It was a complete surprise to the new owners of a prominent bank building on Ocean Boulevard when they discovered a hidden mosaic on its facade, one with regional historical significance, its colorful tiles covered in white and kept from the eyes of the public for years.
Soon after Rockwell Properties acquired the International City Bank building at 249 E. Ocean Blvd. about six months ago, the company found the mosaic mural with help from a longtime fan of the work who already knew of its existence.
Alan Burks, president of Long Beach-based Environ Architecture, the tenant improvement architects for the building, and chair of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, said that the previous owners of the building weren’t interested in uncovering the mural. But when Burks approached Rockwell Properties about it, they were enthusiastic about restoring the artwork.
“I’ve been working in this building for over 10 years and of course I noticed that there was something odd about this blank panel above the front door,” Burks said. “Upon close inspection, you could see the actual small tiles underneath the paint.”
In 1998 Rayne Sherman, principal of Long Beach-based Sherman Design Group, redesigned the interior of 249 E. Ocean after International City Bank moved into the space. Prior to that it was a Home Savings and Loan branch, which by then had become known for the colorful mosaics on its buildings throughout Southern California. The mural was produced by Millard Sheets & Associates Designs in 1979. Sheets (1907-1989) was hired by Howard Ahmanson, head of the Home Savings and Loan Association, to design more than 40 of the bank buildings starting in the 1950s, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Sherman, who was also given the task of covering up the mural 20 years ago, said the decision was made by International City Bank and the current owners of the building. It was a way for ICB to distinguish itself from the Home Savings and Loan Association, which was still around at the time.
“The bank obviously didn’t want to look or have resemblance to Home Savings and Loan, it’s an identity item,” Sherman said. “There was never a consideration to demolish the mural, always a consideration on how to hide it.”
Jane Netherton, who was president and CEO of ICB at the time, agreed. ICB had just moved from 8th St. and Atlantic Avenue to the new location and was a small, growing entity aiming to set itself apart from the competition. But they made sure to preserve the artwork in hopes it would be revealed in the future.
Netherton added that the decision to save the mural was also made because the surrounding community cared for it.
“I would have loved to have had it restored sooner,” Netherton said.
A special paint, called elastomeric, was used to cover the mural. Sherman explained that it has a special binding material that makes it easier to remove than other exterior paints. They matched the tone to the existing travertine outside, and also added the lighting in hopes that it would one day be illuminated as an uncovered work of art.
In great condition with only two percent of its original material missing, it was uncovered and restored by Rockwell Properties in partnership with International City Bank over the summer and early fall. The official unveiling took place Thursday. Rockwell representative Edward Ahdoot commended building engineer William Araujo for spending almost 200 hours hand-cleaning the tiles.
The mosaic shows a romanticized image of Long Beach history, including representations of the area’s original inhabitants, the Tongva, and to their right, farmers and ranchers. There’s also a depiction of the Queen Mary, oil rigs and workers.
The mural was designed by Susan Hertel (1930-1993), who was Sheets’ artistic assistant for 26 years; she continued to design works for Denis O’Connor (1933-2007), who directed Sheets’ studio in California after Sheets retired, according to Hertel’s bio. O’Connor also executed this particular mural, according to Environ Architecture.
O’Connor was a mosaic muralist known for his work carrying out “massive portraits of idealized California life” in the 60s and 70s, notably on many Home Savings of America buildings because of Sheets, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Millard was a master visionary, and he would find people to execute these architectural visions. He was a big personality and because of that . . . Denis wasn’t always given the credit he was due,” mosaic historian Lillian Sizemore told the Los Angeles Times in 2008 following O’Connor’s passing due to a heart attack.
During the unveiling Ahdoot told attendees the company felt an obligation to make the neighborhood even more beautiful by restoring the mural, saying “we’re your neighbors now.”
Certificates from the Cultural Heritage Commission, the Historical Society of Long Beach, and the offices of 2nd District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce and Mayor Robert Garcia were given to the ICB and Rockwell for their dedication to preserving the history of California and Long Beach through the mural restoration.
“We appreciate how the City of Long Beach embraces the arts and its community,” Ahdoot said in a statement prior to the unveiling on Thursday. “For us to be able to bring the artwork back from obscurity and share it with the public is an honor.”
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