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Bank failures strike a blow to city’s art

HomesArtArts and CultureMortgagesBankingJPMorgan Chase & Co.USC

Home Savings of America. Three words of modern democracy: Home (yours), Savings (yours) and America (ours). Together they formed the deceptively simple name of a business here in the Southland that may have issued the mortgage that built your house.

Home Savings was founded in 1889 and followed the century-old tradition of "thrift" associations, also called "building and loans." They were not-for-profit cooperative organizations, managed by depositors and local institutions, to help working families own a house. Banks, in contrast, offered what bankers today, in "Mad Men" jargon, promote as "financial industry products."


FOR THE RECORD:
Home Savings: The Home section's Lost L.A. column on Saturday about artwork at Home Savings of America branches said that Washington Mutual acquired Home Savings in 1992. The correct year was 1998. —


Social reformers organized B&Ls certain that moral good came from teaching citizens to save and borrow. The thrifts' formula was straightforward: They loan you money to buy a house you can afford. You work, you're thrifty and you save. You pay your mortgage, and they invest your savings for reliable, if modest, returns posted monthly to your banking passbook. This is what Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman calls responsible, boring banking.

Howard F. Ahmanson Sr., a USC graduate, recognized the power of the thrift mortgage formula. He purchased Home Savings in 1947 and, through acquisitions and postwar boom, expanded in California and beyond. Thrifts were organized for public benefit, and Ahmanson contributed to that tradition while piling in the profits. Customers were not just walking wallets to be looted but depositors supporting their local bank. An imposing building along Main Street convinced Mom and Dad that money was safe at Home Savings of America. To this end, Ahmanson paid for marble-clad temples to the once-mighty dollar, decorated with murals, stained glass and sculpture on walls and at entrance facades.

Artists Millard Sheets, Susan Hertel and Denis O'Connor worked with Ahmanson's company from 1952. For local branches they designed and supervised art about California history, flora and fauna: Spanish missionaries in San Diego, prospectors in Studio City, and Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins at Sunset and Vine.

A significant archive coming to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino includes gouache studies made for mosaic murals. One by Leland Means depicts the leaping dolphins and gliding pelicans that decorated the Home Savings built in 1988 at Santa Monica Boulevard and 4th Street. This 8-by-12-foot mosaic and a companion cost $65,000. With Howard Ahmanson, Los Angeles — the Rome of the West — had its own Lorenzo de Medici, the Italian Renaissance banker who branded his native Florence a center of culture and wealth through public art. With consistent architecture and local themes, the Ahmanson banks became landmarks that, in their sameness, unified a city and state cobbled from disparate pasts.

The private H.F. Ahmanson & Co. steered Home Savings through the 1960s housing decline, survived the ‘80s banking meltdown brought on by deregulation of savings and loans, and then, after almost half a century, succumbed to buyout mania in 1992 by selling to Washington Mutual, itself originally a B&L. We all know what happened — WaMu is NoMore, tanked by aggressive financial products. In 2008, through federal fiat and your tax dollars, presidential advisor Jamie Dimon nabbed WaMu for his New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Banks may be too big to fail, but art is not. Ahmanson razed its Figueroa Street branch in downtown L.A. to build a tower; WaMu unloaded others, reducing the dolphins at 4th and Santa Monica to rubble and putting the city's first Home Savings mosaic at Wilshire and 26th in the hands of a cellphone store. In its initial year of stewardship, Chase followed through on an existing plan to clean a mosaic in Palos Verdes but painted over a mural in San Francisco and stripped panels by Sheets from a Pasadena branch. Through the vigilance of Sheets' son, Tony, Chase donated them to the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts in Pomona. This is a positive effort — but not preservation that keeps art in its intended site.

National banks, masters of derivative finance, do not care about our homes, our savings or our nation beyond their potential to generate management bonuses. Now one of them controls a chunk of L.A. heritage. The California Arts Preservation Act helps to safeguard fine art, but until your neighborhood Home Savings turns 50 and becomes historic, it's about as safe as a Greek government bond.

For Watters' past columns: latimes.com/lostla. Comments: home@latimes.com

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