Could Pacific Beach’s beloved mosaics soon leave the neighborhood?

A large-scale mosaics located on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach
One of two large-scale mosaics located on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach. Pictured is Children’s Zoo, which depicts the San Diego Children’s Zoo in Balboa Park. The artwork was designed by Millard Sheets Studio in 1977.
(Adam Arenson)

If you’re a Pacific Beach regular, you’ve likely seen the mosaics on the Chase Bank building along Mission Bay Drive.

Unlike other banks, these walls are decorated with decades-old artwork depicting the story of San Diego; pieces of colored glass hug together to form collages of the community and local landmarks.

But do you know the history behind this artwork — and that it is now at risk of being torn down?

A tale of eight mosaics

Earlier this year, JP Morgan Chase Bank applied for a Coastal Development permit to demolish the building of its Pacific Beach branch — which also threatens the eight mosaics on the outside walls. If Chase Bank’s application is approved, the original 1977 building will be destroyed and replaced with two new structures.

However, that permit application has been met with some community push back.

Though many locals are now involved in saving the site, the story actually begins with a Manhattan College professor (and his blog).

Adam Arenson is a New York-based author who was raised in San Diego. He wrote “Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California,” making him the official expert on Millard Sheets — the man behind the Chase Bank building’s mosaics. Sheets was a mid-20th century artist who created a legacy of designing elaborate artwork reflecting California ... on bank walls.

Before it became a Chase Bank, the building on Mission Bay Drive was a Home Savings & Loan, once the largest savings and loan associations in the country that was also famous for its art.

Home Savings & Loan believed that being seen as a valuable community partner was critical to good business; to stand apart from its competitors, the corporation commissioned artwork for its branch buildings, eventually developing a partnership with Millard Sheets.

So from 1955 to 1980, Sheets was the master designer of all Home Savings & Loan buildings, including the Pacific Beach site. Sheets and his team of artists, also known as the Millard Sheets Studio, crafted mosaics, murals and sculptures on 200 structures throughout the state. According to Arenson, Sheets’ style was very representational; the designer was interested in using his art to tell local, site-specific histories.

A large-scale mosaic, located on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach, depicts the San Diego Children's Zoo
One of two large-scale mosaics located on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach. Pictured is The Harbor, which portrays landmarks such as the Star of India, Point Loma Lighthouse and orcas from Sea World. The artwork was designed by Millard Sheets Studio in 1977.
(Adam Arenson)

“These are works that are very familiar to people who have spent time in California, especially in Southern California, but I think that the memory of how they were created and who created them is fading just at the moment when a lot of them are being (faced) with preservation challenges,” Arenson told PB Monthly.

These preservation challenges are what inspires Arenson to get involved in efforts to save Sheets’ work, and what inspired an April 28 blog post encouraging residents to advocate for Sheets’ buildings and art.

The Pacific Beach bank has two large-scale mosaics, both placed on the side of the building facing the parking lot. The first mosaic portrays the Children’s Zoo in Balboa Park; the second depicts the San Diego Harbor, complete with the Star of India, Point Loma Lighthouse and Sea World orcas.

Six smaller mosaics are placed above the bank’s front entrance, each installed as separate panels that highlight key figures in the city’s history: San Diego-Native Americans, Spanish friars and vaqueros, a 49er, and members of fishing and construction trades.

Aside from the murals, there is also a sculpture of a sea lion situated in an old fountain bed (now a drought-resistant garden) and a mural painted inside the building.

Saving the mosaics

The blog post caught the eye of Karl Rand, chairman of the Pacific Beach Planning Group and Pacific Beach Town Council member. When Rand heard about Arenson’s efforts to protect the art, he reached out to the professor to see if he could help keep the mosaics within Pacific Beach community.

“It would be really nice if it could stay as a public display (in the area),” said Rand, who has lived in Pacific Beach for 25 years.

Rand began brainstorming ideas in mid-May of where the mosaics could potentially be relocated. He soon saw a possible new home directly across the street from Chase Bank: the future Pacific Beach trolley station. Not only would this location allow the mosaics to stay within the neighborhood, but it would also allow passengers from all over the county to see the art.

San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is in the process of constructing the Mid-Coast Trolley Project, which includes Balboa Avenue Trolley Station in Pacific Beach. When Rand reached out to SANDAGto see if there was a possibility to incorporate the artwork into the new trolley station’s design, he said they were receptive to the idea.

“SANDAG is in communication with the Pacific Beach Planning Group as they await word from the City of San Diego on how best to move forward in the effort to preserve the historic murals and mosaics,” according to a statement PB Monthly received from SANDAG. “We support the community’s dedication to this cause and are honored to have been approached with the prospect of incorporating the artwork into the future Balboa Avenue Trolley Station.”

The mosaic relocation would also require cooperation from Chase Bank. According to Rand: “I look at Chase’s situation as being either the villain or the hero when it comes to the mosaics, and I think they want to be the hero.”

While the bank’s onsite team at the Pacific Beach branch was unable to discuss details on the project, Peter Kelley, JP Morgan Chase’s media relations spokesperson for California, said that the company is “working with the City on determining the best approach to preserving the murals.”

Protecting the building

However, the mosaics are only one piece of the puzzle.

“I think one of the things that complicates this (situation) the most is that there are two aspects to this: the building itself and then the mosaics,” Rand said. “In a way, each one could separately be subject to (historic) designation.”

While Rand’s focus is on the artwork, there is also an ongoing effort to save the whole building. Both Arenson and San Diego nonprofit Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) have asked the city to grant the entire structure historic designation, which could potentially make the mosaic relocation unnecessary.

A series of six small mosaics representing San Diego history, located at Chase Bank's Pacific Beach branch
Chase Bank’s Pacific Beach branch is located on Mission Bay Drive. Above the entrance is a series of six small mosaics; each panel features a key figure in San Diego’s history. The artwork was designed by Millard Sheets Studio in 1977.
(Adam Arenson)

On July 8, Adam Arenson and SOHO both wrote letters to the city, asking officials to protect the building.

In Arenson’s request, he detailed the building’s historic significance, adding that other Sheets Studio sites in Southern California have been recognized as landmarks or preservation projects.

The letter from SOHO, written by executive director Bruce Coons, also noted that the prime location of the Pacific Beach structure is significant.

“Located at a prominent intersection with monumental siting, this exquisite landmark is impossible to ignore because it is a unique and iconic work of art,” Coons wrote.

The city responded to SOHO saying that “the entire parcel will be evaluated under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), not just the mosaics.”

“However, this is still no assurance that the building would be retained instead of mitigated, which is where we are today,” Amie Hayes, SOHO’s historic resources specialist, wrote in the email.

One hurdle that might prove to be an issue in receiving designation is age. Since the Pacific Beach structure is only 43 years old, it will not be reviewed by Development Services Department (DSD) staff, which only reviews properties more than 45 years old.

However, sometimes younger properties — including the Salk Institute in La Jolla — are forwarded to the Historical Resources Board (HRB) for designation, which is the case with 4650 Mission Bay Drive.

“Staff has engaged in discussions with SOHO about submitting a Historical Resources Research Report through the voluntary designation process. While the letters from SOHO and Arenson include compelling information, there is a formal designation process that must be adhered to,” said Scott Robinson, senior public information officer of the city of San Diego.

So, what now?

Currently, the status of the historic designation request, mosaic relocation efforts or building demolition plans are all largely unknown.

Due to the capacity of staff and the volume of requests, Robinson said that the HRB’s review process of historic designation requests do not have a standard timeline. Chase Development’s Coastal Development permit application is currently pending, with an application expiration date of Aug. 21, 2022.

Even if the structure receives a historical designation from the city, it does not guarantee the original building will be protected, nor does it prohibit Chase Bank from moving forward with its proposed construction plans.

According to Robinson, if the structure does receive historic designation, Chase Bank would then need to apply for a Process 4 Site Development permit and “would still need to prove that maintaining the building on site is infeasible to demolish.”

Without a clear timeline on the Chase Bank building’s future, the mosaics may miss their chance to be incorporated into the Balboa Avenue Trolley station. Though SANDAG expressed interest in utilizing the artwork, the effort could fall through due to conflicting schedules, as The Mid-Coast Trolley Project is slated to finish construction in fall 2021. If the mosaics are saved but have not yet found an alternative home, the artwork could be temporarily placed in storage, a solution that has been successfully arranged for other threatened Sheets Studio work in the past.

“I understand that people want to save the building, but I kind of wish if we knew if that was realistic or not,” Rand said. “And it doesn’t seem like anybody is in a position to answer that question ... If we can save the building that would be great — but if we can only save the mosaics that would be really, really good too.”

Yet at the end of the day, everyone involved ultimately is after the same objective: to keep the Sheets Studio legacy alive by preserving Millard Sheets’ contribution to, and representation of, the city.

“I think Sheets did such a good job of encapsulating the experience of California,” Arenson said. “And as a Californian, I think preserving these works that help shape San Diego and my childhood is something that’s really been important to me.”