La La Landscapes: The Rites of Spring at the Homestead

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After a steady amount of rainfall this winter, we’re seeing the results with the Homestead’s abundant landscaping.  From La Casa Nueva on the west to El Campo Santo on the east and everything in between, greenery and the early stages of flowering are in evidence throughout the site.

In fact, by the time we get to our Victorian Fair a little more than a month from now, we should really see a burst of color from our plants and trees.  This will be especially timely as I was meeting with colleagues today about exhibit ideas for that event.

This planter, which used to have a Chinese elm, now sports shrubs and bushes, while a newly planted Southern live oak is several feet behind it.

One of the main focuses at the fair will be on our region’s landscape during the Victorian era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901.  So, we’ll be looking at the general and increasing manipulation of the greater Los Angeles environment with emphasis on public and private landscaping.

The former will primarily involve areas that had general access to the public, such as parks, gardens and our mountains and forests, while the latter will look mainly at how people landscaped their homes.  In both cases, there was a growing sophistication to how the landscapes were planned and carried out, through the use of lawns, trees, bushes and shrubs and water features.

Though a bark beetle-infested sycamore tree was cut down here last year, new growth has emerged and we’ll see what transpires in the future.

The growing development of the landscape could be aesthetic, as represented by the City Beautiful movement; recreational, as the development of hiking trails in the mountains reflect; and commercial, because parks and landscaped areas in subdivisions could add substantially to the desirability of a tract and the profits of its promoters.

Greater Los Angeles’ superlative climate attracted hordes of new tourists and settlers, especially after the direct transcontinental railroad link by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was completed in 1885 ushering in the great Boom of the Eighties.  Those people brought expectations of what the landscape could or should include and, in the case of immigrants, often expressed that at their homes or in their petition to city leaders for the adornment of public spaces.

There are some pretty pink and white flowers on this tree at the east side of the Workman House.

So, a park boom erupted in the region during and after the boom, with such notable examples as Westlake (now MacArthur), Eastlake (which became Lincoln), Hollenbeck, and Griffith, being among those developed in Los Angeles at the end of the Victorian era.

Increasing numbers of residents and visitors sought out the beauty and wonder of natural landscapes as the so-called Great Hiking Era began in the late 1890s and continued through the Depression years.

This Lady Banks rose bush, said to have been planted in 1860 by William and Nicolasa Workman to celebrate the birth of their first granddaughter, Lucinda Temple, is just now showing the first of the blooms of the little yellow flower that lasts just a few weeks.

At houses, large and small, many residents, especially as working hours were shortened, financial conditions generally improved, and more leisure time was often available, devoted themselves to beautifying their properties with lawns and gardens that, on balance, were far more elaborate and abundant than those in past years.

Of course, the growing masses of regional residents could only do this and public agencies could only add parks and other public spaces if there was enough water to feed the demand.  The creation of one of the engineering marvels of its day, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, did not take place until after the Victorian Era gave way to the Edwardian years, but the concern about water supply was a constant one before 1900.

This project near the Workman House is ongoing, but a collaboration with the Pacific Rose Society includes historic varieties of roses planted next to brick lined walks using salvaged bricks from a 1925 building erected by Walter P. Temple in Alhambra but razed in 1996.

The Workman family did have some ornamental gardens, according to the scarce sources we have from the late 1850s to mid 1860s.  In particular, the state agricultural society in 1858 sent a committee to greater Los Angeles to report on cattle ranching, farming and landscaping.  When the group visited the Workman House, it made note of a “beautiful flower garden, well protected by a good brick wall.”  Other visitors also noted tropical fruits raised in the courtyard at the rear of the house.  Still, descriptions are very few and not particularly detailed.

Decades later, Walter P. Temple put a lot of thought into the landscaping of La Casa Nueva, though this was well after the Victorian era ended.  From trellises with grapevines on the Mission Walkway surrounding the house on three sides, to the planting of sycamores, cypresses, palms, deodars and other trees, and enormous numbers of rose bushes, among others, La Casa Nueva was a lushly decorate landscape, even though the Temples’ occupancy of the house was short.

After pruning and trimming of last year’s growth, the grapevines in the demonstration vineyard at the west side of the Workman House are showing the new season’s growth.  This is the fifth year and the grapes should be pretty mature—we’ll see how they turn out five or six months from now.

So, today I walked the grounds, even as a few light showers were encountered alternating with the occasional burst of sunshine, and took in what the first day of spring had to offer.

A recently concluded major project was the removal of a few dozen Chinese elms, planted in the late 1970s restoration of the site and lining the Pío Pico Memorial Walkway leading from the historic homes to the cemetery.  The trees were taken out, because some were falling over for several reasons, including root rot, and have been replaced, though by fewer in number and more spaced out, by Southern live oaks.

Our native garden is also about five years old and we’re seeing some impressive growth of California natives, especially at the sunnier northern end of the garden.

Another felled tree was a sycamore, also planted during the restoration near the Water Tower and which was infested with bark beetles.  However, in recent months, new growth has sprung up on the spot and we’ll see whether a new tree emerges to maturity.

Around the Workman House, leaves are just now starting to emerge from the grapevine trellis that runs the length of the courtyard behind the home.  In 1860, John Quincy Adams Warren visited the Workmans and wrote of “an arbor of trellis work, covered with grape vines running the entire distance” or “a large open court-yard.”

The pomegranate trees that surround La Casa Nueva on all sides are showing lots of green growth and we’ll see what happens when the red flowers lead to the emergence of the fruit, unless wind, squirrels and birds get to many of them first!  The pomegranates usually come to maturity around late September and into October.

At the front of the house, a Lady Banks rose bush was planted the year of Warren’s visit when the Workmans’ first granddaughter, Lucinda Temple (1860-1928) was born. That bush, which appears in the earliest known photo of the Workman House, dating to about 1870, still is with us and is just now showing its first blooms of small yellow roses.  The flowering only last a few weeks, however, but it’s quite an impressive site during a good year as this one is.

On the east and west sides, the landscaping is much more recent, but there are some flowering trees on the former near our wheelchair ramp entrance, while at the west, our demonstration vineyard, now entering its fifth season, is starting to show some good growth.  We’ll see what quantity and quality of grapes we have, as this is about the time when mature fruit should appear.

The striking and stately pair of sycamore trees planted next to the Tepee when it was completed in 1927 are still with us and have recently been trimmed.

Just to the north of the vineyard is a new small garden of historic strains of roses donated by the Pacific Rose Society.  This area is still very much a work in progress as more plants will be added in coming months and some of my colleagues have started to lay out a walkway comprised of bricks.

These were salvaged nearly a quarter century ago by my former boss and I as we went out in summer 1996 to watch the demolition of the Temple Estate Building, erected by Walter P. Temple in downtown Alhambra in 1925.  We were given a pallet of bricks with the idea that we’d use them for some undetermined project and they’ve sat in the Workman House basement ever since.

The expansive West Lawn of La Casa Nueva used to have a rose garden comprising the majority of its space.  While much of it is now grass, the unusual round cement planters (these are repros in the original locations), some roses on the fringe, the grape arbor of the Mission Walkway (where vines are now emerging) and other features are a notable part of our landscaping.

South of the vineyard, our native garden, planned by a committee of my co-workers and members of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, with plants provided by the amazing Theodore Payne Foundation, is also about five years old.  Though some areas of the garden are under nearly continual shade from oak trees planted decades and decades ago, the northern end gets more light and, consequently, is healthier.  This garden is the subject of the “Under the Oak Tree” program we do with the Kizh band.

Around La Casa Nueva, there are early signs of flowers bursting forth along the Mission Walkway; in the unusual cement planters that dot the area around the house; in the rose garden lining the West Lawn, which originally was a rose garden with no grass; and in an iris garden just outside the Breakfast Room, where painted glass windows include irises as a nice counterpoint to the real thing outside.

Several dozen rose bushes around the West Lawn are showing buds ready to release roses of a variety of colors.

Another recent project was the trimming of a pair of towering sycamore trees that were planted next to the Tepee, the “home office” of Walter Tempe, when that structure was finished in 1927.  We’ve been concerned about possible bark beetle or fungal infestations with these majestic 90-plus year old giants, but the recent pruning has made them particularly striking, especially with the unusual shaped structure beneath them.

As mentioned earlier, as spring moves towards summer, our landscape will reveal more of its color, including many varieties of roses sending forth their blooms, as well as the opening of the red flowers of our many pomegranate trees and the expansion of grape leaves and their purple fruit.

An iris garden on the east side of La Casa Nueva just outside the Breakfast Room, the painted windows of which include purple and white irises at the bottom, with the real thing as a backdrop.

So, be sure to make a trip down to the Homestead in coming weeks and months to see our landscape in all of its rain-fed glory, whether at the Victorian Fair on the weekend of 27-28 April, a guided tour Wednesday through Sunday from 1-5 p.m., a Sunday picnic or at some other event.  Seeing our beautiful gardens is always a nice complement to the colorful history of the Workman and Temple families!



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