Landmark on Wilshire

Some love it, some hate it – the forty-foot surfside sunset mosaic at 26th and Wilshire Boulevard is here to stay.

On Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council officially declared the former Home Savings of America branch office a City Landmark, overriding a technical denial by the Landmarks Commission.  The decision ended half a decade of back and forth over the building, which has been both granted and denied landmark status over the years.

“I live close to this building and I never liked it,” Architectural historian Ruthann Leher said, who brought the issue before the City Council when the Santa Monica Conservancy appeal the Commission’s decision.  “It took awhile for me to fully understand it.”

Leher and others at the Conservancy argue the building’s historical significance extends beyond City limits.

Renowned painter Millard Sheets designed the building and the mosaic, as well as dozens of other Home Savings branches throughout California in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.  The modern and classically formal architecture was meant to heighten the public’s trust in the financial institution. The mosaic titled “Pleasures along the beach” embodied Santa Monica’s values.

But not even Sheets himself liked it.

“I would never do it again,” Sheets once said in an interview. “It’s too much mosaic. It’s too much in a rectangle. It looks like an oversized painting and I wince every time I go by it.”

The attorney for the owner of the building, Rodger Diamond, seized on those remarks to argue the building does not deserve landmark status. He suggested to the City Council they should do Sheets a favor and allow someone to demolish it for good.  Or, perhaps they would just want to keep the mosaic.  Diamond also attacked the City’s process toward reaching their conclusion.

“You’re headed toward a legal disaster,” Diamond said, suggesting the fight might move past the Council and toward the courts.

“While Sheets may not have though this was his best work, it was nonetheless his work,” Councilmember Gleam Davis said, noting that Sheets is also responsible for the famous “touchdown Jesus” mosaic at Notre Dame (Davis graduated from a rival school, USC, but noted the significance of the work nonetheless). “Our opportunity here is to preserve a larger heritage, really a national heritage.”

The City Council found the building met landmark criteria because of its post-war architectural history, unique artwork and connection to Sheets. Councilwoman Pam O’Connor was the only member to vote against the designation.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press