What do California’s first Black-owned life insurance company, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. (GSM), one of Los Angeles' most celebrated architects, Paul Revere Williams, and beautiful murals that depict Black history in California have in common?
The former headquarters of the Los Angeles firm united a triumverate of African-American commerce, art and history. In recognition, this month the Los Angeles City Council named the building, which is in the West Adams district of the city, an official historic monument.
It is unclear whether that designation will save the art in the former GSM headquarters. Since the company went bankrupt in 2009, the building's disposition and that of its contents have been unsettled. Both a local group Community Impact Development, Inc., which bought the building, and state regulators lay claim to a series of murals that depict Black California history. The state would like to sell the murals to pay the defunct firm's shareholders.
The building's owners are also working out a deal to restore the stucture and then to fill it with organizations affiliated with small businesses and non-profits that may help revitalize that section of South Central Los Angeles.
The building’s lobby houses murals that were painted by Charles H. Alston and Hale A. Woodruff. A Web site dedicated to architect Paul Williams states that the murals “represented African-American contributions to the history of California from 1781 through the founding of Golden State Mutual.”
Williams was the African-American architect who designed the five-story insurance company’s headquarters, which were dedicated in 1949.
He was the state’s first Black certified architect and in 1923 we was selected as the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects. He was also well-known for designing homes for Hollywood stars.
In 2009, Golden State Mutual closed its door after 84 years of serving Black customers, who during segregation could not obtain policies elsewhere in Los Angeles. At one point, the company, which was founded in 1925, was reportedly the largest Black-owned business west of the Mississippi.
Adrian Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy told IntersectionSouthLA.org that “there are few places around—not only in California but across the country—where you can point to all those things happening in one place. It has extreme significance of that level of telling the story of African-American heritage."
Charles Alston panel (Image: gsmlife.com)