Biographies of Architects, Designers, and Builders

Anthony B. Heinsbergen (1894-1981)

Anthony (Antoon) B. Heinsbergen, nationally acclaimed Dutch-born muralist, was born in Holland on December 13, 1894. He began his craft as an apprentice in Holland before emigrating to Los Angeles in 1906. Heinsbergen continued his art education in Los Angeles while working five years in the trades and studying at the Chouinard Art Institute.

In 1922, after traveling and working throughout the U.S. and Canada to gain practical experience, Heinsbergen founded the A.B. Heinsbergen Decorating Company in Los Angeles. Over the next six years, he captured an impressive catalogue of commissions including architectural ornamentation and mural contracts for Elks Clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco; the Pacific Coast Club, Long Beach; Gables Club, Santa Monica; Union Trust & Savings Bank, Los Angeles; Tower Theatre, Los Angeles; Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood; the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel and, most notably, the soaring new Los Angeles City Hall in 1928.

That same year Heinsbergen undertook designing the interior decor for the new Hotel Tioga in Merced, California. For dramatic effect, he drew upon such diverse sources as Native American, Spanish and Italian design traditions. Borrowing from the indigenous designs of hand-woven baskets, he created boldly-patterned geometric borders richly painted in authentic hues of red, blue, black, yellow and white. Portraits of King Ferdinand V, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Hernando de Soto he rendered in the heroic Spanish tradition. His Italian-inspired beams, panels and mouldings were lavishly trimmed in gold leaf, then hand-detailed using Tiffany-derived coloration in elephant-hide grey, purple and green. Other surfaces were adorned with Italian ribbon motifs polychromed in red, blue, gray, green and gold. Heinsbergen's keen sense of color and vivid palette, along with his innate ability to combine distinctively different architectural vocabularies into a visually cohesive mixed idiom, were handsomely illustrated in the Hotel Tioga. During this period of tremendous artistic output, Heinsbergen's firm often employed a work force of more than one hundred artists and artisans.

Tower Theatre lobbyThroughout his career Heinsbergen collaborated with the most prominent architects of his day on buildings of all types, but his artistic reputation is indelibly linked to theater decors. Legendary impresario Alexander Pantages presented the 30-year-old artist with his first theater commission in 1924, and Heinsbergen went on to decorate over 750 theaters nationwide during America's golden age of theater construction. He was most proud of his classically-inspired murals for the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, B.C., but is largely remembered for his "delightful mish-mash of byzantine sumptuousness, Art Deco cubism and pure kitsch, perfect for the timeless and vulgar opulence of movie-going." Notable among his major Art Deco-inspired commissions in Los Angeles was his work for the Wiltern Theatre in the serpentine-towered Zigzag-Moderne Pellissier Building of 1930-31. Heinsbergen also created the highly-stylized "Leda and Swan" wall murals and the gracefully curvilinear "Leaf and Vine" ceiling motifs for Fresno's Tower Theatre of 1939 (on left).

Heinsbergen's mature work, though customarily admired by the general public and the architectural press alike, occasionally became the focus of civic controversy and anxiety. One particularly contentious debate took place in Sacramento during 1937, when a group of community-minded citizens publicly condemned his newly-painted murals in the bar of the Senator Hotel. Adapting the genre of lifelike portraits within a colorful montage of graphic shapes, patterns and objects symbolic of the British monarchy, the artist depicted the romance of former King Edward VIII--later proclaimed Duke of Windsor--and American divorcée Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson. Entitled "Choice of an Empire," the central panel measured an imposing 8x9 feet in scale and included, in addition to the royal subjects, representations of several deck-of-cards court characters, the clergy and a frolicking but "mocking" cupid. What ensued in the press was a lively debate over the subject of art vs. bad taste. Heinsbergen responded straight away: "Bad taste? That's far fetched," he snorted. "Those murals are history, just history--a fine romance cleverly done. It's not meant to be satire and we weren't trying to be funny." Two years later in Fresno, fearing the possibility of a similar public outcry, theater representatives ordered the Tower Theatre murals cleverly repainted shortly before opening night to make six female figures appear more modest.

Memorial Auditorium lobbyIn addition to the mythical but scantily-clad Leda he depicted in his suite of six tondos for the Tower Theatre, Heinsbergen also completed a significant collection of less provocative commissions in Fresno, including an elaborately ornamented coffered ceiling for the Pacific Southwest Building, commonly called the Security Bank Building; wall medallions for the PWA Moderne Memorial Auditorium (on right); and ceiling murals for the main reading room of Fresno State College Library, now Fresno City College Library. The deeply-coffered ceiling spanning the old baronial banking hall in Fresno's reigning skyscraper has been newly uncovered after being obscured from view by a false ceiling for many decades. Murals and medallions in the Memorial Auditorium, images once believed to have been irreparably destroyed when the building was repainted, have also been recently revealed and meticulously restored. Heinsbergen's classically-derived ceiling panels in the college library's lofty reading room have survived impressively intact for well over half a century. Composed of portraits of influential educators set against representations of great historical epochs, the reading room murals are considered among the finest examples of Anthony Heinsbergen's preferred painting style, the personal idiom for which Heinsbergen hoped to be most remembered.

Although it has been said that Heinsbergen did not favor the type of stylized characteristics evident in his Tower Theatre murals, he masterfully adapted to a succession of radical changes in architectural fashion, ornamentation and technology that dictated the use of such motifs during the 1930s. In fact, innovations in the design of mercury-vapor lamps made it possible for the Tower Theatre murals to represent a very early use of fluorescent paints and ultraviolet (black) light. Architect S. Charles Lee had first experimented with this novel lighting device in his Academy Theatre in Inglewood. Shortly thereafter, the Tower Theatre became the second theater in the nation to use such illuminated decoration. The blacklight was designed and engineered for the project by R. H. McCullough and Walter Bantau. Heinsbergen assistants, brothers Tom and Frank Bouman, were largely responsible for the final installation of the Tower Theatre murals, and completed painting them at night by blacklight to assure that they would achieve the proper fluorescent effects.

Reflecting on his career and commenting on the demise of grand movie theater design, Heinsbergen said, "They stopped building them in the 1940s, when there was a depression in the movie business. There were no good pictures coming out and television was just coming in. But you know what really killed them? No parking. People started going to the suburban theaters so they could park their cars. It's as simple as that." Nevertheless, Heinsbergen still completed theater commissions in the 1940s, including the Lorenzo Theater in San Lorenzo, California.

During the latter years of his career, Heinsbergen participated in the restoration of a number of fine theaters, including the Oakland Paramount during the early 1970s. Anthony Heinsbergen died on June 14, 1981, at age eighty-six. His son subsequently assumed management of the firm as A. T. Heinsbergen & Company, specializing in the restoration of historic buildings and, quite fittingly, historic theaters. The junior Heinsbergen coordinated the restoration of his father's Fresno Tower Theatre murals in 1989-1990. The firm also completed restoration of the historic Orinda Theater in 1989.

©1996 John Edward Powell. All rights reserved.
Photo of Tower Theatre lobby ©1992 Russell Abraham.