Court To Rule on Ownership of Iconic Los Angeles Murals

A legal dispute has erupted over the rightful ownership of two 1940s murals in the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building in Los Angeles' historic West Adams neighborhood, threatening a vital piece of the city's African American history.

The murals, which depict four centuries of black history in California, have been in the lobby of the 1949 building since it opened. When Golden State Mutual Life Insurance went bankrupt in 2009, after occupying the building for 60 years, state regulators seized the property and began liquidating its assets.

But whether or not the murals are an asset separate from the building is a matter of heated dispute. A series of hearings have commenced to determine if they are permanent fixtures in the building and therefore belong to its current owners, the nonprofit Community Impact Development Inc., or if they are separate assets that now belong to the state and can be sold off to repay shareholders. A number of items from the company's extensive collection of African American art have already been sold.

"These murals are part of the historic fiber of the community and a significant part of Los Angeles' history," said Marcos Velayos, counsel for Community Impact Development, in an e-mail. "We think there is no better way to celebrate this history than by keeping the murals right here, where they have always been."

The six-story Golden State Mutual building was designed by noted African American architect Paul Revere Williams, a Los Angeles native who was the first black architect admitted to the American Institute of Architects. Williams designed the Moderne building for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance, the first and largest African American-owned insurance company in California and one of the first companies to offer life insurance to African Americans in Los Angeles. Williams commissioned African American artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff to paint the two murals, both 16.5 inches long and more than nine feet tall, in the building's lobby.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council officially declared the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company building a historic-cultural monument.

"The murals were commissioned for the space they're in," says Adrian Fine, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy. "You can't take them away and still tell the complete story, because it's not just about the artwork. It's about the architect, it's about the artists, and it's about the business itself, and they all come together in one place."

Late last year, the Smithsonian Institute placed a bid on the murals, with plans to reinstall them at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian withdrew its bid in March in response to the community's opposition to removing the murals from their original location.

Several community and preservation groups have started mobilizing, advocating for the mural's preservation and raising funds to purchase them if they are eventually determined separate assets.

"Right now, everyone is working for the same cause, but covering it from different directions," says John Patterson, president of the West Adams Heritage Association. "It's an iconic landmark, and it's important to the community that it stays here."

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