Los Angeles was a growing metropolis in the 1920s, looking forward to a prosperous future. As such, newly designed municipal buildings reflected the glory and success of the West’s shining city. Griffith Observatory, filled with beautiful murals created by artist Hugo Ballin, was erected in Griffith Park. A magnificent City Hall thrusting at the sky was constructed in the heart of downtown. A new library arose in 1929, filled with elegant tile work, painted design, and gorgeous murals celebrating California history in the dedicated history room. Albert Herter, renowned artist and muralist, created these striking panels. Herter himself grew up surrounded by elegance and beauty, and was inspired to go on to create artistic works of his own.
Herter studied art in New York and Paris in the late 1880s and early 1890s. He won many awards over the years, and was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France. While in Paris, he met and married fellow student Adele McGinnis in 1893. Adele descended from a successful family in New York, and possessed great talent of her own. She focused on painting portraits of leading figures as well as still lifes.
Herter’s father Christian and his brother Gustave founded Herter Brothers in New York right after the Civil War, one of the leading decorative arts and interior decorators in the United States. After making a fortune selling furniture, Christian Herter and his wife built a home valued at $170,000 in Santa Barbara, filled with luxurious works. Mrs. Herter gave the home as a Christmas present to Albert in 1906, per the December 29, 1906, Los Angeles Times, as a place to come and recharge his artistic juices. When she died in 1913, she ensured his sole ownership by awarding it solely to him in her will. Herter constructed bungalows on the property and converted it into the luxurious hotel El Mirasol in 1914, a retreat visited by Vanderbilts, Armours, and Rockefellers, before selling it in 1920. The Herters split their time between the Santa Barbara retreat and their New York estate in East Hampton, Long Island.
Herter already possessed renown for his artistic works throughout the country, including an immense tapestry for Denver’s public auditorium. On commission, he painted murals for individuals, such as the six called the “Niebelungen Lied,” designed for the mansion of Charles T. Yerkes on New York’s Park Avenue. The ceiling mural alone measured 25 by 15 feet, and depicted the “Gods Retreating into Valhalla.” He also created elegant murals for the lobby of San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel as well as five for Massachusetts’ House of Representatives.
Herter and Adele also actively took part in the cultural and social scene of Santa Barbara, with Herter directing and creating costumes, props, and sets for the 1920 presentation of “Pelleas and Melisande,” which benefited the city’s Community Arts Association in creating a community theatre. In 1922, Herter produced “The Temple,” a Greek drama featuring over 100 in the cast, along with classical sets, elegant lighting, and graceful costumes. The city recognized his generosity; the January 15, 1922 Los Angeles Times reported he was called “beloved” as well as “a prince of men.”
In June 1918, Herter’s son, Everit, a recognized painter and artist in his own right, was killed serving in the camouflage unit of the Engineers Corps in France. To commemorate both his son and French troops heading to the front in World War I, Herter volunteered to design and execute a huge mural on the walls of Paris’ Gare de L’Est train station, a lovely mural which still exists there today. Because of its monumental size, the French government allowed him the use of the Salle 1830 in the Chateau of Versailles as a studio.
Herter continued painting as well as creating murals, exhibiting with the renowned Los Angeles’ Stendhal Galleries in the late 1920s. Around this same time he also designed the entire decorative and color scheme for the lavish Warner Bros. theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, which opened in April 1928. The theatre featured a Spanish theme, with a Spanish garden auditorium in which the ceiling was painted to represent the night sky, and panoramic images of tree-clad hills and castle tops decorating the sides, per the April 8, 1928, Los Angeles Times. In 1929, Herter was commissioned to decorate San Francisco’s New Columbia Theatre.
When Los Angeles decided to create a grand downtown library, the city hired Herter to design elaborate California history murals for the Hope Street tunnel. After two were completed and hung, the library realized they needed better protection and a more appropriate location. They were moved to the History Room, and other murals depicting Gaspar de Portola, who discovered San Francisco Bay, and Juan Bautista De Anza, leader of a 1775 colonizing expedition were added, along with one showing the California gold rush. The two moved showed native Indians and Spanish in a mission, as well as the raising of the American flag at Monterey by Commodore Sloat, for which extra figures and landscaping were added to hide their original seams. Each mural ranged in length from 21 to 38 feet, and were painted on canvas in Herter’s Santa Barbara studio and finished at the library.
The June 1, 1930, Los Angeles Times reported that City Librarian Everett R. Perry called the completion and moving of the murals “…a matter of great satisfaction to the library board and believes that art lovers of Los Angeles will agree with the board that the beauty of the paintings now shows up to full advantage.” After the fire to the Central Library in the 1980s, the room was turned into the children’s wing, but the lovely murals still survive.
Not long after the murals’ completion, Herter turned to portrait painting, and painted such people as President Herbert Hoover among others, gaining great success in this field as well. He died in 1950, one of the great United States’ muralists of the twentieth century. His son, Christian A. Herter, served in the Massachusetts legislature, the U. S. House of Representatives, as Governor of Massachusetts, and as U. S. Undersecretary of State under Secretary Dulles, before serving as secretary of state in 1959.