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Building Claremont: the mid-century years were a time of huge growth

This column begins the fourth installment of the “Building Claremont” series that focuses on the architects who have shaped the development and built environment of the city.

After World War II, Claremont, similar to many cities across Southern California, saw tremendous growth.  The migration from farms and small towns that began to change the nation after the first world war was even more marked after the second. 

The population of Claremont more than doubled between 1940 and 1950 and then again from 1950 to 1960. From 1960 to 1970 the city saw an 82-percent increase in the population, and another 34-percent increase from 1970 to 1980. The population increased in number from 3,057 to over 31,000 in just 40 years.

The growth at mid-century created most of the housing inventory in the city and led to the construction of its iconic modern structures, ranging from the Garrison Theater to the Pomona First Federal Bank building, to the Kresge Chapel to the Hollis Allen Residence, and the Mixon Studio to the Huntley Bookstore.

Claremont at mid-century saw an unprecedented art and architecture movement unlike most other small cities have experienced. At the forefront of the movement was artist and architectural designer, Millard Sheets. There is no better way to begin our look at mid-century than to start with Sheets.

Millard Sheets

Millard Sheets was a highly influential artist, designer, and educator who left a legacy for Claremont and all of Southern California. Spearheaded by Mr. Sheets and the Scripps College Art Department, Claremont attracted many artists in the years following World War II. Painters, sculptors, ceramists, muralists, mosaic artists, architects and designers shared ideas and forged close friendships. With a cultural climate that was conducive to the integration of art, craft and architecture, Claremont became an important center of Midcentury Modern design.

Millard Sheets architectural works in Claremont include the Garrison Theater at Scripps College, 1963; the Sheets Office and Studio on Foothill, 1960; the Pomona First Federal Bank on Foothill, 1969; and the Sheets home on Via Padova.

His public buildings displayed his philosophy of the integrated arts, exploring the relationship between art, architecture, dance, and music. He collaborated closely with regional artists and planned for art throughout the design process, rather than placing artwork on a building as an afterthought. He created buildings that connected with the public on an emotional level, often using artwork to depict local or historical themes significant to the community.

Born in 1907 in Pomona, Mr. Sheets graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute in 1929. He became a nationally renowned and highly influential artist with the California School of painting. While he was still a teenager, his watercolors were accepted for exhibition in annual California Water Color Society shows.

By the age of 19, he was elected into membership, and at 20, even before his graduation from Chouinard, he was hired to teach watercolor painting. In 1929, he won a second prize in the Texas Wildflowers Competitive Exhibitions, known for their generous awards. The prize money allowed Mr. Sheets to travel to Europe for a year to further his art education.

He gradually transitioned into architecture, but was never licensed, working instead with contractors and licensed architects such as David Underwood and Rufus Turner, to realize his innovative designs. His use of artwork in his commercial projects attracted the attention of financier Howard Ahmanson, head of the Home Savings and Loan Association. Mr. Ahmanson hired Mr. Sheets in 1954, to design the Beverly Hills branch of Home Savings and Loan.

With its colorful mosaics and stained-glass windows, the building proved to be so popular with customers that Mr. Ahmanson hired Mr. Sheets to design over forty additional Home Savings branch offices as part of the company’s expansion plan. Other notable Sheets buildings include the Masonic Temple (1961) on Wilshire in Los Angeles, the University of Notre Dame Library, the Hilton Hotel in Honolulu and the Mayo Clinic.

Richard Neutra 

Richard Neutra was a prominent and noted mid-century architect. He was one of the architects who helped develop the California Modern style and was a tremendous influence on other architects and designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, who even lived in one of his Case Study apartments. Mr. Neutra’s practice brought him to Claremont where he designed three buildings—the Claremont United Methodist Church, 1959, located on Foothill just east of Indian Hill; the Nineman/Paglia House, 1959, on Via Padova; and the Hansch House, 1955, on Olive Knoll.

Richard Neutra was born in Austria in 1892. He attended the Sophiegymnasium in Vienna until 1910, and then studied at the Vienna University of Technology until 1918, while simultaneously attending private architecture instruction by Adolf Loos, who advocated smooth and clear surfaces in contrast to the ornamentations of the time and was a pioneer of modern architecture.

Upon graduation, Mr. Neutra moved to Switzerland where he worked with landscape architect Gustav Ammann. He moved to Berlin and worked with Erich Mendelsohn, a pioneer in Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture.

In 1923, he moved to the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen in 1929. He worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright before accepting an invitation to work and live communally with his friend and university companion, Rudolf Schindler, at his Kings Road House. He subsequently developed his own practice and went on to design numerous buildings embodying the International Style, 12 of which have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mr. Neutra’s geometric and airy structures symbolized the West Coast’s take on the mid-century modern residence which he said, “place man in relationship with nature; that’s where he developed and where he feels most at home.”

Sheets and Neutra are both recognized and revered today for their contributions to the cultural and architectural fabric of the southland and the nation. The recognition and preservation of the buildings they designed has taken on ardent interest.

Mr. Neutra’s homes are much sought after by mid-century architecture aficionados and the former Home Savings buildings are being reused and restored by banks.

Next month Building Claremont—the mid-century years continues.