Making a Statement: Walter P. Temple’s Present Worth, 26 January 1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the most remarkable aspects of the history of the Workman and Temple families are the dramatic ups and downs they experienced over our interpretive period of 1830 to 1930.

At the beginning of that era, Jonathan Temple, a recent arrival two years prior from Massachusetts by way of Hawaii, was establishing himself as the first merchant in the pueblo of Los Angeles, a small, isolated village on the far northwestern frontier of Mexico.  He would rise to great wealth and influence in the town over the next thirty or so years, though a severe drought and financial downturn in the early 1860s led him to sell his holdings in Los Angeles and move to San Francisco, where he died in 1866.

Temple’s half-brother, Pliny, came to Los Angeles in summer 1841 to meet Jonathan, who was much older and left Massachusetts before Pliny was born.  He was starting his adult life at age 19 and he, too, built up a substantial portfolio of real estate and business holdings, including one of the town’s first banks, the latter in partnership with his father-in-law, William Workman.  Workman and his family settled in greater Los Angeles four months after Pliny, who was known as F.P.F. (for Francisco [his baptismal name] Pliny Fisk).

The stunning collapse and failure of the Temple and Workman bank in January 1876 threw the family into financial ruin.  Workman committed suicide a few months after the bank closed and Temple, who took office as Los Angeles County Treasurer that spring, suffered a series of strokes and died four years later.

This 26 January 1921 financial statement from the Homestead’s collection for Walter P. Temple shows an abundance of assets and very small liabilities, but conditions changed dramatically within a few years.

For the next forty years, the descendants of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple receded from public life, though the nephews of Workman, Elijah and William Henry, sons of his older brother David, rose to heights of wealth and influence in a rapidly growing Los Angeles.  Elijah served as a city councilman and member of the board of education as well as maintaining a successful saddlery and harness business with his brother.

William Henry, though, became a highly prominent person in the city, serving as mayor in 1887-88 during the height of the famed Boom of the Eighties, and as city treasurer from 1901-07, another period of huge growth in the city.  Later, William Henry’s daughter, Mary Julia, and son [Andrew] Boyle, were major figures in Los Angeles in social work, in her case, and politics as president of the city council, in his.

In the late 1910s, Walter P. Temple suddenly and surprisingly emerged as a capitalist of some note in the region, due to the extraordinary circumstance of oil being discovered on his Montebello-area ranch by his nine-year old son Thomas.  The oil started to flow in summer 1917, just as America entered the First World War, and the one-eighth royalties paid out by Standard Oil Company of California, lessee of just under 60 acres, to the Temple family led to significant wealth very quickly.

One document of the heightened financial position of the Temples is today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead collection: a financial statement of Walter P. Temple, dated 26 January 1921.  Presumably prepared by his business manager, Milton Kauffman, an El Monte merchant and real estate speculator, the document lists assets and liabilities to establish present worth.

Walter P Temple Studio Portrait 1928
Walter P. Temple, circa 1928.

Among the assets was just under $22,000 in cash and over $140,000 in mortgages and notes receivable.  There was also a very large amount, nearly $130,000, in Liberty Bonds.  This instrument was created to help finance the large mobilization required as the United States entered the world war in spring 1917.  Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo wanted to avoid the inflationary possibility of printing money, knowing that the Civil War-era printing of “greenbacks” posed that very problem.  He decided to implement a mix of taxes and bonds instead.

The Liberty Bond wasn’t just a money-raising strategy, it was also a way to generate intense patriotism on the part of Americans, whether they could only buy a small number of bonds or, like Temple, invest heavily in them.  The first offering, in late April 1917 just after war was declared, was for $2 billion and promised a return of 3.5%, deliberately less than in savings accounts or typical high-yield municipal bonds so people would not forego or cash out on those to buy Liberty Bonds and thereby hurt banks and investment houses.

The 30-year taxable bonds at $50 and $100 were callable at half that period, were negotiable, and had coupons that could be cashed in semi-annually.  For those who couldn’t afford the cost, McAdoo had an installment plan implemented and introduced “war thrift stamps” that cost just a quarter each (Temple had a little over $80 in these in January 1921).  When sixteen were purchased, they were exchanged for a $5 stamp affixed to a certificate that earned interest.  When ten of these were acquired, they could be exchanged for a single Liberty Bond.

The initial offering was a huge success, being oversubscribed by 50%, meaning there were 4 million subscribers, or one in every six households.  The mighty John D. Rockefeller who pledged $15 million, was given about a fifth of that because of the popularity and demand.

workman house pool 1921
The Workman House from the east at one end of an adjacent reservoir/swimming pool with its ladder, slide and dressing rooms in a 1921 snapshot.

Three more Liberty Bond drives were carried out during the next year-and-a-half that the war lasted and another was announced after the signing of the armistice ending the terrible conflict—all were, again, oversubscribed and there were more than twenty million subscribers.  Nearly two-third of all bonds sold were to the general public.  A staggering total of $17 billion was issued with interest rising to 4% and then 4.25% and previous purchasers could trade up for the higher yield versions.  Taxes comprised nearly $9 billion more.

A huge marketing effort with volunteers, billboards, newspaper ads and other elements was conducted and celebrities, perhaps in the first example of the kind, were aggressively recruited to go out and convince Americans to buy Liberty Bonds. A “Committee for Public Information,” created to “sell the war,” oversaw this campaign as part of its mandate.

Secretary McAdoo took a significant gamble with the Liberty Bond project and it was a smashing success with the idea of large-scale borrowing providing undeniable evidence of the merits of deficit-spending in our capitalist economy.  Walter Temple’s heavy investment in these bonds is an indication of both marked patriotism and an effort to diversify his financial portfolio.

He also had some stock in banks and mines, about $4,500 in varied stocks and oil leases, $5,000 in stock issued for the Yosemite National Park Company, organized in 1916 as a publicly traded firm operating all the concessions at the famed park.  There was about $18,000 listed as personal property, though this was not itemized.

As for real estate, Temple had his home (a tad over $40,000) and lot ($7,500) in Alhambra, as well as a business lot in that city’s downtown (this valued at $12,000).  Later in 1921, he completed his first development project, the Temple Theatre, on a portion of that lot, followed soon after by a mortuary building on the remainder.

montebello oil field 8
An image from a state oil report from 1921 showing San Gabriel Boulevard heading west toward the Montebello Hills and the Temple oil lease, which was just beyond the bridge crossing the Río Hondo toward the top left.

He also owned the entire block across from Mission San Gabriel, valued at just over $20,000, and on which he built, in the next couple of years, the Arcade building of shops and stores; the city post office; and the Temple Block, a two-story structure.  All still stand today.  He then gave the east end of the property to the City of San Gabriel for its city hall, completed in 1924 and designed by Temple’s commercial architects, Walker and Eisen of Los Angeles, who also created the architectural drawings for the early stages of La Casa Nueva.

La Casa Nueva, however, was about a year-and-a-half in the future as a concept.  Meantime, listed on the statement was the 93-acre “Workman Homestead Ranch,” which was 75 acres he acquired in November 1917 and which comprised the Homestead since its creation in 1880, and additional acreage purchased afterward.  The value was shown as just north of $140,000.

Finally, there was the 57 acre “Walter P. Temple La Merced Property,” which was the land he bought in 1912, and which had been owned by his father and lost by foreclosure to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin after the Temple and Workman bank failure.  Undoubtedly, just five years before the value would have been in tens of thousands of dollars, but, with the enormous production of oil since 1917, the value was given here as $850,000.  With total assets listed as a tick under $1,400,000, the oil lease was fully 60% of Temple’s declared assets.

s. alhambra, june 1928
The southern portion of Alhambra about 1928.  The Temple family lived in the city from 1917 to 1923 and Walter Temple had several real estate development projects in its downtown from 1919 to 1927.

With respect to liabilities, there were bills payable of just over $22,000 and a $5,000 owed to Ellen and William Stewart for the acquisition of the San Gabriel land mentioned above.  That small amount of liability was a very good sign, especially as cash and personal property were well over that amount, so the total present worth was roughly $1,370,000, a princely sum for the era.

Much would change in just the next five years.  Oil production dropped at Montebello and other prospecting for “black gold” never replicated that stunning success.  Real estate purchase and development costs in Alhambra, San Gabriel, Los Angeles and the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928) skyrocketed.  In the case of Temple City, the project proved not to be as successful as hoped.  In summer 1922, Walter and his wife Laura decided to build a large mansion, La Casa Nueva, that, over five years involved significant outlays.  In other words, expenses vastly outweighed income over time.

In 1926, bonds were taken out to finance existing projects and restructure debt, but conditions worsened for Temple and, by the end of the decade, for the country broadly as the Great Depression ensued.  About ten years after this financial statement indicated as healthy an economic condition as could be expected, almost everything was lost.  This was hardly a unique story to Walter Temple, though, and is a micro example of a macro issue in 1920s America.

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