Ticket to the Twenties Themes: The Temple Family from Boom to Bust, Part 2

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in the last post,  greater Los Angeles experienced a major development boom with an accompanying major increase in population.  Suddenly and surprisingly enriched with a fortune from oil found on his Montebello-area property, Walter P. Temple, like his father and grandfather fifty years before him, sought to capitalize on the opportunities the boom offered.

By 1923, as the regional real estate market peaked, Temple’s activity in oil prospecting and real estate and building projects was increasing.  He and his wife, Laura Gonzalez, also planned and started construction on an 11,000-square foot mansion, La Casa Nueva, that put a highly personal romantic conception in the architecture and design.

Then, at the end of 1922, Laura Temple died from the effects of colon cancer and an intestinal blockage.  Her passing was not just devastating for her family personally, but may also have had a professional impact as one of her children told me that he wondered if the future fortunes of his family would have been different had she lived.  Six months after her death, Walter Temple launched his most ambitious project, a subdivision on 285 acres east of San Gabriel dubbed the Town of Temple.

Walter P. Temple, right, with attorney George H. Woodruff and friend, Sylvester DuPuy, Alhambra, ca. 1925.  The trio were partners in several real estate projects, including Temple City and office buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

At the same time, he was expanding his investment in oil, working with a syndicate in building two 11-story commercial structures in downtown Los Angeles, erecting a trio of buildings in San Gabriel, working on two structures in El Monte, and in the midst of a major project in Alhambra.  His Temple Estate Company was created to manage his real estate investments.

After halting work on La Casa Nueva, with the initial plans drawn up by the firm of Walker and Eisen, which did most of his commercial building work, Temple brought in a new architect, the aptly named Roy Seldon Price, to renew work.  Price had many new and often very interesting ideas for improving the house–but at a major price.  Construction dragged on as changes were made and costs rose.

So, the basic problem simply was that as expenses skyrocketed, income, principally from the Montebello oil wells on the Temple lease, declined as the field played out quicker than anticipated.  By 1926, the situation was such that, committed to so many investments in short order, Temple and his associates, Milton Kauffman (his business manager) and George H. Woodruff (his attorney) decided to borrow money by issuing bonds that had payoff dates with interest over a period of up to twenty years.

The creative financing helped secure the completion of two buildings in Alhambra, including Temple’s final real estate endeavor, the three-story Edison Building, which was completed in spring 1927 and is still standing at the northwest corner of Main and Third streets.  It also allowed for more oil exploration, including in the Ventura area.  Finally, the completion of La Casa Nueva, including furnishing and landscaping, towards late 1927 was assured with the borrowed funds.

A panoramic view of a portion of the Homestead, ca. 1924.  From left to right are La Casa Nueva (in construction), the Workman House, and the 1860s winery buildings converted to an auditorium, dining hall and garage.  The latter are gone, but the homes and a water tower, of which the top of the roof and crows nest are visible over the larger winery, still stand.

There was also the matter of the private school education of Temple’s four children, who were educated out of the area.  From 1926 to 1929, the eldest child, Thomas, was at Harvard Law School, and younger sons, Walter, Junior and Edgar, were attending high school at Governor Dummer (yes, pronounced like “dumber” and now just called Governor Academy), also in Massachusetts.  Daughter Agnes, meanwhile, was at Dominican College in San Rafael, north of San Francisco.  There was not only a financial cost to their educations, but a personal one, too, because the children were separated and away from home so often.  Additionally, they were largely unaware of the financial problems pressing on their father.

The other dynamic to this was that the building of La Casa Nueva was intended to provide the Temples a residence that would be used by them for years to come.  Yet, upon its completion, the children were mainly at their several schools and Walter Temple lived alone in the house.  So, the idea of what defines a “house” as opposed to it use as a “home” is a notable one.

Even as the Temple family’s financial outlook was worsening, the cliche “hope springs eternal” still was present, especially in the search for that elusive gusher that was around the corner in places like Ventura.  The problem was that each time a corner was turned, the wells were dry.  The Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928, was developed with high hopes, but proved to be less successful than hoped.

The front cover of a 1928 promotional pamphlet for Temple City, recently renamed from the Town of Temple.  Within two years, its founder sold off his interests in the struggling community as the Great Depression hit.

By the time, the Temple children graduated from their colleges and high school in the summer of 1929, the situation was dire.  Still, the younger boys were sent off to the University of Santa Clara for the 1929-30 school year, daughter Agnes got married in November and went off on a six-month European honeymoon and Walter Temple made contingency plans for the Homestead, the last of his properties to save from loss.  On 24 October, the stock market crashed in New York, ushering in the Great Depression.

In May 1930, Temple sold his Temple City interests and vacated the Homestead and did what so many Americans do now–live inexpensively in Baja California, first in Ensenada and then Tijuana.  He did this having made a deal to lease the Homestead to a military academy that moved from Redondo Beach and rehabbed part of the property (adding dormitories atop the second floor wings of La Casa Nueva, for example) in time for the 1930-31 school year.

The hope was to make enough money from the lease to keep interest payments on the bonds going and, likely, ride out the depression–after all, how long was that expected to continue before prosperity returned?  In 1932, however, the massive wave of bank failures in the nation worsened the depression.  In July, several months before the election that sent Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency, the Bank of California foreclosed on the ranch and it was lost.

Temple returned to Los Angeles within a couple of years and lived in a small house behind that of some friends in Lincoln Heights, where he died in November 1938 at age 69.  He was the third member of his family to lose the Homestead, after his grandfather William Workman and brother, John H. Temple.

A detail of a large panorama of the Montebello oil field, ca. 1921.  Walter Temple’s early success with a lease to Standard Oil of California, now Chevron, did not translate into long-term prosperity there or in his other petroleum prospecting projects.

He achieved much in oil, real estate and the building of, arguably, one of the most unusual and beautiful homes in greater Los Angeles.  And, he lost a great deal in the process.  But, that hardly makes him unique.  Many people take their chances during boom times and come to face the consequences during the bust.

There’s a term used in a text panel about the family here at the Homestead:  Striving, Struggling, and Starting Over.  It epitomizes the history of the Temple family and of greater Los Angeles in general.  It’s a story with a purpose and worth the telling.

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