Through the Viewfinder at the Temple Block, Los Angeles, 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In 1828, when the little pueblo of Los Angeles in the hinterlands of the “Siberia of Mexico” (that is, Alta California) numbered its population in the hundreds, a young merchant from Massachusetts by way of the Sandwich Islands (that is, Hawai’i) showed up to settle.  Only the second American or European, after shipwreck Joseph Chapman, to live in the hamlet, Jonathan Temple quickly opened the town’s first store and acquired property on the community’s southern fringes (that is, where Spring and Main streets came together about what later was First Street.)

His store and home eventually became part of an area known as the Temple Block.  In 1848, shortly after the American invasion and conquest and just as the Gold Rush was underway, Temple built one of the few two-story buildings in Los Angeles.  He followed this just about a decade later, with a two-story brick structure at the south end of his block.  This was around the time that he successfully petitioned the town’s common (that is, city) council for permission to build a small street west from where Spring and Main came together.  He called the modest thoroughfare Temple Street.

In 1859, in an island between Spring and Main streets below Temple and above First, Temple built a new two-story brick commercial building, modeled after Faneuil Hall in Boston, which was not far from his hometown of Reading, Massachusetts.  The idea for the Market House, as it was known, was to rent market “stalls” in the lower portion of the building, while, on the second floor, the town’s first true theater (plays, musicals and other performances were previously held in private houses or club rooms), which was called the Temple Theater.

However, a worsening economy, hampered by the end of the Gold Rush and a national depression led to a lease in the early 1860s of the structure by the city and county for administrative offices and the courthouse, which was moved from the Rocha Adobe on the west side of Spring Street just a short distance to the south.  The structure remained used this way until the major land boom of the late 1880s, at which time a new courthouse and a new city hall were built.

The dour economic situation, worsened by flood and drought, led Temple to move to San Francisco, where he died in 1866.  The Temple Block was then sold the following year to his younger half-brother, F.P.F. Temple, who immediately began to improve the block with three new buildings.  The first two, made of brick and of two stories, were completed in 1868 and 1870, and the third, rising three levels, was finished late in 1871.

This panoramic photograph from the Homestead collection by Henry T. Payne, taken about 1872, shows three of the five buldings in the Temple Block constructed by Jonathan Temple and then his half-brother, F.P.F. Temple, between 1857 and 1871.  This image includes a pair of two-story buildings at the center right and the three-story structure at the center.  The latter, finished in late 1871, just before the photo was taken, housed the bank of F.P.F. Temple and his father-in-law, William Workman.

The latter, which finished off the block at that triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple, the last of which was gradually extended to the west up the hill from downtown, housed the new bank of Temple and Workman.  William Workman, F.P.F.’s father-in-law, half-owner of Rancho La Puente, and whose 1840s adobe, remodeled and expanded with brick additions by 1870, was the “silent” partner in the enterprise.

Actually, the two men originally entered into banking in 1868 with successful Jewish merchant, Isaias W. Hellman and formed the town’s second such institution, Hellman, Temple and Company.  If Temple had allowed Hellman to manage the bank as he should have, matters would have fare very differently, but the two men had different philosophies on how to run a bank.

In early 1871, Hellman severed the partnership, forming Farmers and Merchants Bank with ex-governor (and co-owner of Los Angeles’ first bank, also from 1868, Hayward and Company) John G. Downey.  Temple convinced Workman to carry on with a new institution in the newly finished final addition to the Temple Block.

The Temple Block is the focus of the accompanying image, taken by noted early Los Angeles photographer Henry T. Payne about 1872, just after the final structure’s completion.  Three of the five structures comprising the block are in view.  The photo may well have been composed by Payne to show the latest in modern business buildings for a small, but rapidly growing, city.

In fact, Los Angeles would grow from roughly 6,000 residents in the 1870 census to about 15,000 within five years and efforts like those carried out by Temple reflected the dramatic changes taking place in the city.

Within about three or four years, however, the boom went bust.  As noted in an earlier post here, the Temple and Workman bank was hit by a depositors’ run after a panic erupted in late August 1875 following the collapse of Virginia City silver mine stock speculation and the failure of the Bank of California in San Francisco.

On 1 September 1875, the bank as well as Farmers and Merchants closed for thirty days to blunt the panic.  While Farmers and Merchants reopened after the month sabbatical, as promised, Temple and Workman could not reopen.  More on what took place afterwards later, however.

For now, this image shows a Los Angeles enjoying its first boom and the new Temple Block buildings stand in contrast to the small, simple earlier structures in the foreground on the west side of Spring Street.  This area also represented a shift in the commercial district of the town from the historic, but aging, Plaza, which was, perhaps not accidentally, out of view to the left of the photo to the region in and around the block.

More photos from the period will be highlighted in future posts in the “Through the Viewfinder” series.

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