The secret history of a hidden mural at a Los Angeles hotel

The website Mosaic Art Now has a fun story about a tile mosaic of an oil refinery that was discovered behind some wood paneling at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles.

In May 2012, when the renowned Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles was slated to close its doors for good, the owners ran a huge liquidation sale—the entire contents of the hotel went up for grabs. The hotel changed hands over the years, originally the Statler—then Statler-Hilton, then Omni, and finally the Wilshire Grand— remained one of the “see and be-seen” hotspots of the midcentury atomic age.

During the clearance sale, a puzzling discovery was made: a fifteen-foot mosaic mural commissioned by The Los Angeles Petroleum Club was found behind some old wood paneling. The Club had at one time maintained a posh member’s suite at the hotel. This is where the intrigue and mosaic sleuthing begins.

Black Gold: Thar’s Oil In Them Thar Walls (Thanks, Mister Jalopy!)


    1. The mural itself is definitely fugly – and the article points this out, nicely, by describing how it was clearly done by someone who wasn’t particularly good at making murals.
      But, as a geologist and as someone who likes this mid-century art style, I do think the underlying design is pretty neat.

    2. The image in the blog post is prior to any cleaning.. it had decades of smoke and crud stuck to it. Once it’s cleaned off the colors are a bit more lively and it looks nicer.

      The subject material is certainly lame, oil machinery is not nice scenery, but the building design and colors are kind of neat.

  1. At first look I’d say Mary Blair—but she wasn’t really known for industrial type subjects. 

  2. Was
    the mosaic really discovered BY the wood paneling? I bet it was really
    discovered BEHIND the wood paneling. Either way, it’s rather interesting!

  3. Subject matter notwithstanding, I really like it. I’m so glad that someone made the decision to keep it in the first place, and that Gregory Johnson saved it from demolition. I really appreciate when people can save items like this, whether they be old neon signs, wall murals, or even architectural decor like clocks or bannisters.

    This reminds me of two great murals that were painted inside the old Crest Theater in Wichita, Kansas that was finally torn down in 1997. Nobody could save them, it seems. They were painted by Frank Lackner of Chicago, and depicted the agricultural and industrial history of Wichita. The style reminded me of something like a fusion of Thomas Hart Benton and Louis Lozowick.

    From the College Hill Commoner, Dec. 5, 2007:

    “Huge panoramic murals by artist Frank Lackner of Chicago adorned the
    theater’s walls. One of Lackner’s murals, measuring 20 by 40 feet,
    depicted scenes from Wichita’s early days, including cowboys on
    horseback, Indians, cattle, buffalo, a stagecoach, and a prairie fire.
    The other mural featured images of the 1950s’ present day Wichita,
    including modern buildings, wheat fields, oil wells, and airplanes. When
    the lights were dimmed, the murals sparkled and glowed under black
    lights that illuminated the phosphorescent paint.”

  4. I myself do not find the mural particularly fugly, but I’ve always enjoyed industrial-themed artwork of an abstract nature. I went to elementary school in Santa Monica, California and it had a  large, possibly WPA-era mosaic mural in a sheltered outdoor area. I seem to remember a lot of old mosaic murals in public and commercial buildings back then.

    This is a fascinating story. Thanks Mark.

  5. Thanks for posting my article Mark, I’m happy the story seems to be resonating with so many people, fugly or not, it’s a real piece of LA history and i hope will raise awareness to the many worthy mosaics of this era  in need of preservation attention. Thanks to Mister Jalopy too!

    1. hi Rammed Earth. Def. not a millard Sheets or his employee – please clik on the original link above: Black Gold  for the research – you can also listen to a radio interview about the mural here:

  6. I’m no art expert but this mosaic somehow reminds me of soviet murals – the muted colors, industry or workers as motive, abstract design etc.

    1.  There’s a great many of those we’re losing to abandonment and the elements, too, I’m sure.

  7. The article was amusing because of the forced perspective rollercoaster ride it took you on.  I know nothing about Murals, but the story went from “amazing history of murals in LA” to “OMG It could be a Millard Sheets or any other number of highly acclaimed muralists” to “Actually, as a mural, it wasn’t done very well, as easily seen here, here and here.  Just by the methodology, it’s likely done by a dude who read a book once.”

    If the mural was set up in Act I as “we discovered a technically poorly executed mural showing all the hallmarks of an amateur- but we still opted to press forth with preservation under pressing timelines” it would have been as interesting a story, without the dramatic highlights.

    1. What? And miss all the fun of discovery?  Styrofoam, tracking down the provenance of an art work is often very much a roller coaster ride.  Part of Lillian Sizemore’s genius is her ability to effectively communicate the thrills and chills of her scholarly work in mosaic history. 

      Response to this article has been hugely positive – a testament to the value of keeping things lively.  Interest in mid-century mosaics has been amped up, folks are talking about preservation for all the right reasons, and most people have had a good time.  As an online editor, I can guarantee you that we would have 90% of the audience at “a technically poorly executed mural showing all the hallmarks . .  ”  

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