Through the Viewfinder: The Temple Block, Los Angeles, ca. 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is an excellent stereoscopic image by Henry T. Payne, one of the early photographers of Los Angeles, of the Temple Block, taken about 1872.  The view captures the four-building complex as it anchored the central business section of the growing city and region then undergoing its first significant and sustained period of growth.

Some four decades and more prior, the area was acquired by Jonathan Temple (1796-1866,) who was the second American or European to settle in the Mexican pueblo when he arrived in 1828.  A native of Reading, Massachusetts who was an early American resident of the kingdom of Hawai’i about 1820, Temple opened the first store in the Angel City at the intersection of Main and Spring streets.

Over the course of some thirty years, Temple built a substantial fortune through his mercantile efforts, cattle and other stock raising on the Rancho Los Cerritos, comprising modern Long Beach and surrounding areas and which he bought from relatives of his wife, Rafaela Cota, and other business endeavors.

By the mid-1850s, he decided to close the store and focus on larger projects, including the leasing of the national mint of Mexico, a concession obtained through the intercession of his son-in-law, Spanish-born merchant Gregorio de Ajuria, husband of the Temples’ only child, Francisca, and who was a financial supporter of the president of the country at the time.  The lease was held by Temple and his daughter for nearly forty years until the mint was nationalized by dictator Porfirio Díaz in the early 1890s.

The Temple Block’s first commercial structure was a two-story adobe building erected by Jonathan in 1848 just after the American seizure of Mexican California and which faced the intersection of Main and Spring.  Several years later, Temple successfully petitioned the Common [City] Council for permission to build a short one-block dirt road off that intersection heading west toward Bunker Hill and which he, naturally, named for himself.

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Jonathan Temple, at right, with his wife Rafaela Cota and son-in-law, Gregorio de Ajuria, ca. mid-1850s.  All images here are from the Homestead’s collection.

 

In 1857, having disposed of his store, Temple undertook the construction of a two-story business building at the opposite, or southern, end of the block.  Bricks had only been introduced in local construction about five years earlier when Jesse D. Hunter opened his brick-making business, soon followed by Joseph Mulally, whose work was utilized out on the Rancho La Puente for John Rowland’s new home just a mile or so east of the Workman Homestead.

With this new addition to the Temple Block a success, given that merchants, professionals and others were clamoring for space in the “modern” brick structure, Temple aimed even higher with his building plans.  In 1859, he commissioned what was called the Market House, built as an island in an wide open space just to the south of the building just mentioned.

The idea of the Market House was to have a commercial space with leased stores on the first floor and the city’s first purpose-built theater, called the Temple Theater, on the second level.  It was said that the design was modeled after the famous Faneuil Hall in Boston, not far from Temple’s hometown.

The problem was that the local economy was foundering, due to the decline of the Gold Rush, which, during its peak in the early fifties provided a large market for greater Los Angeles’ abundant herds of cattle on such ranches as Los Cerritos and La Puente but, after which, left a massive decline in that market as demand dropped and inventory remained overly high; a national depression that broke out in 1857; and other factors.

Temple then struck a deal with the county of Los Angeles, which leased the Market House from him and, closing the theater after just a short time of operation, redesigned the second floor into the county courthouse, by which moniker the structure was long known.  Also distinctive was the clock tower at the center of the building, though it was well remembered for being noisy and, unfortunately, frequently out of service.

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A Henry Payne stereoscopic photo detail, circa 1872, showing the Market House (Los Angeles County Courthouse) at the center.  At the left is a portion of the two-story southern end of the Temple Block.

The following years were ones of worsening conditions for the region, including a stunning period of flooding in late 1861 and early 1862, in which an estimated 50 inches of rain pummeled the area (and most of the state) and doing immense damage, followed then by a horrific drought, with an estimated four inches of rain for two straight years, that also wreaked havoc, especially on the cattle industry, the backbone of the local economy but already weakened by that post-Gold Rush glut.

With an invasion of locusts devastating crops and a plague of smallpox added to the misery during the first half of the 1860s, small wonder that some regional residents might have seen the situation in terms of the Bible’s Book of Revelation!  In any case, Temple decided to pull up stakes and headed north to San Francisco, the financial and cultural capital of the state.  Selling his Rancho Los Cerritos for a pathetic fifty cents an acre to Flint, Bixby and Company, who had a very successful central California sheep-raising business, Temple died in his new home in May 1866, just after relocating there.

In 1867, during the settlement of his substantial estate, Jonathan’s half-brother, F.P.F., purchased the Temple Block area. Twenty-six years younger and born Pliny Fisk Temple at Reading in 1822, he came to Los Angeles in summer 1841 to meet his brother for the first time, Jonathan having left Massachusetts for Hawai’i before Pliny’s birth.  What was intended as a year’s visit became a permanent relocation, however, and Pliny went to work in Jonathan’s store.

In September 1845, Pliny married Antonia Margarita Workman, who came to the region from Taos, New Mexico with her parents, William and Nicolasa, as well as her younger brother, José.  After the marriage, which was the first in the area in which both parties had non-Spanish surnames and during which Pliny was baptized a Roman Catholic with the name Francisco, he and his father-in-law became business partners.

Initially, this was through shared resources in raising cattle and other stock in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, but, about the time that F.P.F. bought the Temple Block and Los Angeles was entering that first major growth period, the two also became interested in the small, but emerging business world of the City of Angels.  The Temple Block became the physical core of their commercial endeavors, which, over the course of not quite a decade, involved real estate, oil, mining and other projects, as well as banking.

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A 1920s copy of a circa 1864 photo of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple.

In 1868, the year that Temple and Workman joined the brilliant young merchant, Isaias W. Hellman, in opening Los Angeles’ second bank, Hellman, Temple and Company, F.P.F. financed a new addition to the Temple Block, another two-story brick edifice.  This was followed two years later by another structure, the two built back-to-back with one facing Main and the other Spring.

Even though, by the end of 1870, it was clear to Hellman that differing banking philosophies with Temple made their partnership totally incompatible leading to the closure of their bank and Hellman joining ex-governor John G. Downey in opening Farmers and Merchants Bank the following year, Temple pressed on with the final addition to the block.

This was a three-story building, the third in town, following the Pico House hotel and the Merced Theater, both completed in 1870, and the anchor tenant of which was a new bank, Temple and Workman, opened in November 1871.  This structure replaced the two-story adobe built by Jonathan not quite a quarter century prior and, commanding what was then the triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets, had a prominent position in the commercial core of the city, conspicuous for being built south of the old Plaza (which Pico and the Merced’s builder William Abbott hoped to keep viable with their structures.)

The Temple Block, now completed with four structures, was the centerpiece of that new commercial district, and the three-story addition was particularly prized by the city’s lawyers and other professionals because of its location and elegance.  This was enhanced as the regional economy continued to grow through that first half of the Seventies and even as a national depression developed in 1873, from which California seemed immune.

Much of that was the staggering success of silver mines in Virginia City, Nevada, in which San Francisco capitalists were largely interested.  Silver fever was raging closer to Los Angeles, as well, as noted here in a recent post about Cerro Gordo in Inyo County and in which Los Angeles business figures were heavily invested, including Temple and Workman.

When, however, a stock bubble built around Virginia City silver mining firms inevitably burst (one of the beneficiaries of selling out early was Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who then came to Los Angeles to spend some of his bounty buying land, starting with the Rancho Santa Anita, acquired from merchant Harris Newmark in spring 1875,) the boom in Los Angeles went quickly and bluntly bust.

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An late 1910s lithograph copy of an 1870s portrait of F.P.F. Temple.

In late August 1875, as the telegraph delivered the shocking and sobering news of the failure of the Bank of California, the state’s largest financial institution, frantic depositors descended upon the two commercial banks of Los Angeles, Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman.

The former, ably managed by Hellman, who, however, was on a well-deserved European vacation, was financially sound and stable.  Temple and Workman, however, was anything but, though this was not publicly known at the time, because it invested depositors’ funds in a wide array of development projects, but lacked sufficient cash reserves.

On 1 September 1875, Temple prevailed upon Downey, acting on Hellman’s behalf, to suspend the business of both banks for a month to calm the jittery nerves of depositors.  That day was also the county elections and Temple happened to win the race for county treasurer.  When Hellman, though, learned of what Downey did, he was furious and raced home, as quickly as could then be done, from Europe, stopping in New York to borrow cash, which he then adroitly displayed to nervous customers of his bank when he got home.

Temple tried to get his own loans from San Francisco capitalists, but the crash dried up every possibility, save one.  Baldwin, as shrewd and ruthless as any business figure in the state, saw a golden opportunity and, after prolonged negotiations, crafted a deal that was, in Temple’s words in a letter to Workman in late November, “on rather hard terms.”  $210,000 was forwarded by Baldwin to the bank and another $130,000 soon followed as depositors, their confidence irrevocably shaken by the institution’s three-month suspension, quietly withdrew funds at an alarming rate.

The bank reopened on 6 December, but, within just seven weeks, all of Baldwin’s money was gone and he refused further funds.  On 13 January 1876, a placard announcing a permanent closure of Temple and Workman was placed at the locked doors of the stricken institution.

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Payne’s circa 1872 view of the Temple Block, including at the far left the eastern elevation of the Market House/Courthouse.  Note the sign for merchant Adolph Portugal at the north end of the three-story structure and the word “BANK” on the roof sign, denoting the Temple and Workman bank as the anchor tenant.  At left is Main Street, to the right is Spring Street, and Temple Street is out of view at the right.

An inventory, released within a few weeks, revealed a total disaster of mismanagement, principally attributed to the managing cashier.  Strikingly, even though he did not take office as county treasurer until March, Temple, who was universally well-liked in greater Los Angeles, was allowed to remain at that post for his two-year term, though he had a deputy who ran day-to-day affairs.

In mid-May, a devastated Workman, basically a silent partner with no involvement in the bank’s management or most of the other business projects in which he invested with his son-in-law, committed suicide at his home.  Temple, who declared bankruptcy two months later, suffered a series of strokes and, physically and mentally ruined, died at his home on Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows four years later.

The Temple Block was sold at auction to Harris Newmark, who made a handsome profit selling the Rancho Santa Anita to Baldwin.  While it was hoped that some of the proceeds would go to pay off creditors of the Temple and Workman bank, very little was available for that purpose.

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Another Payne view from about the same time, showing the northeast corner of the Temple Block at the right with Main Street at the center.

The Temple Block, however, remained at the core of the city’s business district for another decade or so, until a much larger Boom of the Eighties, during the mayoralty of Workman’s namesake nephew, William Henry, in 1887-88, included a much-expanded commercial area.

By the early 20th century, plans were made for a remaking of the Temple Block area into a new civic center.  It took years to plan, design and appropriate funds, but, in the mid-Twenties, the four structures were torn down and, in April 1928, the new city hall was completed on that site.

Walter P. Temple, F.P.F.’s son and the beneficiary of immense good fortune when his nine-year old son, Thomas, found oil on their portion of Rancho La Merced in the Montebello Hills, and who became a capitalist from the late 1910s to the late 1920s, managed to salvage some remnants from the Temple Block.

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The vault door reinstalled from the Temple Block to the basement of La Casa Nueva, the 1920s mansion built by Walter P. Temple at the Homestead.  The photo was taken in the late 1970s.

Working with attorney Will D. Gould, who opened his practice in 1871 when the three-story addition was completed and kept it there until the structure was razed fifty-five years later, Temple bought the vault from the bank’s quarters (though it was from the succeeding institution, the Los Angeles County Savings Bank, not Temple and Workman), as well as some bricks and wood window frames, and utilized them for his mansion, La Casa Nueva and a detached adjacent Tepee home office.

So, although the Temple Block has been gone for nearly a century, pieces of it do remain at the Homestead as relics of a family’s long ownership of nearly a half-century of a core of downtown Los Angeles.

 

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