by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A tour through La Casa Nueva, the stunning Spanish Colonial Revival home built by the Temple family at the Homestead in the 1920s, is an interesting case study in what distinguishes a house from a home.
When construction began in 1922, shortly after the family returned from a vacation in Mexico, where they hired a crew of masons in Guadalajara to make adobe for the building, the Temples were probably at the apex of their wealth, generated mainly from oil wells providentially found on their Montebello-area ranch by the eldest child, Thomas, several years before.
It had been a remarkable transformation. Walter Temple was born at the Rancho La Merced into one of greater Los Angeles’ wealthiest and best-known families, while Laura Gonzalez was born in far different circumstances just a stone’s throw away in a community known as Old Mission, where the first site of Mission San Gabriel was from 1771 to about 1775.
Although the Temple family fortune was all but wiped out in the dramatic failure of the bank owned by Walter’s father, F.P.F. Temple, and his grandfather, William Workman, in 1876 when Walter was just six years old, he remained in a remnant of Rancho La Merced acquired for his mother from the ranch’s new owner, Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who loaned money to the stricken bank.
Meanwhile, by the mid-1880s, Laura went to work for Walter’s brother, Francis, who purchased the Workman House and 75 acres from Baldwin after that part of Rancho La Puente was foreclosed upon by Baldwin. While still a teenager, Laura appears to have helped take care of the Homestead when Francis was away on frequent trips to Arizona because of tuberculosis.
It was there that a romance developed between Walter and Laura and there is evidence that they had to keep the relationship hidden from his family, except for his octogenarian grandmother, Nicolasa Workman, who seems to have facilitated clandestine meetings between the teenage lovers.
After Francis died in 1888, the Homestead was acquired by his brother, John, and Laura left the ranch, living in Boyle Heights and teaching piano during parts of the following decade. Walter and his younger brother Charles inherited the Temple Homestead at La Merced after their mother died in early 1892. They later divided the 50 acres with Walter taking two-thirds of the property.
At least sixteen years after their romance began, Walter and Laura were married on Thanksgiving Day 1903 in San Diego and then returned to the Temple Homestead. They had five children in the following seven years, four of whom lived with one daughter, Alvina, dying in infancy.
Walter Temple was a farmer, but also tried selling insurance, working as a teamster hauling goods by wagon, and was active as a trustee for the local La Puente School District and in local Republican politics. In 1912, however, with aid from a friend, El Monte merchant Milton Kauffman, Temple engineered the purchase from the Baldwin estate (Lucky Baldwin died three years before) of 60 acres of land once owned by his father just west of the Temple Homestead and borrowed money from the estate to do it.
The Temples sold the family homestead and moved into an adobe house built by the Basye family in 1869, just a few hundred yards away. Conditions economically were tough for the family during the next couple of years, but a stunning change came two years later, in spring 1914, when the eldest child, nine-year old Thomas, made the fortuitous discovery of oil that led, in summer 1917, to a sudden ascent to wealth for the family.
A century ago, at the end of November, Walter Temple purchased the Homestead, discussed here in a recent post, as well as a Craftsman home in Alhambra, where the Temples lived while making weekend visits to the ranch as it was being improved. While Walter pursued further oil interests throughout the region and branched out into real estate, Laura raised the children, got into charitable work, and joined the Wednesday Morning Club in Alhambra (a variant of the Friday Morning Club, an exclusive women’s organization in Los Angeles.)
The decision to build La Casa Nueva after returning from the trip to Mexico meant that Walter and Laura jotted ideas down for the home on butcher paper before a Los Angeles architectural firm, Walker and Eisen, which was working on designs for commercial buildings Walter was erecting in Alhambra, El Monte and San Gabriel, completed finished drawings for the house.
Her middle son, Walter, Jr., remembered years later that his mother was deeply involved in the design of the home with many touches coming directly from her imagination and inspiration. Unfortunately, just as the home was beginning, Laura’s health declined dramatically in the latter part of the year.
In an oral history dictated six decades later, Walter, Jr. described how, on Christmas Day 1922, the family was opening gifts when Ed Bassity, the husband of the woman, Maud Bassity, who cared for Mrs. Temple, presented Laura a gift. It was a piece of furniture, but Walter, Jr., in his mid-seventies when he related the story, choked up and shed tears when he recalled his mother asking Bassity if he had made her coffin.
Three days later, while at a Los Angeles hospital, Laura passed away at age 51. The cause of death was colon cancer with complications from an intestinal blockage. The funeral at the Mission San Gabriel was attended by hundreds of friends, families and acquaintances and Laura was interred in the mausoleum completed the year before at El Campo Santo cemetery at the Homestead.
Construction stopped at La Casa Nueva for a time and then resumed. A new architect, Roy Seldon Price, who’d recently completed a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion in Beverly Hills for film studio owner Thomas Ince (whose death shortly after aboard the yacht of media mogul William Randolph Hearst caused a sensation). With many changes and additions, construction continued for several more years and La Casa Nueva wasn’t completed until late 1927.
By then, Walter Temple was in financial trouble, having become overextended in his oil and real estate work, much as his father and grandfather had a half-century before. In spring 1930, within just a couple of years of La Casa Nueva’s completion, the Temples vacated La Casa Nueva and the Homestead and lost the property to a bank two years later.
I remember some twenty-five years ago, Walter, Jr. talking to me one day about what the loss of his mother meant to him and his family. He was a soft-spoken man, but talked even more quietly and with tears in his eyes as he related his feeling that, had Laura lived, the situation would have been very different. When I asked him how, he said that he doubted that business matters would have gone as badly as they had and that the ranch might not have been lost.
Whether or not this would have been true, what Walter, Jr. told me resonated deeply. I knew, for example, that his brother Thomas wrote letters to his mother in Spanish several years after her death, lamenting what her loss meant to the family. There is a striking 1926 family photograph, in which Walter and his four children were posed in such a way that a noticeable empty space was left where Laura should have been standing next to her husband. I knew that, before her death, Laura established a trust fund for her children that, a decade or so later, was sorely needed for the three sons (Agnes married a wealthy northern California rancher and didn’t have the same financial pressures) during the depths of the Great Depression.
These are among several reasons why my contemplating in a recent post on this blog about La Casa Nueva as a house in contrast to its being a home developed over a period of time. During the roughly two-and-a-half years, the Temples occupied the fully completed home, the four children were not only away from school (as they had been from 1917 on), but were out of the area, attending schools in northern California and Massachusetts. The house was largely empty, with Agnes Temple returning more often during school breaks, while her brothers only came back for summer vacations.
This isn’t at all to suggest that La Casa Nueva totally lacked the identity of a home. Clearly, when Walter and his children were together it had that feeling. But, that was limited to, all of the Temples included, a little over a couple of months each year. Besides, it could never be the entire family, because of Laura’s absence.
Finally, Walter, Jr’s quiet evocations were striking. Regardless of whether the situation with the family would have been different had she lived, his firm belief that it would have been so is an important part of the story. Talking about the Temples and La Casa Nueva, it seems inescapable that her death on this day ninety-five years ago had a profound impact on what took place over the following several years. Almost all of us, thinking of our own families, can very readily understand why. Bringing this perspective of loss to how we tell the (his)story of the Temples and their home is something that gives greater depth and richness to what we do at the Homestead.