by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When construction on La Casa Nueva started in 1922 after the Temple family returned inspired after a vacation in Mexico that summer, the concept for the house came from ideas generated by Walter and Laura Temple and put on butcher paper by Sylvester Cook, the contractor hired to do the construction work.
Then, those drawings were put in the form of accurate measured drawings by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, best known for their extensive commercial work in the booming city and who were designing some of Walter’s projects in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
At the end of 1922, however, Laura Temple died of cancer and work on the home stopped. It is impossible to calculate how important her death was with respect to the work on the building, because she had such a significant role in it, but also, naturally, more broadly with the family and her husband’s business endeavors.
On the first anniversary of Laura’s passing on 28 December 1923, a ceremony was held to dedicate La Casa Nueva in her memory. Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Cantwell blessed the structure (as he’d done two and a half years earlier when dedicating the mausoleum in El Campo Santo cemetery) and a granite plaque was installed next to the front entrance. Walker and Eisen were credited as the architects, but conditions changed very quickly.
Namely, it was decided to hire someone else to complete the work, an idea that appears to have come from Thomas, the eldest of the Temple children. He’d written his father, suggesting that a well-known architect be brought in to make sure the house was built with the care and consideration it deserved, especially with Laura’s passing.
Roy Seldon Price, a Beverly Hills architect, had just completed Dias Doradas (Golden Days), a distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival mansion for film director and studio owner Thomas Ince (who died not long after its completion), so he came to the Temples’ attention and was hired to work on La Casa Nueva.
While a few of Price’s drawings and a letter or two have survived, not enough remains (or has so far turned up) to give us a strong sense of how his work progressed over the roughly three and a half years that he devoted to completing this remarkable house. Last year, however, a donation of Temple family photos and other material included a very interesting letter Price wrote to Thomas Temple and dated on this day in 1924.
Thomas was then attending Santa Clara College, a Catholic college now the University of Santa Clara, near San Jose where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1926. He’d returned to school not long before after being home for the summer break and during which he’d taken many photographs of La Casa Nueva and the Mission Walkway that surrounds the home on three sides. So, Price wrote his three-page letter to apprise Thomas of progress since he’d been away, noting, “I am doing my best to give you a pleasant surprise when you come home and to make your home an inspiration forevermore.”
Price had dedicated recent months, requiring “quite and time and much patience,” to work that involved efforts “to correct all the things that had been done in a way that was not the best.” The work was nearly finished “so we can now sail ahead faster.” Specifically, the architect wrote that “your father is now very pleased with the second story windows, since they were all moved out,” which appears to mean that existing windows were replaced with something more ornamental.
Additionally, Price went on, “the removal of the bridge in the hall is delayed while waiting for steel beams, — as is also the completion of the outside front balcony.” The former part refers to the fact that a central staircase at the south end of the main hall and which had two sections leading to the second floor was torn out and a bridge that spanned the room and linked the upstairs was hallways was to be taken away, as well. This greatly opened up the space with a wrap-around staircase allowing for the southern door to the courtyard to provide more light and atmosphere. As for front balcony at the second floor level, it was small but dramatic, with a large decorative iron grille topped by the Temple family coat-of-arms from England.
Then, Price called Thomas’ attention to the fact that the front entrance was being remade, so that there was a “widening of [the] gable [at the roofline], removal of ventilator; also removal of double “trick” arches and new leaded glass door and wrought iron bay.” These changes were such that the architect, after stating “I hope you like this,” continued that they “will ‘make’ the front elevation,” by giving it a distinctive look to impress visitors.
Returning to the inside, Price wrote “I have your father’s O.K. on walnut doors from [the] main hall to [the] four rooms downstairs.” These are the beautiful arched double-doors to the Living Room, Dining Room, Library and Music Room with carvings of the Workman cattle brand, elements of the Temple coat-of-arms, hinges in the shape of angels and monkeys, and other notable elements.
Much attention was being devoted to one of the standout spaces: “Now I am setailing the breakfast room, combining the lavabo and china closet in one [evidently, the sink area and china cabinets were in two separate and very small spaces.] After telling Thomas he’d send drawings, he added
I am going to make this breakfast room a song! Happy and cheerful in color. I plan a cement tile floor, like Ince’s breakfast room, with white flowers on pale yellow and pale orange tiles, with tile wainscot to height of window sills; this wainscot of yellow, white and light green. Fruit and flowers in the leaded glass windows.
Not all of this was done, specifically the wainscot and the orange tiles, but the mosaico cement tile floor, which receives many favorable comments from our visitors, was installed and it was not previously known that the idea came from the Ince mansion. Another core feature of the space are the glass windows, with the fruit basket, irises and other floral motifs painted on the clear glass, distinct from the stained glass normally found with window decoration. With respect to the furniture, Price advised Thomas that “the furniture must be right . . . [and] of design and color that will harmonize beautifully . . . like I did with the Ince set.”
A particularly innovative idea was laid out for the living room, in which the architect stated
In [the] living room, east of arch to [the] dining room, [I] am providing [an] outlet for [the] radio case and running conduit to ceiling of each bedroom, where hidden loud speaker will speak down thru plaster grille in ceilings. These can be controlled by switch at bedsite in each room. Not so bad,—what?
Surround sound, anyone? Unfortunately, it does not appear that this apparatus was fully implemented, though there is a plate in the living room that might have been a part of that element.
Other design elements mentioned in the letter included custom rugs, “like Ince’s” and including Navajo style floor coverings and serapes. Price asked Thomas “what ideas do you prefer for the leaded glass in your windows?” Further, he noted that the ducts, registers and switches for the dual furnaces controlling heat for the two main portions of the house were being installed.
As to the roofs of the single story wings projecting south from the main two-story block of the house, it looks like the original plan was to simply leave them without a functional use. Price, however, advised Thomas that “the outlook now, from three bedrooms [for Agnes, Walter, Jr., and Edgar], onto hot, ugly tar roofs is bad.”
What wound up happening is that these roofs were finished with the same cement tile as the breakfast room, with pillars surmounted by rough log beams, providing an attractive open space termed “sun porches.” These were enclosed in spring 1930 when a military school leased La Casa Nueva from the Temples and used the spaces as dormitories.
Price also observed that the work on the front wall and the arbor, which came to be known as the Mission Walkway, “is a great mistake, as now planned,” but that the architect had ideas for improvement. Otherwise, the tile for the main two-gabled roof was being laid and metal lath and plastering coming soon, while blueprints were being prepared to send to Thomas for his review.
The architect, however, cautioned that “I may disappoint you about finish [the] house for Christmas, as your father does not wish more workmen on the house, and there are not enough carpenters and laborers now.”
This letter is a rare, but fascinating, look at the process of building La Casa Nueva, but it also notable that the house would not be finished for another three years as Price’s exuberant ideas ran into the reality of what could be afforded. In fact, a joke among the Temples was that the architect’s invoices matched his last name.
By the time La Casa Nueva was completed in late 1927, Walter Temple’s precarious financial condition was such that the family could only occupy the house for about two and a half years. In spring 1930, the structure and the Homestead were leased to a military academy and, two years later, the property was lost to a bank foreclosure.
There is no question, though, that, without Price’s significant changes and bountiful imagination, La Casa Nueva, which is “an inspiration forevermore,” would not be so nearly as interesting and compelling an architectural specimen as it is and our visitors benefit from the remarkable creativity and vision the architect brought to bear on this stunning house.