by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Roaring Twenties was an era of often unbridled enthusiasm and sheer confidence in America’s business prospects. The economic boom that marked the first half of the decade was especially reflected in the astounding growth of greater Los Angeles, with the population mushrooming, the city expanding and suburbia marching relentlessly in all directions. Real estate was a phenomenally developing industry, too, with seemingly endless space for unparalleled horizontal growth not found in most American cities.
This process was supported by a dramatic diversification of the region’s economic palette. Agriculture, long the backbone of the local economy, was still powerful with citrus maintaining its role as the preeminent product. From the 1890s, the oil industry, starting in Los Angeles, but buttressed by discoveries of great magnitude in places like Olinda (Brea), Coyote Hills (Fullerton. La Habra), Huntington Beach, Long Beach/Signal Hill, and Montebello, became a dominant feature. By the mid-1910s, the film industry provided another huge boost. Finally, in the following decade, heavy manufacturing also made inroads, especially in automobile tires, aviation and others.
With all of this activity, inevitably, there were the big players and there were the smaller operators. In oil, for example, there were the larger companies like Standard Oil of California, Getty Oil, and Union Oil and individuals like Edward Doheny, whose projects utilized intensive capital in massive developments. In real estate there were developers like Alphonzo Bell (who also had oil projects), Tracey Shults, Moses Sherman and many others who also commanded ample resources on a large scale.
One of the small operators in the region during the 1920s was Walter P. Temple. Flush from the lucrative proceeds arising from the astounding discovery of oil, made by his nine-year old son, Thomas, on his sixty-acre ranch near Montebello, he first pursued projects through his Walter P. Temple Oil Company as well as investing in some other firms, such as the Talbert Oil Company in Huntington Beach. There were also ventures outside the region, including in Ventura and in Mexico, Texas, and Alaska.
Trying to compete against the larger companies in finding productive fields was generally a significant challenge. There were some small successes at Huntington Beach, Santa Fe Springs and Signal Hill, but these had to be weighed against the times when major capital investment led to dry wells.
In real estate, Temple’s first ventures were in Alhambra, which was where he and his family moved after the earliest royalties came in (the Homestead, acquired the same week in November 1917, was a “gentleman’s ranch,” visited on weekends.) He acquired a block and a half of property on Main Street in downtown and, fittingly, his first project, finished at the end of 1921, was a large and ornate (well, for a suburb) movie theater. In subsequent years, he added a mortuary, small hotel, and a two-story commercial building.
San Gabriel was another focus, as he acquired the block across the street from the mission, and quickly built three commercial buildings, including a post office and his main office, as well as donating the site for a new city hall. Most of this work was done in 1922 and 1923.
In El Monte, at the same time, he constructed a post office and movie theater, and there were plans for projects in Monterey Park, which were abandoned, and in Puente, which never materialized, though he owned the old 1880s boomtown Rowland Hotel.
He joined a syndicate of investors, including architects Albert H. Walker and Percy A. Eisen and oilman and furniture manufacturer A. Otis Birch, which built two height-limit (eleven stories was the maximum allowed for aesthetics) in downtown Los Angeles. This was several blocks south from where his uncle and father, Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple, erected, between 1857 and 1871, the venerable Temple Block, soon to be demolished for the construction of the new city hall (which was a notable exemption, at twenty-eight stories, to the imposed limits). The officers of Temple’s oil and real estate companies were moved to one of the structures, the Great Republic Life Building, upon its completion in 1924 and were relocated to the Edison Building, Temple’s last major real estate project, in Alhambra three years later.
Finally, there was the Town of Temple, launched in 1923 when Temple acquired 285 acres of land, targeted for development before that project was abandoned, and created the community as a memorial to his family. It happened that the land was owned by his father and grandfather William Workman in the 1870s before the collapse of their Temple and Workman bank. This was work on a larger scale than anything Temple attempted elsewhere and the Temple Townsite Company was created to develop the project. It included Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, his attorney, George H. Woodruff and friend and wealthy Alhambra sheep rancher, Sylvester DuPuy.
Typical during boom times, Temple and his various associates launched headlong into these projects, with his manager Milton Kauffman and attorney George H. Woodruff, when activity in the region was at his most intense and furious. As is often the case, development was launched and work in process when another project then came into sight. Commercial buildings weren’t providing income long enough, or just enough period, before another was started.
The peak year of the real estate boom, moreover, was 1923, as Temple City was started and projects in the other cities were in full swing. Yet, Temple’s primary source of income, the oil wells at his lease in Montebello, operated by Standard Oil, had also peaked and production was dropping rapidly. With so many commitments in real estate and an increasing need to find gushers in other oil fields, the pressure on Temple’s finances built.
Consequently, by 1926, something had to be done to change the situation. What Kauffman and Woodruff devised was the creation of long-term bonds that would be sold to raise the capital to maintain the level of funding needed to continue with Temple City, aside from other projects in real estate and oil. The idea was approved by the Temple Townsite Company at its meeting on 16 December 1925.
On this date, 13 January 1926, the scheme was finalized, as reflected in a three-page document now in the museum’s collection. The shareholders in the Temple Townsite Company (Temple, Kauffman, Woodruff and DuPuy) met and agreed to the issue of $550,000 in bonds. The bonds, issued in denominations of $500 and $1000, were to be issued and payable in a decade and bearing 6 1/2% interest, with payments due on the interest at the beginning of each year and each first of July.
The issue was conducted through the California Trust Company, with a mortgage or deed of trust issued by the Temple Townsite Company to the trust company covering all the property in the town owned by the former.
Unfortunately, there was not just a gradual cooling of the overheated real estate market that affected the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928. A well-intended effort to raise funds for infrastructure and capital improvements in unincorporated areas called the Mattoon Act, was implemented that levied a tax on property owners.
The measure, however, also called for the neighbors of a defaulting owner to pay that person’s tax, as well as their own. Not surprisingly, this created a disincentive for investment in places like Temple City, which was already heavily hit by speculators, who bought lots hoping to turn a quick buck on rising prices and equity.
With Temple’s general financial woes increasing by the end of the decade, the bonded indebtedness made the matter worse. In spring 1930, Temple, having disposed of most of his other oil and real estate holdings, sold all of his interests in the town to a new firm, the Temple City Company, vacated the Homestead, and moved to Baja California, hoping for the mirace which never materialized.
When the Great Depression, which started at the end of 1929, worsened with massive bank failures during 1932, the California Bank foreclosed on a mortgage to the Homestead and Temple’s financial fate was sealed.