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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
Active (available)
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.

  • 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 York

California 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.