by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This weekend, the Homestead hosts the tenth year of our “Ticket to the Twenties” festival with live performances of period music, live music accompaniment to silent films, a presentation on Hollywood and music history, family crafts, a magic performance, fashion shows and costume contests, and house tours.
Concerning those tours, a major focus will be on the Temple family’s remarkable rise and fall as reflected through the building, occupancy and loss of their amazing home, La Casa Nueva, which was built between 1922 and 1927. Adjacent to the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion is a fascinating little curiosity, the Tepee, completed in 1927 as Walter P. Temple’s “home office” or, if you prefer, “man cave” before there were such things.
The inspiration for La Casa Nueva was a Temple family vacation to Mexico in summer 1922. For the Tepee, it was one of Walter Temple’s visits to Soboba Hot Springs, a resort near Hemet, where there were Southwestern Indian-themed accommodations. One of the ten was the “Pima,” a structure that Temple copied for the Tepee.
A Soboba pamphlet in the museum’s collection describes a “Picturesque Indian Village” featuring “the most unique and luxurious guest accommodations ever provided by any resort.” The “Indian lodges” were deemed to be “in perfect harmony with the rugged setting and romantic history” of the area.
Though there was “rough Indian architecture” on the outside, the interiors were “appropriately decorated” with hand-wrought iron fixtures and hardware and the units had “all modern conveniences.” These included steam heat, hot and cold water, electric lights and large Pullman windows. In all, the units incorporated “every possible comfort and convenience.”
For his version, Temple had the stonemasons who built the adobe bricks for La Casa Nueva and the surrounding Mission Walkway (more on that in a later post) create rounded wood forms to make the appropriately shaped bricks for the conical structure.
However, in 1925, Temple, who learned of the demolition of his father and uncle’s Temple Block (where the Temple and Workman bank was housed in the first half of the 1870s), purchased bricks and other souvenirs from the condemned buildings. Some of those bricks were used to complete the upper portion of the Tepee.
Several snapshot photographs, presumably taken by Temple’s enthusiastic amateur photographer son Thomas, show the building during and after construction. One photo, highlighted here, shows a group including Temple at the right, standing in costume during a party held by the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Altar Society from [La] Puente in spring 1928.
The structure contained a small bed, a half-bath, and room for his roll-top desk. In a March 1928 letter to Thomas, Temple wrote that the Tepee “provides a quiet and cozy retreat for study and office work” and described its covered front veranda with poles of eucalyptus supporting a thatched roof. He went on to say that the poles “look like Totem poles as we saw in Alaska.” The Temples visited the far northern American territory in 1919, just after their windfall from oil revenues on their Montebello-area ranch were rolling in.
In that same letter, Temple told his son that “business affairs are running smoothly but yet burdened with obligations which are being met as we go along.” In fact, the financial situation confronting Temple was not quite as described. The oil revenue that filled the family’s coffers from summer 1917 onward slowed by the middle 1920s, precisely as Temple embarked into a wide array of his own oil prospecting and real estate development projects.
These included oil drilling in Texas, Alaska, Mexico and several areas of southern California, including Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill (Long Beach), and Ventura. Real estate projects took place in Alhambra, El Monte, Los Angeles and San Gabriel as well as with his biggest endeavor, the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City about the time Temple wrote his 1928 letter. His Temple Estate Company covered all the properties, except the latter, which operated under the Temple Townsite Company.
Simply put, expenses soared as income dropped and the situation was untenable and unsustainable. In 1926, Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, and attorney, George H. Woodruff, proposed taking out over a half million dollars in bonds (with the usual future interest payments) and loans were also taken out. Finishing La Casa Nueva, and the Tepee, were done under this indebted condition, along with further real estate and oil work. Another $200,000 in bonds were created in June 1929.
In the letter, Temple wrote his son that “our leases in Ventura are looking very favorable and promising,” observing that he and partners owned 220 acres “where they now are drilling 4700 ft” on a spot along the road. Yet, as happened too often in his independent oil prospecting, Ventura did not deliver the expected and badly needed oil.
In spring 1927, Temple’s last major real estate project, the three-story Edison Building in Alhambra for commercial and retail purposes, was completed, but, within a little more than two years, that structure and others were sold to pay off debts. Later in 1927, La Casa Nueva was finally finished, but even that remarkable and highly personalized residence only was inhabited for about two-and-a-half years.
In spring 1930, months after the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, Temple struck a deal to lease the 92-acre Homestead, including his new home, the Workman House, the El Campo Santo cemetery, and walnut orchards and farmland to a military academy.
He moved to Ensenada and then Tijuana in Baja California (a forerunner of American expatriates there in significant numbers now) to save expenses and hoped to stave off financial ruin. These measures, however, were not enough as the depression worsened with massive waves of bank failures in 1932.
In July of that year, California Bank, holder of a mortgage on the Homestead, foreclosed and this last holdout in Temple’s once-impressive real estate portfolio, was lost. Amazingly, he left original blueprints for La Casa Nueva and many photographs, most taken by his son, in the attic of the Tepee. When Harry and Lois Brown, owners of El Encanto Sanitarium, took possession of the Homestead in fall 1940, they found these items. Fortunately, they were saved and the Brown family donated them to the Homestead not long after the museum opened in the early 1980s.
I’ll be stationed in the Tepee both days of the Ticket to the Twenties festival to talk about the Tepee, its unusual architecture in the era when buildings shaped as things (academically called “programmatic architecture”, but I like “buildings shaped as things”) were common in our region, and about the rise and fall of the Temple family.
So, please come out to enjoy the many, diverse offerings at the festival and stop in to the Tepee, which is rarely open to the public, to say hello. Tell me I sent you.