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SPECIAL REPORT -- How Santa Monica Lost Its Iconic Half-Century Old Mosaic

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica Convention and Visitors

By Jorge Casuso

June 7, 2019 -- Months before an agreement was reached to move the iconic mural "Pleasures Along the Beach" to a museum in Orange County, the City of Santa Monica decided not to accept the artwork, the Lookout has learned.

Instead, it compiled a list of non-profit organizations that might take the colorful glass mosaic by renown California artist Millard Sheets, which has stood at the corner of 26th Street and Wilshire Boulevard for nearly 50 years.

If there was an effort underway to find a home for the mural in Santa Monica, it was kept from the public by a City that prides itself on transparency and community input, according to interviews and a review of agendas.

"Pleasures Along the Beach"
"Pleasures Along the Beach" by Millard Sheets ( Photo by Peter Leonard Courtesy of Santa Monica Conservancy)

The issue was never discussed by the Arts Commission or Landmarks Commission, which had declared the building and its artworks, a historic landmark. And it was never taken up by the City Council, which had overturned that decision ("Iconic Santa Monica Mosaic Could Be Removed Under Legal Settlement," September 5, 2018).

"I don't know that anyone knew they were looking for a place for it," said Arts Commission Chair Mike Meyers.

"We have not even discussed it. I didn't know anything," said Arts Commissioner Phil Brock.

The Santa Monica Conservancy, which mounted a costly campaign to preserve the city's last shutgun house, was so alarmed by the news the city would soon lose the mural, it sent an email alert.

"See it now before it's gone!" the Conservancy wrote last week when it learned of the agreement to relocate the mural to a museum in the City of Orange ("Iconic Santa Monica Beach Mural Will Soon Be Removed," May 28, 2019).

"There was never any public discussion," said Ruthann Lehrer, a former Landmarks Commissioner and member of the Conservancy.

"The Conservancy was never very much in the loop," she said. "We were totally ignorant of what the City was doing. We continued to convince the owner not to remove it at all."

Ball in City's Court

Under a settlement agreement approved by the City Council last September, the building's owner Mark Leevan gave the City 90 days to find a home for the mural and accompanying stained glass and bronze sculptures, said the art firm he hired.

"That was then extended to another 30 (days), for a total of 120 days to find a home, but (the City) declined to do so," said Xiliary Twil of Art Asset Management Group, Inc., the firm Leevan hired.

"I would assume if someone asked for an extension, they're working on it," Twil said. "The owner of the building told them, 'You have plenty of places to put these things.'

"He really wanted to keep it in Santa Monica. It would have been so much easier."

When the extension ended and no location in Santa Monica was proposed, the artist's son Tony Sheets recommended donating the artworks to the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University, Twil said.

"They accepted it graciously," she said ("Iconic Santa Monica Mural Finds New Home in Orange County," June 5, 2019).

The City's Cultural Affairs Division already had determined it would not accept the artwork as a donation.

A statement sent to the Lookout by Constance Farrell, the City's Public Information officer, outlined the reasons for its decision.

"The criteria used to evaluate the feasibility of this donation was based on artistic quality, material stability and a reasonable ability to properly site and preserve the artwork, among other considerations," the statement said.

"In its evaluation of the artworks, staff found that the large 16½’ x 40' mosaic mural could not reasonably be sited and maintained by the City, due to its substantial size and the potential costs of re-installing and maintaining the work.

"Projects of a similar size, scope, and artistic significance have cost millions of dollars and several years to complete," the statement said.

Instead, the City's Cultural Affairs Division compiled a list of non-profits "that may be able to accept the artworks," the statement said.

"The property owner was in touch with both the Santa Monica Conservancy and a highly reputable art conservator, Rosa Lowinger Associates, about the project," it said.

Twil, who is working with Lowinger, estimates it will take between two and two-and-a-half months and cost approximately $500,000 to remove the mosaic, a cost the owner is paying.

The installation, which is paid by the recipient, will take much less time and be far less costly.

Maintaining the mural also should be relatively cheap if it is not placed in a location that makes it vulnerable to graffiti, Twil said.

"Because they are glass and ceramic tiles, it's like your bathroom," she said. "You just wash and wipe it down."

No Effort to Find Home

Other Southern California cities have relocated Sheets' murals within their borders.

A mural painted on walnut panels depicting a 19th-century parade was transferred from a Pasadena bank to the gym at Pasadena City College.

And in Beverly Hills, a mosaic from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was reinstalled on the Civic Center public parking garage in 2016, after the City kept it in storage for 25 years.

"Pleasures Along the Beach" is not the first mural from the Millard Sheets Studio in Pomona that Santa Monica has lost.

A mosaic by Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel on the former Home Savings building at the corner of the Promenade and Santa Monica Boulevard was lost when the building was torn down in 2001, said Adam Arenson, an expert on Sheets.

The mural on Wilshire "marks an important development in the evolution" of Sheets' works which became larger, said Arenson, the author of "Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California."

"It definitely seems the City of Santa Monica could have done more" to keep it, he said.

Supporters of the mural are not satisfied with the City's efforts to retain an artwork that for generation has captured the essence of Santa Monica's beach culture.

They note that the relocation and renovation of the shutgun house and the restoration of the "Chain Reaction" sculpture at the Civic Center were the subject of numerous public meetings and fundraising drives.

If given a chance, they are convinced a home would have been found for the mural in the city it was designed for.

"You can name a hundred places it could have gone," Arts Commissioner Brock said.

Twil thinks the artworks -- which will be dismantled and crated for shipping -- would have been a perfect fit for the redeveloped Bergamot Station arts complex.

Brock thinks it would have gone nicely on the side of the new John Adams Auditorium or on one of the nondescript five and six story buildings going up Downtown.

Others suggested the Pier or the pubic parking structure at the 4th street Freeway exit, a main entry into Santa Monica.

Brock believes the City failed to find the iconic mural a home in Santa Monica because it wasn't a priority.

"If you look at other cities along the coast, they love what little culture they have," Brock said. "We ignore it."

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