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Liquidating L.A.'s heritage

The artworks by famed black artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff should stay here, not be sold to the Smithsonian.

March 23, 2011|Tim Rutten

The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building on West Adams Boulevard is one of Los Angeles' too-often-overlooked historical and cultural treasures.

It was designed in the late 1940s to house what was then the largest African American-owned business west of the Mississippi by one of the city's storied architects, Paul Williams, certainly the most important black American architect of his generation. The building is a wonderful example of his singular capacity to meld utility and livability with an approach to design that wrung every ounce of expressive elegance from whatever style he engaged — in this case, Moderne.

The Golden State headquarters lobby also contains — and not by happenstance — two of the most significant works of art ever created here by African American artists, a complementary pair of murals titled "The Negro in California History" that comprises Charles Alston's "Exploration and Colonization" and Hale Woodruff's "Settlement & Development." Both men were heavily influenced by the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, with whom Woodruff studied.

Whether these unique and uniquely important murals remain in Los Angeles, where they have hung since their completion in 1949, will be decided in court hearings that get underway in downtown Monday. Unless the current owners of the Williams building can persuade a judge to intervene, the murals will go to the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

How the city finds itself on the verge of losing treasures it barely knows it has is a complex story characterized by, at least, reasonable intentions on all sides.

From the start, the Alston and Woodruff murals, which were commissioned for specially designed spots high on either end of Williams' elegant lobby, were considered the building's chief spiritual as well as physical ornaments. As Golden State's own description of them put it: "More than mere murals … these priceless panels incorporate documentary material, much of which appears in no annals of American history. California … her early black settlers, historical events, and physical terrain, dominate these murals."

Like many historic black firms, however, Golden State found itself ill-equipped to compete for the business of an increasingly dispersed African American middle class. The company foundered for years and finally was seized by the state insurance commissioner, whose Conservation and Liquidation Office is in the process of disposing of Golden State's assets, including what remains of its collection of African American art. The liquidation office contends that the murals, which were executed on canvas in consideration of seismic issues, are part of that collection. Therefore, it proposes to sell both to the Smithsonian for $750,000.

As Golden State failed, however, its headquarters was sold twice, most recently to Community Impact Development II LLC, the real estate holding arm of a nonprofit that provides a variety of social services in South L.A. That organization contends that the murals are an integral part of the building it purchased, and it is going to court to prevent their sale by the liquidator.

"These murals are part of the historic fiber of the community and a significant part of Los Angeles' history," said Marcos Velayos, the nonprofit's attorney and a leading specialist in planning and land-use issues. "We think there is no better way to celebrate this history than by keeping the murals right here, where they always have been." Velayos also points out that First American, the title insurer on the sale, has agreed to defend Community Impact's claim in court.

The Los Angeles Conservancy also supports the claim and has asked the city to grant historic landmark status to the building with its murals. "Paul Williams selected the subjects and the artists for those murals," Linda Dishman, the conservancy's director, told me this week. "They're absolutely integral to the building's design. This is a quintessential building in terms of the African American experience in this city. It's hard to imagine another situation where the most important black firm, black architect and black artists were all involved in a collaboration of this kind."

For its part, the state's Conservation and Liquidation Office is just doing its job, though in a narrow-minded sort of way. It's hard to see which public interest is served by stripping Los Angeles of a cultural treasure. The Smithsonian can't be blamed for wanting the murals, though it might keep in mind that, while the Elgin Marbles look fine in the British Museum, they'd look a lot better back on the Parthenon.

The Alston and Woodruff murals were commissioned and executed as a unique reflection of the African American culture that flowered here. They ought to remain in Los Angeles.

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