Since 1968, when changes in America's immigration laws enacted three years earlier went into effect, Los Angeles has become the leading portal for new immigrants. Our nation's new residents and citizens have transformed what culturally and politically was a conservative and narrow-minded city into a cosmopolitan microcosm of the world.
Not everyone, however, celebrates this rich gift of racial and ethnic diversity. Opportunistic politicians have promoted bigotry and racism, which in California has always appeared, not as a legacy of slavery, but as an immigration issue. This dark side of our state's political culture began with attempts to expel Mexican and Chinese miners from the California gold fields during the 1850s, and continued through the anti-Chinese legislation in 1882, the deportation of Mexicans during the 1930s, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and most recently with Proposition 187.
Millard Sheets was sensitive to this political tradition when designing the murals over the two main entrances of City Hall East. "We need now and always to understand the great cultures of other people," he wrote. "Most of our prejudices and bigotry result from abysmal ignorance of other people." Sheets wanted the two murals to recognize that "California history is rich in contributions from all countries of the world as well as the separate racial groups." According to Sheets, by emphasizing "the contributions of each race and culture to [the] American way of life" and by "depicting the dignity of men of all races and his constructive contributions to life, we create respect of man's infinite variety and purpose to live."
His two murals, installed at a time when Los Angeles was shedding its cultural provincialism, celebrate the city's new citizens by honoring their diverse national origins. In the panel facing Main Street, from the viewer's left to right, the figures symbolize the cultures of the indigenous South American Indian, Islam, Japan, Africa, Mexico, Ancient Egypt, China, Scandinavia, Native Americans, India and Russia. In the panel above the Los Angeles Street entrance, from left to right, the figures depicted represent ancient Greece, Judaism, France, 19th century America, Africa, Polynesia, Spain (represented by the artist Juan Miro), Switzerland, England, Italy, Germany and Central America.
In 1968, Sheets first proposed a single 28' x 60' mural over the west entrance of City Hall East. Two years later, after the Municipal Arts Commission and the building's architects, Stanton and Stockwell, approved his design, he was awarded a $114,000 commission for murals over both entrances. A full-size cartoon was prepared and placed on unfired tiles. The figures in the cartoon were traced into the tile and then the tile manufacturer Interpace in Glendale used a special firing process to capture the full range of color that Sheets wanted. The murals were completed in 1971 but not installed until the following year. Unfortunately, the deep overhang above each entrance casts day-long shadows that mute the murals' rich and vibrant colors.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, August 1997.
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