Could Chase Bank mosaics in Pacific Beach soon leave the neighborhood? Efforts are underway to save them

One of two large-scale mosaics on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach portrays the San Diego Children's Zoo.
One of two large-scale mosaics on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach portrays the San Diego Children’s Zoo in Balboa Park.
(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, the 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 did you know the history behind the art — and that it may be at risk of being torn down?

A tale of eight mosaics

Earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase Bank applied for a coastal development permit to demolish the building at 4650
Mission Bay Drive — which also threatens the eight mosaics on the outside walls. If Chase Bank’s application is approved, the original 1977 building would be destroyed and replaced with two new structures — a 3,600-square-foot bank building and a 3,200-square-foot quick-service restaurant.

The permit application has been met with some community pushback.

Though many locals are involved in saving the site, the story 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 an 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 association in the country and famous for its art.

To stand apart from its competitors, Home Savings & Loan commissioned artwork for its branch buildings, eventually developing a partnership with Sheets.

From 1955 to 1980, Sheets was the master designer of all Home Savings 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 to use his art to tell local, site-specific histories.

One of the large-scale mosaics at Chase Bank depicts San Diego scenes such as the Star of India and orcas from SeaWorld.
One of the large-scale mosaics on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach depicts San Diego scenes such as the Star of India, Point Loma Lighthouse and orcas from SeaWorld.
(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.

Those challenges inspired Arenson to get involved in efforts to save Sheets’ work, and 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 on the side of the building facing the parking lot. One portrays the Children’s Zoo in Balboa Park; the other depicts famed San Diego scenes such as the Star of India, Point Loma Lighthouse and SeaWorld orcas.

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

These are some of the eight mosaics depicting the story of San Diego on the Chase Bank building in Pacific Beach.
These are some of the eight mosaics depicting the story of San Diego on the Chase Bank building on Mission Bay Drive in Pacific Beach.
(Milan Kovacevic)

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

Saving the mosaics

Arenson’s blog post caught the eye of Karl Rand, chairman of the Pacific Beach Planning Group and a 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 in Pacific Beach.

“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 for where the mosaics could be relocated. He soon saw a possible new home across the street from Chase Bank: a future trolley station. Not only would that location allow the mosaics to stay in the neighborhood, it also would enable passengers from all over the county to see the art.

Mosaics portraying a 49er and members of the fishing and construction trades decorate part of Chase Bank in Pacific Beach.
Mosaics portraying a 49er and members of the fishing and construction trades decorate part of the Chase Bank building on Mission Bay Drive in Pacific Beach.
(Milan Kovacevic)

The San Diego Association of Governments is in the process of constructing the Mid-Coast Trolley Project, which includes the Balboa Avenue station in Pacific Beach. Rand reached out to SANDAG about the possibility of incorporating the artwork into the new station’s design.

“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 relocation also would require cooperation from Chase Bank.

“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,” Rand said.

Peter Kelley, a JPMorgan Chase spokesman, said the company is “working with the city on determining the best approach to preserving the murals.”

Protecting the building

The mosaics, however, are only one piece of the puzzle.

“I think one of the things that complicates this the most is that there are two aspects ... 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 also is an ongoing effort to save the entire building. Both Arenson and San Diego nonprofit Save Our Heritage Organisation have asked the city to grant the structure historic designation, which could make the mosaic relocation unnecessary.

The artwork on Chase Bank's Pacific Beach branch on Mission Bay Drive was designed by Millard Sheets Studio in 1977.
(Milan Kovacevic)

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

Arenson detailed the building’s historical 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, said the Pacific Beach structure’s prime location 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 by saying “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 an email.

One potential hurdle in receiving historic designation is that the Pacific Beach structure is only 43 years old, so it will not be reviewed by city Development Services Department staff, which only reviews properties more than 45 years old.

However, sometimes younger properties — including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla — are forwarded to the city Historical Resources Board 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 for the city of San Diego.

What now?

The status of the historic designation request, mosaic relocation efforts and building demolition plans is largely unknown.

Due to the capacity of staff and the volume of requests, the Historical Resources Board’s review process for historic designation requests doesn’t have a standard timeline, Robinson said. Chase’s coastal development permit application is pending, with an application expiration date of Aug. 21, 2022.

Even if the structure receives historic designation from the city, it wouldn’t guarantee the original building will be protected, nor would it prohibit Chase Bank from moving forward with its proposed construction plans.

According to Robinson, if the structure does receive designation, Chase would need to apply for a Process 4 site development permit and “would still need to prove that maintaining the building onsite is infeasible.”

Without a clear timeline on the 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. 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, which has been arranged for other threatened Sheets Studio work in the past.

“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.”

Rand said he understands that “people want to save the building, but I kind of wish if we knew if that was realistic or not. 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.”