Reinvented in California

Howard Ahmanson's golden touch

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It is true, as generations of gold-rushers, dust-bowlers, and entrepreneurs can attest, that California is the land of reinvention. It is the place where, having shed the encumbering routines and reputations of elsewhere, the transplant can start anew. Near-perfect weather provides solace, and a never-ending flow of newcomers affords, as needed, companionship or anonymity.

Such is the California dream, of which Howard Ahmanson (1906-1968) was both a product and an architect.

Ahmanson was a 19-year-old college student when he and his mother moved to Los Angeles in 1925. A double tragedy brought them from their native Omaha: the death of Howard’s father and the subsequent loss of the family’s business at the hands of unscrupulous partners. Grieving, and humbled by his inability to stave off the corporate jackals, Howard sought a fresh start. His ill mother sought a more temperate climate. They headed west.

Later Ahmanson would reinvent not only himself, but also southern California. As the owner of what would become the nation’s largest savings and loan, he financed many of the single-family homes that made the Golden State’s rapid postwar expansion possible. Thanks to Ahmanson’s mortgages, millions of GIs and other easterners seeking comfort and opportunity would find it in the region. And thanks to his generosity, the metropolis they populated would come to boast of some of the nation’s finest cultural institutions.

In Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream, historian Eric Abrahamson skillfully documents how Ahmanson became California’s wealthiest man and one of its most prolific philanthropists.

The story begins at the University of Southern California, where Ahmanson enrolled and, as a student, launched an insurance business, H. F. Ahmanson & Co. As Abrahamson tells it, Ahmanson had a sixth sense for economic trends. He cashed out of the stock market in mid-1929—after his portfolio had doubled in four years—just months before the Great Crash. He then grew rich during the Great Depression by selling fire-insurance policies on foreclosed homes to repossessing banks. “It was like being an undertaker at a plague,” he wrote. “The worse things got, the better I was.” In time, the economy would turn, but not Ahmanson’s fortunes.

During World War II, Los Angeles served as a manufacturing center and embarkation point for the Pacific theater. As a result, southern California experienced an infusion of nearly 500,000 new residents by 1945, but few analysts expected this growth to continue after the war’s end. Major commercial banks declined to extend housing loans in the region, fearing that it would soon become a peacetime “ghost town.” Ahmanson, who contributed to the war effort as a naval procurement officer, knew better. He anticipated that when the war was over, the state’s new residents, having tasted paradise, would not want to leave. What’s more, he expected additional new arrivals to follow, seeking fresh horizons after the hardships of depression and war.

For these newcomers, the American dream of home ownership and the California dream of reinvention would be one and the same. Abrahamson describes how Ahmanson aided these dreams by investing both in the properties upon which new homes were built and in the cement companies that poured their foundations. In 1947, he purchased his first savings and loan, thereby entering the mortgage business. In the ensuing years, he bought additional S&Ls whenever they became available, establishing branches of Home Savings & Loan throughout southern California.

The investment paid off. Drawn by jobs in the burgeoning aviation industry, veterans and others flooded in, just as Ahmanson predicted. At the same time, California became the epicenter of the American baby boom. While the national birthrate increased by 31 percent during the 1940s, California’s climbed by 40 percent, reflecting regional optimism. Because of this heightened migration and fecundity, the population of southern California grew by more than 50 percent in the 1940s. Average income tripled. Using wartime techniques of mass production and efficiency, homebuilders erected 3.3 million new, mostly inexpensive houses in Los Angeles County in just five years.

It is from this postwar period that Abrahamson’s book draws its title. Ahmanson was indeed building home, in manifold ways. He was building the Home Savings & Loan empire, while at the same time building the homes that housed California’s new residents. Then, during the next two decades, he would begin building home in a sense that transcends mere shelter, helping to establish the civic and cultural infrastructure that makes neighborhoods out of housing tracts and communities out of cities.

As Abrahamson puts it, “Howard Ahmanson contributed to Los Angeles’s transformation from a cultural backwater to a world-class city for the arts.” This renaissance began with a personal change of perspective. Early in his career, Ahmanson had little interest in the arts, or even aesthetics, maintaining a corporate headquarters that his soon-to-be favorite architect, Millard Sheets, would denounce as “the worst sweatshop I have ever seen in my life.”

By the mid-1950s, Ahmanson’s attitude shifted. He hired Sheets to build a new headquarters as well as several branch offices for Home Savings & Loan, all in the neoclassical style, heavy with marble. To Ahmanson’s surprise, these new structures boosted revenues for Home Savings. Their fortress-like trappings conveyed strength, allaying the fears of customers who still harbored Depression-era memories of catastrophic bank failure. Aesthetics mattered.

Sheets, in turn, recruited Ahmanson to the board of the Los Angeles County Art Institute, where the financier began collaborating with several of L.A.’s early patrons. Working with Richard “Ric” Fargo Brown, Norton Simon, and Edward William Carter, he gave $2 million for the construction of a new Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Dorothy Buffum Chandler enlisted his support for the Ahmanson Theater at the downtown Music Center. Ahmanson’s alma mater, the University of Southern California, was also a major beneficiary of his largesse, as was the Museum of Science and Industry.

Through it all, Ahmanson was steadfastly loyal to his adopted state. He rejected invitations to expand his business nationally or beyond, saying, “I made my fortune here in California. There’s no reason to go international. There’s no reason to go to New York. I’m staying right here.” With the exception of some early gifts to interests in his native Nebraska, the fruits of his generosity also stayed in the Golden State. In 1952, he began endowing the Ahmanson Foundation, which to this day funds art, medical, educational, and human-service
projects almost exclusively in his new home of Los Angeles County.

For Ahmanson, philanthropy was about making California homey for his fellow citizens. This approach was, Abrahamson argues, consistent with Ahmanson’s overall philosophy of public life, shared by most business and government elites of his day. That philosophy, described alternately as the consensus society or the managed economy, consisted of a mutual relationship between big business and government: Corporate leaders helped politicians achieve their public-policy goals in exchange for regulatory collegiality. Whether he was cooperating with thrift regulators in Sacramento and Washington, or planning museums with the county supervisors in Los Angeles, Ahmanson exemplified the sort of collaboration upon which his idea of the consensus society depended.

Although Abrahamson’s insights into this social vision are perceptive and even, at times, inspiring, his pining for its restoration often distracts him from what ought to be a biography’s main purpose—telling the story of its protagonist. Nowhere is this fixation more pronounced than in the book’s concluding paragraph, which scarcely mentions Ahmanson and reads like a paean to an economic order whose demise Abrahamson plainly mourns.

Even when he goes adrift, however,  Abrahamson is honest and thorough in his historical presentation. He acknowledges, for example, that the consensus society had its flaws, for instance its exclusion of racial minorities. He likewise relates a story in which Ahmanson and other lending tycoons delivered $100,000 in unmarked envelopes to a powerful Senate aide—hardly a shining moment in the history of the managed economy, and one that a less forthright author might have excised from the final draft. Abrahamson's transparency is to be commended.

This consistent candor gives Building Home enduring credibility—no small feat for a biography funded by its subject’s own son. Abrahamson notes that when philanthropist Howard Ahmanson Jr. commissioned him to write this book, he made it clear that he did not want a hagiography, and Abrahamson does not give us one. Instead, Building Home offers an objective depiction that neither hides nor sensationalizes Ahmanson’s failings, professional or personal.

Abrahamson is also honest about his book’s limitations. In the acknowledgments, he admits that there was a “paucity” of research material available in Ahmanson’s own voice. As such, the author had to rely on other sources, mostly secondary and financial, to produce a nonetheless remarkably well-rounded, if somewhat impersonal, portrait. The result is a rough sketch of Howard Ahmanson standing before a vividly detailed backdrop of the culture, politics, and economy that once sustained the California dream—a dream that shaped the man as surely as he shaped it.

Chris Weinkopf is the communications manager at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.