Museum Director Musings on the Transforming Historic Landscape of Alhambra

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

I was out in Alhambra on a visit for a potential donation and was talking to a long-time resident of the city, who grew up there and in neighboring San Gabriel.  During a wide-ranging conversation, mention was made of the transformation of the area, specifically downtown Alhambra, because we were a block north of Main Street at Fifth.  The discussion was observational, basically revolving around how much had changed in the area in the forty-plus years since the resident moved to the downtown area.

In recent decades, a major influx of Asian migrants, mostly Chinese, has come to the San Gabriel Valley, with cities like Alhambra, San Gabriel and Monterey Park being prime locations early on and later emigration extending to communities near the Homestead, such as Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, and Walnut.

Alhambra LA_Herald_Apr_28__1875_
Los Angeles Herald, 28 April 1875.

This did not come without a significant amount of controversy, whether it was a brouhaha over the proliferation of bridal shops in Temple City and rumors of these being fronts for nefarious purposes; opposition to the building of the western hemisphere’s largest Buddhist temple, the Hsi Lai, in Hacienda Heights; or expressions of disapproval about how the appearance of Rowland Heights and its commercial core along Colina Road was altered by more Chinese migration.  I live in Chino Hills and, unfortunately, the latest wave of Chinese settlement there has led some earlier residents to talk about the city becoming “China Hills.”

Unfortunately, the negative characterizations of change in communities belies the fact that transformation is an ongoing process or set of processes, especially in urban areas that are attractive to migrants now for many of the same basic reasons that drew earlier arrivals.

Alhambra LA_Herald_Jan_9__1887_
Herald, 9 January 1887.

In the case of Alhambra, it was created in the mid-1870s during the region’s first sustained growth period by Benjamin D. Wilson, who was an American emigrant to Mexican California with the Workman family in 1841, and his son-in-law James deBarth Shorb.  Sales of land in the tract began in spring 1875, but, within a few months, the state economy reeled from the collapse of silver mine stock speculation in Virginia City, Nevada.  Los Angeles was hit by a panic in late August and the major casualty in the downturn was the bank of Temple and Workman.

As with other 1870s boom towns, such as Artesia, Pomona and San Fernando, Alhambra mainly languished until a new, larger boom erupted after the arrival of a direct transcontinental railroad link to Los Angeles in 1885.  The “Boom of the Eighties” ushered in a frantic period of growth and Alhambra was a beneficiary as a suburb close to Los Angeles and another thriving town, Pasadena.

Alhambra Temple Theater LA_Times_Jul_17__1921_
Los Angeles Times, 17 July 1921.

There were several subsequent growth periods in succeeding decades and, in late November 1917, with money garnered from oil wells at his lease in the Montebello hills, Walter P. Temple purchased a large Craftsman home on the east side of Alhambra (acquiring this the same week he bought the Homestead as a weekend retreat.)  When Temple decided to venture into real estate, Alhambra was a major focus of his work.

In 1919, he bought the first of several parcels on the north side of Main Street between 3rd and 5th streets.  His first project, notably, was the Temple Theatre, an ornate movie house designed by well-known Los Angeles architects Walker and Eisen that was completed at the end of 1921 and became a Paramount Studios affiliate.  Shortly afterward, Temple built a mortuary on the northeast corner of Main and 4th west of the theater.  He then acquired an existing set of stores west of 4th and a structure in construction on 4th that became the city’s post office (ground floor) and the Temple Hotel (second floor.)

Alhambra Edison Building LA_Times_May_1__1927_
Times, 1 May 1927.

At the end of 1922, Walter’s wife, Laura Gonzalez, died of cancer and Temple decided to sell the home that they’d occupied for five years.  It was acquired by the Methodist Episcopal Church, which retained the home as its rectory and then built a beautiful church (finished in 1926) along Main in front of the residence, even using Laura Temple’s altar from the home as part of the church’s altar.  Temple then relocated to the Homestead as a full-time residence while La Casa Nueva, which was started in summer 1922, was built over a five-year period.

Under the auspices of the Temple Estate Company, which was set up to build and manage Temple’s real estate projects in Los Angeles, El Monte, San Gabriel, Puente, and Alhambra, two larger structures were built in the latter.  The first, called the Temple Estate Building, was two stories and was designed by Roy Selden Price, who took on the work at La Casa Nueva from Walker and Eisen’s original drawings.  Price even added an iron grille over the main entrance that was identical to that of La Casa Nueva, as well as some of the same decorative tile.

Alhambra Main Street 1928
A late 1920s photo of most of Walter Temple’s properties on Main Street in Alhambra, looking northeast from Fourth Street.  At left is the Utter and Sons mortuary with the Temple Theater, the Temple Estate Building (with the “Security Bank” sign) and the Edison Building moving towards the right edge.  All but the latter are gone today.

The Temple Estate Building was finished in 1926 and was quickly followed by the Edison Building, a three-story structure at the northwest corner of Main and 3rd.  By the time the former was completed and the latter underway, Temple’s growing portfolio of oil and real estate projects, including a large undertaking in 1923 with the creation of the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928, led him to take out bonds to finance his work.

Unfortunately, as the real estate market cooled after several hot years and as oil production at Montebello slowed substantially, Temple’s financial situation worsened considerably.  The Edison Building was completed in spring 1927, but it was the last real estate project Temple developed.  While he banked on that elusive big oil strike that would save all, lastly at Ventura, it never came.  By the end of the decade, Temple sold off his Alhambra property, followed by divesting from Temple City.

The Edison Building today.

As the Great Depression worsened, so did Temple’s situation.  Despite a cost-saving move to Baja California and the lease of the Homestead to a boys’ military academy, he was unable to stave off further losses, including the foreclosure of the Homestead in summer 1932.  Temple died six years later in Los Angeles at age 69, having gone through the turbulent and traumatic toll of the speculative ups and downs found in real estate and oil (and which somewhat mirrored the experiences of his father fifty years before him.)

As for his buildings in Alhambra, they remained intact for decades, though the downtown aged and decayed rapidly, especially after Interstate 10 skirted along the city’s southern edge and as suburban development evolved with commercial endeavors skewing towards regional malls and larger shopping centers with substantial parking lots.

A set of one-story stores on Main Street from center to left and the former city postoffice and Temple Hotel building up 4th Street toward the right–also surviving properties (for now) once owned by Walter P. Temple.

It was a little over twenty years ago that word was heard of the destruction of some of Temple’s buildings, including the mortuary, Temple Theatre (long called the Rialto), and the Temple Estate Building.  A colleague obtained a pallet of bricks (now in the basement of the Workman House) from the latter as it was being razed and tried to learn of the fate of the beautiful iron grille (later it was said the developer planned to install it at a project near the Homestead in Hacienda Heights, but it never made it there.)

The Edison Building was saved and remains, though heavily remodeled.  The smaller row of stores and the old post office and hotel building at Main and 4th have also survived—so far.  After today’s meeting ended, I drove over to the area, parked and walked around.  It had been a while since I’d been in downtown Alhambra and it was striking to see the new commercial and residential (condos and apartments) building that has sprung up along Main.

The ornate Methodist Episcopal Church, completed in 1926, at Main and Almansor streets with the rear of the Temple family’s large Craftsman home at the back of the edifice.

Land values, congestion and preference are among the factors that have led to the dramatic remaking of older downtowns throughout greater Los Angeles.  While many want to see historic structures preserved and, in some cases, this has been done to keep the quaint downtown atmosphere in place (Whittier and San Gabriel are very different local examples that spring to mind), it is more common to see further transformation.

What Walter Temple did between 1921 and 1927 in downtown Alhambra was dramatically different than what went on before.  Post World War II tastes and attitudes swept away much of what came before.

The front of the former Temple home, now the church’s rectory, with an arched passage added in front.  Note the number “9” which was the home’s address and remains that for the rectory.  The 1926 church is at the left.

The redevelopment of downtown Alhambra in recent years may be distressing to some, but in historical context, shouldn’t really surprise anyone.  Decades from now, there may likely be another wave of urban renewal there and elsewhere in our region.  It would be very surprising if Temple’s existing buildings, save possible the Edison, will survive in the long term.

This doesn’t mean that some notable historic buildings shouldn’t be saved, if there are valid and viable reasons to do so.  The approaches vary widely from city to city and depend on so many variables.  It could be reasonably argued that Alhambra’s downtown was aging and stagnant and that was needed to revitalize it was to remake it as has been done or, at least, with a mix of old and new.

Temple home Alhambra
The Temple home in Alhambra as it looked about 1920.

As I left town, I stopped by the Methodist Episcopal Church, where the Temples’ residence still serves as the rectory and retains its century-old address of 9 N. Almansor Street.  The imposing and beautiful church at the corner of the property still impresses and it seems will stand for some time yet, as long as there is a congregation large enough to support it.  The drive back to the Homestead was largely occupied by musings on what was seen today and it will be interesting to go back on occasion and see what other transformations the future holds in downtown Alhambra.


2 thoughts

  1. Paul, I look forward to writings every day. Some I might just skim but others I read more than once. You are a very talented young man. Thank you for your dedication.

  2. Hi Ruth Ann, thanks as always for your interest in and support of the blog; we appreciate it! As for young, that ship is sailed and is in permanent dry-dock!

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