Marketing Banks by Telling History: Howard Ahmanson, Millard Sheets, and the Art and Architecture of Home Savings Banks

Adam Arenson

From the mid-1950s until the late 1980s, the Home Savings Banks conducted a remarkable experiment in the power of history to market banking. Howard Ahmanson contracted with California artist Millard Sheets to provide iconic artwork to attract customers; within three weeks, the cost of the elaborate mosaics had been paid in new deposits, beginning a history of banking, public-art sponsorship, and public history in southern California. Millard Sheets and his studio of artists designed and sited Home Savings and Loan Bank buildings throughout California, studding their iconic projects with mosaics, murals, stained glass, and sculptures that celebrated both family life and the history of the Golden State. This study recovers this history, from the first commission through the recent history of the properties' sale to Washington Mutual (1998) and to Chase (2008). It describes this project conceived in the era of Nixon and Reagan, considering the origins and intent of the artwork, the public image it afforded the banks involved, and the future for these artworks as the financial institutions they contain have changed hands. It advances the history of business by analyzing a corporate investment in public memory, describing how this interplay of community banking and public art fostered community in California's notoriously spread-out suburbs.