Wo/Men at Work (Labor Day Edition): Adobe Makers for La Casa Nueva, ca. 1922-1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Labor Day as a federal holiday dates back to 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation creating it, but its origins go back a dozen years earlier to a laborers’ parade held in New York, followed later in the 1880s by state laws mandating Labor Day holidays, starting with Oregon in 1887 and spreading to over twenty other states before the federal law was enacted.

This Washington Post article gives a good summary of the origins of Labor Day, especially of the fact that the notorious Pullman (manufacturer of railroad cars) strike in Chicago.  In early July, violence broke out among some 6,000 rioters in the city and more than double that number of police officers, marshals and federal and state troops responded.  When a National Guard detachment fired into a mob on the 7th, some thirty people were killed.  While some later claimed Cleveland signed the Labor Day legislation because of the strike, the article indicates that is not the case.

Adobe Making Site From The West Drive West Of La Casa Nueva Look
Laborers with a crew led by Pablo Urzua, a maestro de obra, or master builder from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, work on making adobe bricks, including the large kiln to bake bricks, just west of La Casa Nueva.  Note, too, how rural the surrounding area was ninety or so years ago.

Today’s Labor Day edition of “Wo/Men at Work” focuses on some images showing workers hand-making adobe bricks for the construction of La Casa Nueva, the Temple family home built between 1922 and 1927.  The family vacationed in Mexico in the summer of 1922 and this visit inspired the decision to build the home in an exuberant rendering of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture.

Walter and Laura Temple sketched out rough ideas of what they wanted on butcher paper and then had the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, which was then designing Walter Temple’s commercial buildings in Los Angeles, Alhambra, San Gabriel and El Monte, for measured drawings.

Adobe Making Site For Homestead
 A few workers are visible in this view, but note the large pit, the several adobe kilns and the bricks laid out.  This appears to be south of La Casa Nueva.

To make the bricks and build the home’s walls, Pablo Urzua, a maestro de obra, or master builder in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, was hired.  For several successive years, when the weather was warm and dry enough to provide optimum conditions for adobe-making, Urzua and his team traveled north to the Homestead to conduct their work.

At one point, according to an oral history conducted with Walter P. Temple, Jr., there was an even a scheme to use cement mixers to hasten the process of preparing the earthen material for forming.  However, the soil at the Homestead is so dense in clay content that the thickness of it gummed up the machines and the experiment failed, resulting in much wasted time and cost.

Adobe Making Area La Casa Nueva Construction
Another view of workers with formed bricks in the foreground and stacks of material near the kiln.  This is, again, west of La Casa Nueva.  The power poles at left ran along Evergreen Lane, which went west to Turnbull Canyon Road, roughly along the path of today’s Don Julian Road.

Moreover, Urzua and his men did not only build adobe bricks for the house, but for the walls of the Mission Walkway, which surrounds the structure on three sides; for the Tepee, the detached home office/man cave, built for Mr. Temple next to the building; and for the unusual round planters that were placed around the home (today’s planters are concrete reproductions situated on the locations of the originals, which were removed years ago when El Encanto Sanitarium operated on the property.)

The photos, while capturing some interesting aspects of the work, including massive adobe kilns constructed to bake, rather than sun-dry, the bricks, the pits dug out for the material used as the base for the brick making process, and other elements, don’t give us an idea of just how demanding the process was.

IMG 25
Here is a full, unedited scan of a snapshot provided by Ruth Ann Michaelis, granddaughter of Walter and Laura Temple, showing the same area as in the adobe photo, but from a different vantage point.  In the distance are the western edge of the Puente Hills.

Digging the pits, forming the bricks in molds, carrying the finished products either for the kilns or for the house, and other steps were often done under hot conditions under a punishing sun.  We know the name of the head of the crew, Urzua, but not the nameless men who labored hard to erect the walls of the historic house, the walkway, the Tepee and the bricks for the planters.

Notably, when a granite plaque was placed on the home to dedicate it to the memory of Laura Temple, who died at the end of 1922 just months after the construction began, it also named Walker and Eisen as the architects (even though Roy Seldon Price was brought in just after the plaque’s installation to complete the house with significant and important changes), and Urzua as key players in the development of the building.

IMG 27
Another unedited scan of a snapshot from Ruth Ann Michaelis.  The man smoothing out the adobe bricks before removing them from the form may be smiling, but this work was tough labor.

Fortunately, Thomas W. Temple II, the eldest of the family’s four surviving children, was also an avid photographer and, if it was not for his dedication to documenting the building of La Casa Nueva, we’d have very little to go by in tracking the project.  Look for more of Thomas’ work in recording the construction of the home in future posts here.

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