by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The death of Laura Gonzalez Temple on this day in 1922 due to cancer and an intestinal blockage was a staggering blow to her husband and four surviving children, ages 12 to 18, as it would be for any family. For the previous five years, the Temples enjoyed the fruits of a totally unexpected prosperity thanks to royalties from oil wells leased at their Montebello-area ranch to Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron.)
At the time of her passing, the Temples lived in a large Craftsman house in Alhambra and largely used the 92-acre Workman Homestead near Puente as a weekend retreat and “gentleman’s ranch.” The children were sent to fine boarding schools and receiving educations that their parents could only have dreamt of in their youth. Walter Temple was moving rapidly into independent oil production and real estate development.
In the summer before Laura died, the Temples went on a lengthy summer vacation in Mexico, where Walter spent much of two years in the mid-1890s and where two of his brothers had lived (one, William, resided in Mexico City for many years). While on the trip, Walter and Laura were so inspired by what they saw and experienced that, upon returning home, they decided to design and build La Casa Nueva, a large mansion adjacent to the Workman House.
In Guadalajara, they met Pablo Urzua, a master stone mason, and he and his crew were hired by the Temples to come to the ranch and make adobe bricks by hand. Sylvester Cook, a Whittier contractor who had recently completed the mausoleum in El Campo Santo, oversaw the general construction. Taking the Temples’ rough designs, sketched out on butcher paper, and turning them into finished drawings was the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen. Best known for many excellent commercial buildings in downtown Los Angeles and also responsible for Walter Temple’s early development projects in that city and in the San Gabriel Valley, Walker and Eisen were not as strong in residential design.
Initial construction with the main adobe walls on the house was underway when Laura’s cancer worsened towards the end of 1922, leading to her death just three days after Christmas. Obviously shaken, Walter suspended work on the building and pondered what to do with the structure. After some reflection, he decided to continue on and decided that he would dedicate the building to his late wife. A polished granite plaque was commissioned and a ceremony was scheduled on the first anniversary of Laura’s death to install the monument next to the front entrance of the building.
Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a pair of photographs of the ceremony, probably taken by Thomas W. Temple II, the oldest Temple child and an avid photographer and documentarian of the building of La Casa Nueva. The first image shows John J. Cantwell, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, giving a blessing to the plaque, which is mounted to the right of the front door opening and to the left of a smaller arched window opening.
A few other religious figures, including a priest and a few nuns are present along with a small number of invited guests. Walter Temple is near the camera in a dark suit with a white collar and next to him in light colored vests and knee-length pants are sons Walter, Jr. and Edgar. As the photo clearly shows, the walls of the main block of the home are covered with a base coat of plaster about a year-and-a-half into the construction process.
The second photograph was taken immediately after the conclusion of the ceremony as Walter Temple talks with Bishop Cantwell and the priest in front of the plaque. A couple of men stand off to the right. Note also the area where the plaque was installed and showing a section that had to be removed to accommodate the memorial.
Notably, this was the second location at the Homestead blessed by the bishop. In April 1921, he performed a blessing and dedication for the mausoleum upon its completion. The Homestead, then, is almost certainly rare, if not unique, among regional historic sites (aside from religious ones, like our local missions) in that it has two consecrated spots.
Within a few months after the dedication ceremony, a significant change in the building of La Casa Nueva was made when Walter Temple hired Roy Seldon Price, a Beverly Hills architect known for his recently finished residence for film studio head and director Thomas Ince, to complete the building. It was a running joke with the Temples that the architect’s invoices matched his last name, but Price employed a number of changes that vastly improved the finished structure.
One of these was a very ornate and gorgeous carved and painted plaster door surround that, in full relief, included the royal court of arms of Spain, and grapes and wheat, these latter referencing what was raised on the Homestead by the Workman family in the nineteenth-century. This addition, along with others inside and outside the house, transformed the entrance, making for a significant aesthetic statement that was completely absent in the original design.
What this meant, of course, is that the dedication plaque to Laura had to be moved. The new and current location is the northeast corner of the house outside the Living Room and under the Master Bedroom balcony. A photo taken this afternoon shows the plaque’s appearance nearly a century after it was created and another shows the front door with that beautiful plasterwork, albeit partially hidden by holiday decorations.
La Casa Nueva was not finished until late 1927, almost four years after the dedication ceremony. By then, Walter Temple’s financial footing was failing and, the year before, he took out a loan to complete the structure, in addition to taking on bonds for his remaining real estate projects. The situation worsened as the decade came to a close and the house mortgage was due in late October 1929, the week the stock market crashed in New York that ushered in the Great Depression.
Walter Temple leased the Homestead to a military school in spring 1930 and moved to Ensenada in Baja California in an attempt to save the ranch and the house. Two years later, though, amid a massive wave of bank failures and a worsening of the depression, the Bank of California filed for foreclosure and, in July 1932, the property was lost, including La Casa Nueva, often referred to by the family as “Laura’s dream house.”
Fortunately, under the occupancy of the school and then, for nearly three decades, under ownership of the Brown family which operated El Encanto Sanitarium, La Casa Nueva was not only utilized but well cared for. The City of Industry, which acquired the Workman House and El Campo Santo in 1963, acquired La Casa Nueva from the Browns a dozen years later. The house was unoccupied for several years and needed a fair amount of restoration, but the City invested the resources to complete that work among all the other efforts made on the site and the Homestead Museum opened in May 1981.
The house that Laura Temple put so much energy and thought towards before her untimely death is a remarkable venue for the museum to discuss the history of the Temple family and the region in which they lived during the latter part of our 1830-1930 interpretive period. Almost all families experience tragedy and her death is part of a very human and relatable story. The plaque is a very visible way for us to tell that tale and sets the stage for what we can do when we take visitors into this amazing house and follow the story through the building.