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Former Santa Monica Bank Building Designated as Landmark  

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Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

March 31, 2017 -- After a lengthy battle, the City Council Tuesday granted local landmark designation to the former Home Savings structure in Santa Monica that features a colorful mural depicting a day at the beach.

But there is a good chance that battle over the property on Wilshire Boulevard off 26th Street, which is now home to a shoe store, has not come to an end. The owner’s attorney threatened during the meeting that costly litigation was coming soon.

Millard Sheets Home Savings Mural in Santa Monica
Millard Sheets mosaic on Wilshire Boulevard (Courtesy of the USC
Digital Library)

The building was designated as a landmark by the Landmarks Commission four years ago, but the City Council reversed the decision last year on technical grounds and sent the issue back to the commission ("Santa Monica Shoe Store’s Landmark Status Heads Back to Commission," November 8, 2016) .

A shorthanded commission did not approve landmark status a second time, and the Santa Monica Conservancy appealed that decision back to the council, which reached the final conclusion on Tuesday.

Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian on the conservancy, told the council that for many years she did not like the building and its mural.

But her appreciation for both developed as she learned about “the unique relationship” between Home Savings head Howard Ahmanson and Millard Sheets, who designed many Home Savings buildings in Southern California, including the one in Santa Monica.

She called Sheets “a leader who cultivated art programs in the region and sought to bring art to the people.”

The building’s owner Mark Leevan has objected to the landmark designation, which means restrictions and more oversight on future changes.

His attorney Roger Diamond cited, among other reasons, that Sheets himself was critical of the mural.

As he did at the council meeting on this issue last year, Diamond played a recording of Sheets, who died in 1989, saying "I wince every time" he drives by the mural and that it was at best "satisfactory."

Diamond offered to donate the mural and two bronze sculptures on the building property to the City in exchange for a rejection of the landmark status.

Otherwise, he said, the City was “headed toward a legal disaster in this case.”

He added, “Why not resolve the case now rather than spending all this litigation money on one that isn’t worth it, especially when Millard Sheets would not want this to go further.”

This did not persuade the council, with six members voting in favor of landmark designation for the property, and Pam O’Connor casting the lone opposition vote.

“I can’t imagine this art would have the same impact if you just took it and stuck it on the side of [another] building or anywhere else,” Councilmember Gleam Davis said.

She added, “It’s not just about preserving this building, although that’s what we’re talking about tonight, but certainly about trying to preserve the entirety of his artwork.”

O’Connor, an urban consultant who specializes in historic preservation, voted against the designation because she believed it did not meet enough of the criteria.

She noted that the Santa Monica structure completed in 1970 was designed after the height of Sheets’ Home Savings work, and it wasn’t clear how much involvement he had with this particular building.

“The building is not associated with Millard Sheets,” she said. “He was the designer of the building, but he did not have any historic association with the building, [and] I believe the building design is derivative, that it does not stand on its own.”

The meeting reached a dramatic turn before the council took a vote when Diamond demanded more time to offer arguments.

Mayor Ted Winterer refused to grant him extra time beyond the traditionally allotted 10 minutes and told him to sit down.

“Am I being arrested?” asked Diamond, who also had various other complaints about the structure of the meeting and the entire landmark designation process.

Winter responded, “No, you’re being asked politely to sit down and obey the rules.”

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