Ticket to the Twenties Themes: The Temple Family From Boom to Bust, Part 1

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The 1920s was a fascinating decade in so many ways, from the massive economic growth that proved to be built on unstable foundations, to the political and social tensions between traditional conservative values and modern boundary-pushing ideas, to the remarkable advances in technology with, for example communications and travel; to the changing role of women–and so much more.

In greater Los Angeles, the development boom that started just after the end of “The Great War” (World War I, of which the centennial of America’s entry is next year) meant another huge expansion of population and growth.  The city of Los Angeles nearly doubled in population during the decade and county increases were significant, too.  The growth of the film industry, aviation, manufacturing and more began to impede on the region’s traditional agricultural focus, which was increasingly pushed out further towards the periphery of wherever “Los Angeles” happened to stop.

This 1920s photograph from the Homestead’s collection shows a bustling Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, which experienced a major development boom, especially in the first years of the decade.  Walter Temple and some associated took part by building a pair of 11-story commercial structures at Main, Spring and 8th streets.

In this broadly defined and very generalized context, the Temple family happened to experience their restoration to wealth in a highly unexpected fashion.  Thomas W. Temple II, the 9-year old son of Walter P. Temple, whose father and grandfather were among Los Angeles’ elite before their private bank crashed and burned in 1876 during the region’s first boom, made an astonishing discovery of oil on the family’s 60 acres in the Montebello Hills.

This was land owned before the bank debacle by Walter’s father, F.P.F. Temple, and lost to “Lucky”Baldwin in the foreclosure of loans made to the crippled bank. Ironically, Walter Temple couldn’t afford to buy the 60 acres outright from the Baldwin estate in 1912, so the money was loaned to him by the estate!  Two years later, young Thomas found the oil indications and a lease was signed with Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron).

The first well came in at the end of June 1917, just as the American Expeditionary Force was making its first appearances on European battlefields during the war. By the end of the year, the Temples bought back the 75-acre Workman Homestead, which Walter’s brother, John, had lost to foreclosure nearly twenty years prior.

In 1919, as the Los Angeles real estate market was red hot, the Temples experienced a gusher with well #9 that was, for a brief time, said to be America’s largest producer.  That same year, a lease to a Japanese farmer occupying the Homestead ended and the Temples undertook major renovations of the Workman House, El Campo Santo cemetery and the 1860s winery buildings, while adding new features to the ranch, which was enlarged to 92 acres.  As the 1920s dawned, times were good and looked to get even better.

Walter Temple dove into the real estate world headlong.  In late 1921, he finished his first development project, the Temple Theater, a movie house in Alhambra. Within less than six years, he took on an array of projects.  In Los Angeles, he joined syndicates that built two 11-story office buildings (which still stand) at Main, Spring and 8th streets, just a few blocks south of where his father’s Temple Block was on the verge of being razed to build the new City Hall.

This October 1919 portrait by George Steckel shows Walter P. Temple and his wife Laura Gonzalez in the prime of their prosperity.  A little more than two years before this, the couple was living in very different circumstances before a lucky oil discovery by their oldest child, Thomas, brought them an unexpected fortune.

In Alhambra, he owned a block and a half on Main Street, adding five commercial buildings (one already finished, another in process and the others developed by him) to the theater.  Only one, the three-story Edison Building, on the corner of Main and 3rd, remains. Nearby, in San Gabriel, Temple bought the block of property across from the Mission San Gabriel, and constructed three commercial structures and donated the lot for the city hall, designed by Walker and Eisen, who were the architects for most of his commercial projects.  All are still with us.

Finally, in spring 1923, Temple and some associates bought some 285 acres just east of San Gabriel previously earmarked for a town and created the Town of Temple.  The project got off to a good start in terms of lot sales, but it also became the focus of speculators, looking to buy cheap lots and then turn them around for quick sale and fast profits.

Some homes and commercial buildings were built, but not enough to denote significant progress.  It didn’t help that an assessment for unincorporated communities to provide for sidewalks, gas lines and street lights included the provision that, if a property owner could or did not pay the fee, the owners on either side had to!  Needless to say, sales in the town were mediocre at best.

It wasn’t just real estate that Temple threw himself into.  Believing, perhaps, that he had a magic touch when it came to oil, given the fantastic origins of his newfound wealth, he invested heavily in a broad range of prospecting projects in Huntington Beach, Whittier, Signal Hill, Ventura, Mexico, Texas and Alaska.  The basic problem, however, was that the big firms got the choicest parcels and the little guys, like Temple, were left with the scraps.  For every successful well he brought in, there were many that were dry.

Not only that, 1923 marked the peak of the real estate boom in the region and the slow, sure decline set in.  Temple’s expenses weren’t limited to his real estate and oil investments.  In 1922, after a family vacation in Mexico that summer, Temple and his wife, Laura Gonzales, planned an expansive and expensive mansion, which they simply dubbed La Casa Nueva, in contrast to the Workman House (La Casa Vieja?), which they used as a weekend retreat while living full-time in Alhambra.

Perhaps the summit of the Temple family’s ambitions in expressing themselves was the planning and beginning of construction of the 11,000-square foot mansion, La Casa Nueva.  Using the popular Spanish Colonial Revival style, the couple reflected, in their designs and ideas family and regional history in a highly romantic fashion.  Sadly, just months after construction started in summer 1922, Laura Gonzalez Temple died of colon cancer and the change for the family was both personal and professional.

Walker and Eisen were hired to create professional measured drawings for ideas the Temples jotted down on butcher paper.  Utilizing the massively popular Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture, the Temples gave full expression to their romantic ideas of their personal, as well as regional and state history wherever and whenever possible.  This was done in carved wood, stained and painted glass, hand and machine made ceramic tile, and in plaster.

The Temples went beyond the standard generalized “Spanish” nature of the style and took it to heights (extremes, perhaps) that made La Casa Nueva, in its first concept, a remarkable and unusual statement and testament to a family’s conception of themselves and their region.

Then, at the end of 1922, just as the main walls were constructed of hand-formed adobe by craftspeople brought up from Guadalajara, Mexico, disaster struck. Stricken with colon cancer, which was complicated by an intestinal blockage, Laura Temple died.  The tragedy was, of course, immensely personal, but it was also professional, given what happened in the years following.  Her death took place as the family’s expenses were skyrocketing, but their oil income was rapidly declining, as the Montebello wells were quickly playing out.

More tomorrow on this amazing story of a family’s abrupt rise and steep decline!

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