by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We’re rapidly approaching this coming weekend’s Ticket to the Twenties festival, our biggest event of the year, and this series of posts during the week examines notable elements of regional history during the 1920s featuring artifacts from the Homestead’s collection.
Tonight’s post looks at a major factor in greater Los Angeles’ booming economy during the 1920s: real estate development. Just as a half-century prior, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman pursued the creation of several new towns and townsites during the region’s first period of sustained growth during the late 1860s through mid 1870s, the former’s son and latter’s grandson, Walter P. Temple followed their footsteps during the Twenties.
The seed money came from his burgeoning wealth derived from the oil wells on the Temple lease in the Montebello field, property which belonged to Walter’s father, F.P.F., prior to the devastating failure of the family’s Temple and Workman bank in 1876 and passed by foreclosure to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who loaned money to the stricken institution before its collapse.
Walter Temple acquired about 60 acres of land from the Baldwin estate in 1912 and his oldest child, Thomas, stumbled upon oil indications in a pool of water after a spring rain not quite two years later. Standard Oil Company of Calfornia executed a lease in 1915 and, after bringing in a successful test well on the Baldwin portion of the Montebello Hills (the heirs, Baldwin’s daughters Anita and Clara, were further enriched by oil there and in the Baldwin Hills near modern Culver City, which also passed from Temple and Workman to Baldwin), the firm drilled the first Temple lease well in spring 1917 and it came in a solid producer in late June.
Over the next several years, two dozen wells were drilled and there were many producers and a few major gushers. One of these, #9, came in to production in spring 1919 and later that year, Temple bought his first major piece of property in downtown Alhambra, where he and his family then lived.
In 1921, he announced his first building project, a movie theater named for him, and situated on the north side of Main Street between 3rd and 4th streets across from Alhambra High School. Completed in time for Christmas, the Temple Theatre was an appropriate first venture as the film industry was a huge economic force in the region.
Over the next couple of years, Temple plowed into a range of real estate projects, including more development in Alhambra, the purchase and redevelopment of land across from the Mission San Gabriel in the form of three commercial buildings and the donation of a lot for the San Gabriel City Hall, and joining syndicates to build two 11-story commercial buildings in downtown Los Angeles.
This was all being done as Temple was actively renovating and adding to the Workman Homestead, acquired at the end of 1917, and, after returning from a summer family vacation in Mexico, he and his wife, Laura Gonzalez, began planning and building La Casa Nueva, a large Spanish Colonial Revival home, next to the Workman House.
As if this burgeoning activity wasn’t enough during boom times in greater Los Angeles, Temple launched his biggest and most personal real estate project of all in spring 1923. He purchased 285 acres for some half million dollars of the western portion of Rancho San Francisquito, which was sold to Baldwin by his father and grandfather in October 1875 as they sought funds to salvage their bank.
His partners in the endeavor were his business manager, Milton Kauffman (who later made a fortune in post-World War II tract building mostly in the South Bay as well as La Puente and West Covina), his attorney George H. Woodruff, and sheep rancher Sylvester Dupuy, whose Alhambra home, the “Pyrenees Castle,” completed in 1926, became infamous as the home of music producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector.
There had been a plan to build a town on the tract, but that effort never got beyond initial planning stages and, when the land was put up for sale, Temple snapped it up. He then announced the creation of the Town of Temple, which, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, “will be built as a memorial to the pioneer Temple family which came to Los Angeles a century ago and which has been prominent identified with the development of the Southwest.”
Temple hired the firm of Marsh and Coughran to market and promote his new town. It was immediately announced that there would be about 5,000 persons in the unincorporated community with a small business section centered around four buildings designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, who worked on other Temple projects including the early plans for La Casa Nueva.
Close to the “downtown” were 50-foot lots, while spacious half-acre parcels were laid out further out. A major selling point for the project was the extension of the Pacific Electric Railway line from Alhambra along Las Tunas Boulevard to the new community and this was touted as making it easy to commute from the country environs of the Town of Temple to downtown Los Angeles. There was, however, a marked decline in streetcar ridership as more people in the region could afford and enjoy automobiles.
As was standard throughout almost all of greater Los Angeles, with exceptions like south and south-central Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, there were “building and racial restrictions,” or restrictive covenants, so that “the entire enterprise will be designed to establish a model community.” There was no small irony here as Walter Temple was part-Latino and a fluent in Spanish, while his late wife, who died the preceding December, was a Latina and the couple ensured their four surviving of five children were well versed in Spanish and elements of local Latino culture.
There was an opening barbeque and rodeo held in early July 1923 and marketing by Marsh and Coughran continued consistently through the remainder of the year and into the next. One June 1924 article quoted Marsh as claiming that “activity in the town of Temple is almost incredible” with a drug store, hardware store, two grocery stores and other elements cited. To continue the momentum, it was decided to hold a first birthday barbeque on 28 September 1924, an event captured in the accompanying copy photograph from the museum’s holdings.
The event was held in empty lots east of what was then Sunset Avenue (now Temple City Boulevard) and north of Main Street (now Las Tunas). Ads were placed in newspapers such as the Times and that paper had a fairly detailed description of the planned events for the day.
There was a decided emphasis on the perceived history of the region, especially the pre-American period, through such statements as that the event “promised to stage a page from the past history from the past history of the State.” Moreover, it was added
Town of Temple enjoys a unique situation, as it is in the heart of the district where the old Spanish dons ranged their stock on a thousand hills. The descendants of the early settlers of the State still occupy the long-established ranchos in the surrounding hills.
From these old ranchos will come the caballeros, riding the progeny of the first horses to range the western mesas. Antiquity has been preserved in both the men and horses. The racing events should prove exact replicas of the days of festival staged here during the pioneer days of California.
While it is true that cattle roamed the area in around the town, that was largely true prior to 1865 and it was decidedly not the case that the ranchos of that area were intact and the progeny of its owners still in possession, except in a very few cases. One example would be the Rowland family, who still owned a substantial portion of Rancho La Puente, though most of the section that was possessed by Temple’s grandfather Workman was lost in the 1870s bank failure.
The provider of the barbeque was not identified, but it would be surprising if its wasn’t Joe Romero, the well-known “Barbecue King,” who, for decades, provided authentic early California meals for many events, including real estate project promotions for up to tens of thousands of people. Romero’s daughter, Modesta (Maud) Bassity, became Temple’s companion after his wife’s death and it seems highly likely Romero helmed the feeding frenzy at the Town of Temple event.
One of the points highlighted by the town’s chamber of commerce, which sponsored the birthday celebration, was that the event, which also included a typical band concert, was offered with the idea that “no suggestion of commercialism will enter into the affair, as there will be no sales made in the town during the day.”
Unfortunately, over time, sales proved hard to come by almost any other day. There were several reasons for this. One was that the peak of the regional real estate boom that burst forth after the end of the First World War was in 1923 and there was a decline after that. Another was that much of the activity taking place in the sale of Town of Temple lots was by speculators hoping to turn a quick profit in buying cheap and selling dear.
Finally, there were the disastrous and unintended consequences of the Mattoon Act, a state law that aimed to pay for desired and necessary improvements in unincorporated communities like the Town of Temple by not only issuing an assessment (not unlike the modern Mello-Roos variation) on property owners but adding a twist. Namely, if the holder of a lot could or would not pay the assessment, that amount was split by the owners of the property on either side. This hardly encouraged people to buy property in communities where the act was in force, though it was repealed in the 1930s.
By then, Walter P. Temple and his partners, comprising the Temple Townsite Company, got into deep financial distress, prompting the issuance of bonds (this was done as well for the Temple Estate Company, which oversaw Temple’s other real estate holdings.) The community was renamed Temple City in 1928 at the behest of the United States Postal Service, which decreed that the name “Town of Temple” was too close in name to places like Templeton (near San Luis Obispo) and Tempe, Arizona. A chamber of commerce renaming contest yielded “Santa Rita” as the winner, but Temple naturally protested so a compromise was found.
In 1928, the townsite company hired a new real estate firm, the Davis Company of Pasadena, to replace Marsh & Coughran, and a renewed marketing and promotional effort ensued. It proved to be not sufficient to ward off financial failure, which came in spring 1930 during the early days of the Great Depression when the townsite company sold all interests in Temple City to a new firm, which included Douglas D. Coughran, one of the original sales agents. Two years later, as the depression worsened with huge numbers of bank failures across the nation, Temple lost the 92-acre Workman Homestead, the last of his once large portfolio of properties.
In late September 1924, that was hardly a consideration anyone associated with the Town of Temple would have remotely considered. The celebration of the town’s first birthday came at a time of great optimism and hope that the extended real estate boom would continue unabated. Part of the appeal of the Workman and Temple family story is the series of dramatic financial peaks and valleys they experienced and that is definitely a key element of 1920s history broadly speaking.