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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author
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Metropolitan Myth-Maker

Los Angeles: the "metropolis in the making"
The timing of Ballin’s return to mural painting in the late 1920s was fortuitous as it coincided with a period of tremendous growth in Los Angeles. When Ballin and his fellow filmmakers had arrived in the late 1910s, the city’s population and economy had been small compared to the urban capitols of the east, its mostly Anglo residents concentrated in a central district downtown encircled by a vast expanse of sparsely populated and unincorporated communities, like the Pacific Palisades where Hugo and Mabel Ballin made their home. Southern California lacked the industrial and manufacturing base that fueled regional economies elsewhere, the bulk of its labor force instead concentrated in agriculture, service and tourism-related businesses. Eager to grow the city, local civic and business leaders promoted Los Angeles' climate, boosting its abundance of cheap available land, and its friendly-to-business policies as a means of attracting tourists, residents and investors.

In the 1920s, the boosters’ efforts began to pay off. The rapid growth of the film industry in Hollywood, in combination with the discovery of oil in Signal Hill near Long Beach, stimulated unprecedented economic and industrial development in the southland, prompting city leaders to rezone the area south of downtown along the city’s railroad lines as a new central manufacturing district where corporations could erect branches of their plants. The booming economy attracted thousands of new residents and the population of both Los Angeles city and county doubled between 1920 and 1925, fueled in part by two “great migrations” - African Americans leaving the rural South and Mexicans uprooted by the turbulence of the Revolution – as well as the arrival of an increasing number of European ethnics and Anglo Americans from the cities of the east. Los Angeles’ garment manufacturers became the nation’s leading producers of sportswear, the oil fields in Signal Hill, Huntington Beach and Santa Fe Springs pumped out nearly 700,000 barrels of oil a day, the city’s rubber plants ranked second in the nation in producing tires, and the studios of Hollywood produced 90% of the nation’s films. By the end of the decade, the city was a home to over 1.2 million residents and was the fastest growing city in the country, a “metropolis in the making.”1

A construction boom defines the city landscape
Los Angeles’ rapid growth in turn resulted in a boom in residential and commercial construction. Wealthy landowners rushed to subdivide their massive holdings and sell them off as smaller lots to provide housing for thousands of new residents, giving rise to dozens of new suburban communities like South Gate, Hawthorne, Torrance, Lynwood and Montebello as well as the development of residential neighborhoods near the newly formed industrial zones. Construction in these areas was limited to single-family homes by new zoning ordinances and so property owners built smaller, more affordable versions of the bungalows and “Mediterranean style” estates like the Getz House rather than multiunit dwellings or apartments. Several of the city’s most iconic landmarks iconic landmarks were also built during the decade, including City Hall, the Los Angeles Central Library, the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Southern Branch of the University of California, later known as UCLA. As the city’s growth exploded in the 1920s, Los Angeles’ unique constructed landscape and built environment began to take shape.

The city’s biggest companies and corporations, many of which profited considerably from the city’s growth, also erected their own large office towers downtown in the 1920s as monuments to their increasing prominence in the city’s economy. They wanted their buildings to convey stability to potential clients and investors and show that they were secure ventures, while also offering a dazzling spectacle that reflected their own greatness and bolstered Los Angeles’ reputation as a budding metropolis. The companies hired architects of the finest pedigree, many of whom had been educated in Europe and used forms from traditional European classicism, borrowed from “modern” skyscrapers in other cities, and incorporated regional trends like the “Mediterranean style” in their designs. Donald Schippers has described their fusion of styles as “Spanish Gothic,” characterized by “an abundance of ornament, pinnacles, and towers… [and] an underlying vertical thrust,” features that gave the impression of wealth and grandeur that the building owners’ desired. The architects avoided risky, innovative designs to please their conservative clients, but provided the buildings with the most modern of amenities and capitalized on emerging industrial technologies to reduce the costs of construction. In a time of great change in Los Angeles, the corporate buildings, like the Wisconsin State Capitol and civic projects in the 1910s, reified the status quo: they established the prominence of their corporate sponsors, gave legitimacy to their control over the city’s political economy, and secured them a permanent place in the physical, social and economic landscape of the city.2

A new corporate grandeur
The corporate construction projects provided a lucrative new source of patronage to Hugo Ballin and other artists. The elaborate ornamentation schemes of the buildings included exterior sculptures and bas reliefs, molded terra cotta embellishments, detailed stone carvings and metal work throughout, and large-scale mural decorations in the lobbies and hallways of the interiors – each used to further the mission of the architect’s design and satisfy the patrons. As art historian Monica Jovanovich-Kelley has shown, the mural artists who received the corporate commissions often employed historical motifs in their decorations for the buildings. Their works related triumphalist, romantic stories of Southern California’s history in which Spanish dons and padres ruled benevolently over the indigenous population, their paternalistic leadership then passing peacefully to Anglo settlers. The murals cast their corporate commissioners as part of the region’s past, its modern present, and its promising future, underscoring both their stability and their spectacular greatness.3

With the rave reviews he received for his work on the Getz house and Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Ballin earned several corporate commissions to paint murals at buildings in downtown Los Angeles and throughout Southern California in the late 1920s and early 1930s. His first was to design a tile mural at the Title Insurance and Trust Building in 1928. He was then hired by the prestigious firm Parkinson & Parkinson to paint a mural he called “The Apotheosis of Power” at the Edison Building in 1930, home to Los Angeles’ chief supplier of electrical power. Next he received a commission from Title Guarantee and Trust Company to decorate the lobby of their new building in 1931, and later was hired to produce a mural at a branch of the First National Bank in La Jolla. Through these corporate commissions, Ballin left an indelible footprint on mural art and the built environment of downtown Los Angeles that survives to this day.

Historical symbolism in Ballin's murals
Each of the murals Ballin created for the corporate commissions had a historical motif to match the company’s mission and was painted in a style that drew on Ballin’s experiences as both a painter and a filmmaker. In the bank lobby in La Jolla, Ballin painted a lunette depicting what Arthur Millier, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, described as “a straightforward historical story” of Spanish and Anglo settlement in the West that avoided the “inflated symbolism so typical of much of American mural painting” by “returning directly to the story-telling purpose of Italian mural tradition.” The mural traced the history of La Jolla from the arrival of the Spanish at the bay to the coming of white settlers in covered wagons. In the middle, Ballin depicted a convergence of the area’s various cultures in a scene at a primitive bank, each figure holding a prop to signify their identity: the banker weighed gold he received from a miner, and an indigenous man offered corn to a soldier wearing distinctively Spanish head gear. The scene signaled to those entering the building that the bank had been and continued to be a source of peace and prosperity in the area.4 Ballin told a similar story of Los Angeles’ history in his murals at the Title Guarantee Building.

“The Apotheosis of Power” explored the scientific development of electric power and positioned the Edison Company at its climax. Ballin included real characters from history, including English scientist William Gilbert, “the father of electric and magnetic science” in the Elizabethan age, and Benjamin Franklin in the scene. Like the First National Bank lunette, he used props including Franklin’s famous kite and positioned his figures on multiple planes and scales as he had in his set designs. The largest figures in the panel, however, are allegorical ones: a hand reaching down from the sky to represent hydroelectric power, a “monumental man is prodding the earth’s stratifications” who hopes to find a new source of power and “mitigate the travails of humanity,” and three figures below representing the labor of man, the fertility of woman and the awakening of youth, or in Ballin’s words, “the trinity of constant and evolutionary repetitions in progress and development.”5 Unlike the idealized female figures that characterized Ballin’s earlier work, the allegorical figures in “Apotheosis” were masculine ones painted in a more realistic way that highlighted their physicality and movement, what Ballin called "Monumental Men." This was likely purposefully done, Ballin abandoning his female figures so that he could capture the growth and energy – the power - of the Edison Company.

A more modern style
Ballin’s use of "Monumental Men" in “Apotheosis” suggests that he was willing to employ more modern styles of painting in his murals as a means of capturing the explosive growth occurring in the city at the time. As historian Bailey Van Hook showed in her book The Virgin and the Dynamo, many of Ballin’s contemporaries in the Beaux-Arts movement had made the shift from idealism to modernism years earlier; as part of their quest to forge a uniquely American national style in mural painting, they had replaced symbolic female figures (virgins) with more realistic, masculine characters drawn from events in American history (dynamos).6 Ballin’s murals at the Wisconsin State Capitol had reflected that shift, but he had stopped painting murals shortly thereafter to begin his career as a filmmaker and moved away from the epicenter of the Beaux-Arts movement in New York. Making films in Hollywood allowed Ballin to experiment with a new medium and engage with a new audience while maintaining his classical, refined style. In his mural at the Edison Building and other corporate commissions, however, Ballin showed a new desire to adapt his style and change the way he used allegory to forge a regional variety of mural painting to complement the city’s architecture development. His murals in the late 1920s and early 1930s were not exceptionally innovative and reified the status quo rather than challenging it.  But, nevertheless, they suggest that Ballin’s artistic ideals had been influenced by the rapid and dynamic changes in Los Angeles’ economy, population and culture.
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