard] Sheets and the development of his artistic practice, to great effect.”
Journal of Urban History

“This is a valuable work of original research on a subject that has needed study for decades. Studies of California modern design in this period have been largely focused on residential architecture. Arenson’s book demonstrates that commercial designs are of equal importance for consideration; in some ways they are more important, because they brought modern design to popular audiences in their daily lives. This book will be an important contribution to an ongoing reassessment of California design and architecture in the twentieth century.”
Alan Hess, architect and author of Forgotten Modern: California Houses, 1940–1970

“Millard Sheets and the artists associated with his studio in Southern California created extraordinary works of art for Home Savings and other financial institutions in the middle of the twentieth century. Like the marvelous mosaics, murals, and stained glass illustrated in this book, Adam Arenson’s Banking on Beauty depicts in rich color and detail the relationships between Sheets, his patron Howard Ahmanson, his studio collaborators, and the communities they hoped to serve. For readers interested in the nexus between beauty, commerce, and community, this is a must-read.”
Eric John Abrahamson, author of Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream

“In this deeply researched and broad-ranging study of patronage and artistry, Adam Arenson vividly evokes the civic impulse of private enterprise at midcentury. The Home Savings and Loan buildings emerge as a rich cultural landscape that bridges Art Deco, New Deal, and Modernist aesthetics. Beautifully illustrated, Arenson’s work enhances our understanding and appreciation of this period, and the book will be of great value to historians of American architecture, art, and urban planning.”
Elihu Rubin, Yale School of Architecture, author of Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape