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Golden State Mutual murals center of controversy

CoKindles | 4/27/2011, 5 p.m.

During the late 1940s, Golden State Mutual became the largest Black-owned insurance company in the western United States. It was one of the first companies to offer life insurance to this city's African American population, and it operated for 60 years from its home office in the West Adams district until closing a few years ago.

In January, the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee submitted a nomination to register the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building, located at 1999 W. Adams Blvd., as a Historic-Cultural Monument. The building, which shares in the history of Black Californians, received a unanimous vote on April 7 by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission to approve the city planning recommendation of designation.

Councilmember Bernard C. Parks, who represents the 8th District, where the building is located, is enthusiastic about the push to protect the landmark building and its heritage.

"As a resident of South Los Angeles nearly my entire life, I am thrilled to see the Cultural Heritage Commission recognize the historic and cultural value of this iconic building," said Parks.

Despite the recommendation, the interior murals which depict Black American cowboys, oil riggers and explorers have become the subject of a highly publicized legal dispute.

Since the company folded in 2009, the California Department of Insurance Conservation and Liquidation Office has seized and dissolved much of Golden State Mutual's assets through public sale and are planning to auction the murals.

Completed in 1949, the Golden State Mutual home office was designed by African American architect Paul Revere Williams. A native Angeleno, Williams became the first Black architect admitted to the American Institute of Architects, and is one of Los Angeles' most prominent figures of the 20th century.

Williams was intimately involved in the creation of the murals. Noted Black American artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff contributed the two oil-on-canvas murals hanging in the lobby of the building. Part of the building's original design, Woodruff's "The Negro in California History-Settlement and Development" and Alston's "The Negro in California History-Exploration and Colonization" chronicle the Black experience of 19th and 20th centuries in California.

"Paul Williams selected the subjects and the artists for those murals," said Linda Dishman, the L.A. Conservancy's director. "They're absolutely integral to the building's design. This is a quintessential building in terms of the African American experience in this city. It's hard to imagine another situation where the most important Black firm, Black architect and Black artists were all involved in a collaboration of this kind."

Regarded as significant examples of integrated art in Los Angeles Black history, independent appraisals put the value of the two murals anywhere between $2.2 million and $5.5 million, and they are believed to be Alston's and Hale's only public art locally.

Until recently, the Smithsonian Institution was in the running to purchase the murals. However, the protests of preservationists may keep the two revered murals intact.

"It's part of our history," said Austin Moore, who is president of the Golden State Mutual Alumni. "Most of our people don't even know that it is there. It is important that we learn to tell our own history and our own stories. Golden State Mutual was a lot more than a life insurance company. It was the most prominent corporation here. It was a large social outlet. It gave a lot of benefits to the community."