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Iconic Santa Monica Mosaic Could Be Removed Under Legal Settlement
By Jorge Casuso
September 5, 2018 -- A year and a half after designating Santa Monica's Home Savings building a local historic landmark, the City Council last week settled a lawsuit that could jeopardize the half-century-old structure and its iconic mosaic.
Under the agreement approved by the Council after last Tuesday's closed session, the City revoked the historic designation, blocked any new application for five years and paid owner Mark Leevan $250,000.
Leevan agreed to preserve the artwork -- including the sprawling colorful mosaic depicting a day at the beach -- and donate it to the City or a nonprofit organization.
The landmark status had been batted back and forth for four years between the Landmarks Commission and City Council before it was finally designated in March 2017 ("Former Santa Monica Bank Building Designated as Landmark," March 31, 2017).
First it was the Commission that gave its blessing, only to have its decision reversed by the Council. Then it was the Commission which lacked the votes to re-designate it before the Council gave it final approval.
The ping-ponged decisions infuriated the property owner's attorney Roger Diamond, who threatened to sue the City.
The debate centered on the merits of the mosaic, which has been viewed by generations of Santa Monica residents as encapsulating the city's beach vibe.
The Santa Monica Conservancy, which had appealed the Commission's decision back to the council, issued a statement Tuesday saying the future of the building at 26th and Wilshire "is in jeopardy."
"The Conservancy has consistently supported the designation of Home Savings, and made a strongly-worded statement of that position to Council before the closed session commenced," said Conservancy board president Carol Lemlein
"We believe this proposed settlement, which appears to remove all due process protections from the landmark, would do irreparable damage to our cultural heritage and the credibility of our Historic Preservation Program.”
The Conservancy called the mosaic of the beach scene "dazzling" and said the building "integrates public artwork into the architecture unlike any other landmark."
Throughout the lengthy battle, the property owner questioned the value of the mosaic created by famed California artist Millard Sheets.
Before the Council voted in November 2016 to overturn the Commission's 2013 landmark designation, Diamond played a audio recording of Sheets' take on the mosaic.
Sheet's who died in 1989, said he would "wince every time" he drove by the mosaic and that the work was at best "satisfactory."
The recording failed to convince the Conservancy.
"Many artists criticize their own work," said Ruthann Lehrer, who was on the Landmarks Commission in 2013 when it made its initial decision to landmark the structure.
"But once it's created, it's in the public domain. And what is significant about this work is its link to the local community."
Conservancy officials warn that link will be lost if the mosaic is donated as four pieces and removed from the busy corner a half dozen blocks from the Wilshire entrance to the beach city.
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