by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The museum’s non-fiction book club convened this morning to talk about Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias W. Hellman Created California, an absorbing biography of the capitalist who migrated from Bavaria to Los Angeles in the 1850s and became a towering presence in the city and in San Francisco during his long career.
While I haven’t to date this year been able to provide my session-ending presentations utilizing museum artifacts to touch upon topics and themes for this year’s book club tomes, I was glad I could do so today. That’s because the intersections of Hellman’s career with the Workman and Temple families are noteworthy.
Firstly, Hellman arrived with his brother Herman in Los Angeles in spring 1859 as the town was in transition. The heyday of the Gold Rush was several years in the past and the local economy was in a downturn. Yet, he went to work in a store owned by two older cousins (Isaiah and Samuel) and quickly demonstrated his strong work ethnic and acumen for his field.
Within a few years, Hellman operated his own store and he rapidly developed a large clientele. Among the services he offered was a clandestine banking operation (such institutions were technically illegal in the state constitution, though many corporations acted like banks without being chartered as one or being called by that name.) One of the artifacts in the museum’s holdings is a financial note executed in 1864 by Hellman with Isidro Reyes that might be one of these informal banking transactions.
After a horrendous period, from 1861-1865, of severe floods following by devastating drought, which wrought havoc on the cattle economy that was the backbone of the region, and with the end of the Civil War, migration to Los Angeles became substantial and economic growth ensued. Business endeavors also grew substantially and one vehicle for providing capital was banking, now legalized in the state.
Early in 1868, James Hayward, son of a wealthy northern California mining magnate and former governor John G. Downey opened Hayward and Company, the city’s first bank. On 1 September, the second institution opened in a building constructed by Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, with Hellman joining forces with William Workman and Workman’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple as Hellman, Temple and Company. The three-generation partnership (Temple was twenty years Hellman’s senior and Workman was over forty years older) looked ideal on paper.
After all, Workman and Temple were wealthy, landed gentlemen of more than a quarter-century residence in the city and Temple was very popular, civic minded and determined to succeed in the growing business community of Los Angeles. Hellman was something of a boy wonder in his mercantile endeavors and left to run the bank as managing cashier with a minimum of involvement from his partners, who knows where Hellman, Temple and Company could have gone?
Unfortunately, Temple wanted more say and his views, particularly on lending policy, clashed with those of Hellman, whose prudence and conservatism became a byword for these traits in the city’s financial and business circles. When the differences became intolerable, Hellman ended the partnership early in 1871 after just a little over two years and formed Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles with Downey, whose bank with Hayward was doing well but who yielded to Hellman’s entreaties to join him.
Meanwhile, Temple, undaunted, enticed Workman to form a rival institution, Temple and Workman, which opened later in 1871 in the final, newly completed addition to the Temple Block, across Main Street from Farmers and Merchants. The two competitors remained the sole commercial banks in the little city for almost four years. Then, disaster struck in the form of an economic collapse that brought down Temple and Workman, due to mismanagement and the kinds of loaning policies that so concerned Hellman.
Hellman was on a trip in Europe to visit his birthplace and other sights when he got word that Downey agreed to suspend business in Farmers and Merchants for a month to help Temple weather the financial storm. Furious, Hellman cut short his vacation and raced home, stopping in New York to arrange a loan so he had cash (Towers of Gold) to display to jittery depositors when he got back to Los Angeles and the bank. He reopened promptly and then engineered Downey’s removal as president and was installed in that position, which he retained until his death over forty years later.
Hellman’s decisiveness and commitment to maintaining the good name of Farmers and Merchants and the sad failure of Temple and Workman boosted his fortunes and that of his bank. In succeeding years, Hellman expanded his financial reach, especially in the next boom, that of the late 1880s, and became indispensable to many seeking capital for business projects of all kinds.
His investment in real estate throughout greater Los Angeles, civic work with education and charitable causes, and involvement in transportation, oil, viticulture and wine-making, and other enterprises were significant. One of the real estate projects in which Hellman was involved was the purchase of Rancho Cucamonga, a story told in a recent edition of our “Curious Cases” series, as Hellman acquired the ranch, known for its grape-growing and wine-making, in 1870.
Another was his partnership with merchant John Lazzarovich and saddler and city council member William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman) to subdivide and develop Boyle Heights, a project began by Workman in the mid-1870s.
Later, however, Hellman went on to San Francisco to run the Bank of Nevada and Wells Fargo (which were merged) and vastly expanded his wealth and range of business endeavors and influence. He also owned a fine vacation home on the shores of Lake Tahoe, near powerful and wealthy figures like Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin.
He weathered the depressions of 1893 and 1907 and the earthquake and fire at San Francisco in April 1906, as well as corruption scandals in that city. He lived through the triumph of the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915 and the turmoil of the First World War and still worked until very close to his death in April 1920 at age 77.
This post is primarily what I talked about regarding Hellman’s early years (roughly two decades) in Los Angeles and his particular connections to the Workman and Temple families. It’s just a sliver of the story of this remarkable figure and those interested in knowing more about Isaias W. Hellman are encouraged to seek out Frances’ excellent treatment in Towers of Gold.