June 21, 2022

Photo Essay: A Peek Into the Millard Sheets-Designed Bank That's Becoming Chabad of Beverly Hills

A couple of weeks ago, I joined Hollywood Heritage on a bus tour of some of the Millard Sheets-designed bank buildings in the Los Angeles area. 

I'd already been inside several of them (including the closed Santa Monica location and the to-be-landmarked Sunset and Vine location)—but I was interested in what our guide, Adam Arenson (who literally wrote the book on Millard Sheets and his banks), would have to say. 

Since our tour took place on Memorial Day—a bank holiday—I assumed we'd only be able to admire these structures from the outside and peer through the windows. 

But then we got to the former bank on Wilshire Boulevard and Oakhurst in Beverly Hills—which I'd driven by many times.

Most recently known as First Bank, it opened in 1959 as Ahmanson Trust & Savings—right down the street from a Sheets-designed Home Savings (another Howard Ahmanson financial venture) that's open today as a Chase Bank branch. 
Both the Modern/Neoclassical structure and the mosaic murals on the front façade and inside were the creation of Sheets—who worked with Sheets Studio architect S. David Underwood on the architecture. 
Sheets wasn't really an architect when Ahmanson first recruited him in the 1940s for their long-standing partnership of more than three decades. But the resulting buildings were so popular, the money that customers scrambled to deposit typically funded the construction projects within a few months.

Customers said they liked to be "associated with something beautiful." Turns out, the buildings themselves were all the advertising the banks needed back then—truly, "A Distinguished Bank for Distinguished People," as its slogan claimed.

Unfortunately First Bank closed in 2018, so the public hasn't been able to enjoy it for nearly four years now. 

circa 1978 (Photo: Anne Laskey, via LAPL)

But they haven't been able to fully enjoy it since 1976—when the Ahmanson bank closed and became branch of the a California Overseas Bank, which slapped dark green paint over the original metallic gold ribbed tiles on the exterior of the bank building and the porte cochère
When First Bank took over afterwards, it added yet another layer of paint on top of the gold (this time a more "neutral" gray).

The good news is that the gray is starting to flake off (and take the green underneath with it)—and the new tenant of the building, the Herbert and Sylvia Schwartz Chabad Jewish Center of Beverly Hills, plans to restore it to its original condition. 
Same goes for the outdoor sculptural pavilion, former reflecting pool, and removed planters—which will ideally be brought back to life, too. 

Also known as the Ahmanson Bank and Trust Building, it was added to the Beverly Hills register of historic places in 2014—because, even despite the depressing paint job, it still retains integrity from its period of historic significance. 
Our tour group headed around the back to see what we could see...

...even if it was just the reverse side of the nature- and wildlife-inspired stained glass window. 

But to our delight, we were invited inside to see the transformation of the bank into a shul...

...where Shabbat HaGadol took place right before Passover in April.

For nearly three years before that, the Chabad had occupied a tent in the bank's rear parking lot.

Now, they can enjoy Susan (Lautmann) Hertel's beautiful "NIGHT"- and "DAY"-themed stained glass the way it was meant to be seen...

 ...from the inside, with the sunlight shining through. 
The original fountain is gone—but the bank's Tree of Life mosaic, which mirrors the design of the concrete screen outside and the stained glass windows in the back, now holds the prominent place of directly behind the Torah ark. 

The trim of ceramic-fired gold tiles on the marble pillars also remain, continuing a design feature also seen in the Home Savings bank branches (and the Scottish Rite temple)...

...but they need a little love. 

More of Millard Sheets' mosaics (in a flying bird motif) surround the bank vault...
...directly next to a spiral staircase leading both downstairs...

...and up to the mezzanine level...

...with a central column decorated with glittering glass tiles arranged in vertical lines. 

Many thanks to the Chabad for showing such hospitality to our tour group—and to our guide Adam Arenson, whose book Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California is out now. 


  1. Thank you for this excellent update on a stunning building!

  2. When quality craftsmanship, and history come together and make beautiful works of art 👏🏽 thankful for your dedication to bringing this to light