Saturday, July 01, 2006

No Place Like Home

California savings and loan magnate Howard F. Ahmanson was born on this day in 1906 in Omaha, Nebraska.

One of the towering names in Southern California business, Ahmanson's Home Savings & Loan loaned money to more home buyers than any other S&L, and was one of the driving forces behind the Southern California housing boom after World War II. He started in insurance, and became wealthy during the Depression by dealing in foreclosures. In 1947 he bought a modest little S&L, Home Savings of America, for $162,000, and through additional acquisitions and internal growth he managed to create the nation's largest S&L, with more than $1 billion in assets by 1961.

It was his instincts as a salesman, however, that steered him to success. Realizing that Depression-era depositors were looking for stability in their chosen savings institution, Ahmanson cultivated an image of permanence for Home Savings by commissioning the construction of over 60 monumental stand-alone edifices for the branches of the S&L around Southern California -- a contrast to the dingy rented storefronts occupied by other S&Ls. Designed by California painter/architect Millard Sheets, Ahmanson's Home Savings buildings, with their massive, exaggeratedly dignified gold-accented exteriors, expansive courtyards containing bronze, accessibly-modern sculptures of playful nuclear families (by Albert Stewart), grand mosaic murals by Sheets himself and grandiose marble interiors, became instantly identifiable fixtures of the Southern California landscape, and were undoubtedly influential on the design of stand-alone buildings for banks and other financial institutions as the car 'burbs sprouted drive-in business districts. (Perhaps as a form of retribution, in 2000 the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission refused to grant landmark status to the Home Savings branch at 2600 Wilshire, calling it a "mediocre" example of "Italian Fascist architecture.")

TV commercials featuring earnest ex-comic straight-men such as Harry Von Zell and George Fenneman telling future homeowners that there was "no place like Home" rounded out the Home Savings image of dependability.

When Ahmanson died on June 17, 1968 in Los Angeles, the S&L had assets of $2.5 billion; in 1999, it was acquired by Washington Mutual Savings. Ahmanson's son, Howard, Jr., is a major California philanthropist, sometimes called the "paymaster to the political right" for his support of Christian conservative think-tanks -- a West coast Scaife, as it were.

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