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State | BRANCHES

Local Landmarks' Fate Uncertain

March 18, 1998|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mosaics, murals and marble.

These are the elements that have made the traditional Home Savings of America branch--an imposing box clad in marble and adorned with a mosaic mural and a gilded shield--among the most easily recognizable commercial buildings in Southern California.

But the fate of many of these local landmarks is up in the air after Home Savings corporate parent, H.F. Ahmanson & Co., agreed to be acquired by Washington Mutual Inc. for $10.1 billion. The deal is expected to result in the closures of as many as 170 branches across California, where Washington Mutual owns Great Western Financial Corp.

The companies did not identify which branches will be closed. But it's certainly an omen for many of the traditional Home Savings branches, which are viewed as too big and costly to operate in an era when financial institutions favor mini-offices tucked into supermarkets.

"They are much bigger than any other bank" branch, said Michael Hobbs, corporate services director for commercial real estate broker Grubb & Ellis. "It's size was designed to connote stability and permanence. But it's not anywhere nearly as efficient as [banks] want now."

Stability was what artist Millard Sheets had in mind when he was commissioned in the early 1950s by company chairman Howard Ahmanson to design two branches along Wilshire Boulevard, according to mural historian Robin J. Dunitz. Sheets, who also designed the company's griffin logo and shield trademark, oversaw the design of more than 40 Home Savings branches.

"I think that the idea of Homes Savings suggests family and the security of family, the idea of permanence," said Sheets in an interview before his death in 1989.

A noted California watercolorist who directed arts programs at Scripps College in Claremont and Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, Sheets designed many of the murals, which feature representations of family, home and local history and landmarks.

The grand-scaled buildings, marble exteriors and public art often turned Home Savings branches into instant landmarks in new Southern California suburbs that lacked imposing civic structures.

"You have to really think of them as urban monuments here in a city that had a dearth of urban monuments," said Margaret Crawford, who directs the architectural history and theory programs at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

They may be monuments, but they are also seen as obsolete. Financial institutions seek smaller and more efficient offices and try to conduct more of their business through automated teller machines and online services. Last year, Ahmanson teamed up with a local coffeehouse chain to set up shop in excess bank space and drum up customer traffic.

Hobbs predicted there will be no shortage of takers for the many branches closed as a result of the Ahmanson-Washington Mutual takeover. Most of the branches are at prime intersections with ample parking. And thanks to the turnaround in the state's economy, vacant bank offices are being rapidly converted into everything from medical offices to combination ice cream shops and coffee houses.

But many of the distinctive Home Savings murals will probably be lost as the branches are recycled for other uses.

"Years from now, they will peel back the paint and find the mosaics and say 'Wow!' " Hobbs said.

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