by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It always turns heads when visitors pass by, its strange shape leading to puzzled guesses as to its function. The Tepee, finished in late 1927 adjacent to La Casa Nueva and serving as something of a home office/den/retreat/man cave for Walter P. Temple, was inspired by his stay at Soboba Hot Springs, a resort on the Soboba Indian Reservation in San Jacinto near Hemet. The facility had Pueblo-shaped cottages, as well as ones shaped like native Indian tepees and Temple evidently stayed in the latter and liked it so much that he replicated one to go next to his house. It has a single main space, a small half-bath and a full double-level attic accessible through a simple opening in the ceiling of the bathroom.
Unlike La Casa Nueva, which was overseen by architects, it appears the Tepee (which can be classified as vernacular or programmatic architecture, being in the shape of an object) was an informal project. Adobe bricks, like those used on the house were made, though there were customized forms to account for the vertical narrowing toward the top. Then, because Temple salvaged some bricks from the Temple Block, which his uncle and father built between 1857 and 1871 and which was razed in 1926 to make room for Los Angeles City Hall, some of these were used at the top to finish the walls.
Another interesting feature was that Temple had totem poles fashioned to hold up a thatch patio cover and, yes, I said “totem poles.” As noted in a post here before, he told his son that these poles were replicas of ones the Temples saw when they took a summer trip to Alaska eight years prior. Unfortunately, the porch cover did not survive and was not rebuilt when the Homestead was restored in the late 1970s and very early 1980s. We’ve actually talked about looking into replicating the cover, but we’ll see.
For an unknown reason, the Tepee was not built with a foundation or slab, perhaps because the original at Soboba didn’t either. Large adobe pavers and the structure’s curved walls essentially rest on the ground and this has caused significant structural problems over the years. Basically, water easily is drawn into the adobe floors and walls as well as causes bubbling, cracking and powdering of the plaster walls.
Some years ago, a trench was dug around the building and filled with sand, gravel and rock in an effort to draw water away from the walls and floors. In more recent years, a large humidifier has been installed inside and run 24 hours to assist in protecting the building. While these measures have undoubtedly helped, we still see continuing issues with water absorption and the above-mentioned problems.
For nearly thirty-five years, the Tepee was part of the museum’s public tours and, coming at the end, was always a fun and interesting way to complete the visit. This was the location where, because Walter Temple’s original desk is there, being donated by his son, Walter, Jr. when the museum opened in 1981, we discussed the unfortunate series of events not long after the structure was built that led to the family moving in spring 1930 and the loss of the Homestead to a bank foreclosure two years later. When the Homestead was used by a military boys’ school and a sanitarium/convalescent hospital, the Tepee served an office for the owners of both.
In 2015, however, because a long-awaited and much-anticipated renovation of the Workman House was completed and this forced us to divide the single tour of both houses into separate tours, the Tepee was “retired” as a regular feature of our tours. To keep both tours equal lengths, we had to close down several rooms in La Casa Nueva. The Tepee, however, is available for visitors to see on our “Behind the Scenes” tours several times a year—the next round is on the weekend of 12-13 January. Click here to learn more about that great excursion.
Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a pair of Polaroid (yup, Polaroid!) snapshots taken on this day four decades ago as the Tepee was undergoing restoration. Raymond Girvigian, the project architect, took out his Polaroid camera (how many of us had one back then?) and took these and other images of the restoration process. Good thing this happened, because otherwise some crucial visual documentation of the site’s restoration would have gone lacking.
The first photo is an interior view showing the extent of the damage done from years of exposure to moisture as noted above and from the fact that the Tepee had not been used for several years since El Encanto Convalescent Hospital moved to its current location and then sold the historic structures to the City of Industry. There was significant deterioration of the plaster on the walls and ceiling, this being the focus of Girvigian’s photo. Also of note are the inset tiles, which were hand-made and hand-painted imports from Mexico. The light fixture chain was removed and another one for a replicated chandelier was added later.
The second image is an exterior shot showing scaffolding next to the building; recent repair work done to the skylight that faces La Casa Nueva; replastering done to portions of the exterior; the windows removed and some of them resting against the inside wall, while the casings remain in the spaces; and construction material stacked against the low adobe wall on the porch.
Of course, when the work was completed and the museum opened in May 1981, the Tepee looked like much like it was (without the porch cover) when it was completed over six decades prior. Nearly forty years after its restoration, the building still proves to be a challenge to maintain as we try to keep it in good shape for the decades to come.