by Paul R. Spitzzeri
La Casa Nueva, the 11,000-square foot Spanish Colonial Revival mansion built by the Temple family between 1922 and 1927 at the Homestead, is a remarkable residence for many reasons. One of them is that it was, as remembered by Walter P. Temple, Jr. in a 1980s oral history, the “dream house” of his mother Laura Gonzalez.
Sadly, she died just after Christmas 1922, just months after the home was initiated following a lengthy vacation the family took to México the preceding summer. Inspired by their journey, Laura and Walter, Sr. took to sketching out ideas on butcher paper, which were rendered into drawings by the prominent Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen.
A crew of workers, led by Pablo Urzua, a master stone mason, came up from Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, to make adobe bricks from the soil around the house, formed them by hand in the traditional way and then, decidedly non-traditionally, baked them in massive kilns made of adobe bricks.
After Laura’s death, a new architect, Roy Seldon Price, whose striking design of the Beverly Hills mansion, Dias Doradas, of film studio owner Thomas Ince, was hired to complete La Casa Nueva. Price, who brought many remarkable ideas, but at the cost of much money and time (leading the Temples to ruefully jest that his invoices matched his last name), transformed the house, which was finally finished in 1927.
When the Temple embarked on the project, their two oldest children, Thomas and Agnes, were 17 and 15 years old, respectively. This was almost exactly the ages of Walter and Laura when, decades before, they had a clandestine romance documented by a few letters in the Homestead’s collection and donated a little more than a decade ago.
Today’s featured object from the museum’s collection is one of these, penned by Walter to his sweetheart on 5 July 1887. He gave his location as simply “At Home,” meaning the Temple Homestead in the community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission in the Whittier Narrows south of El Monte, so named because the original Mission San Gabriel was established there adjacent to the Río Hondo, or the old San Gabriel River channel, before flooding forced the Franciscan missionaries to relocate the facility to higher, drier land at its current local.
El Monte, the early history of which was referred to in a recent post here, is where the letter was posted, while the envelope is addressed to “Señ[ori]ta Lorenza Gonzalez / La Puente / Los Angeles / Co.” This address was actually the Homestead, where Laura (referred to in the missive as “Laurenza”) was a trusted employee of Walter’s brother, Francis, helping to manage affairs at the Workman House and on the ranch generally.
In fact, Francis, who was twenty-one years Walter’s senior, had occupied the property since their grandfather William Workman’s tragic suicide after the failure of the family’s Temple and Workman bank in early 1876. When Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, in 1879, finally foreclosed on the property, put down among many others as collateral for a loan he made the bank, Francis worked out a deal to purchase the Workman House, several outbuildings, the El Campo Santo Cemetery, and 75 acres from Baldwin for $5,000.
This arrangement was completed in 1880 and, while Francis, was able to make a good living from the ranch, he battled tuberculosis, which increasingly led to more frequent and lengthier absences from the Homestead to places like Yuma, Arizona, where the dry desert air proved to be beneficial, but not life-saving.
During these periods away from the ranch, young Laura was not only charged with taking care of Francis and Walter’s aged grandmother, Nicolasa Urioste de Workman, who was in her eighties, but she kept a close eye over ranch work, including the maintenance of the vineyards and orchards which provided for Francis’ living. Being in her mid-teens and taking on such responsibilities is a testament to Laura’s acumen and abilities.
Walter and Laura, who were two years apart in age, grew up together at Misión Vieja, where her father was a musician and her mother a member of the Valenzuela family, which was one of the grantees of the tiny Rancho Potrero Chico of some ninety acres, just north and west of the Temple Homestead, situated at the northeast corner of the adjoining Rancho La Merced.
We don’t know how the romance between the two blossomed and whether it occurred while the two were living in the same community, though Walter’s mother, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, was known to be very protective of her children when it came to paramours.
An oral history from the 1970s by Leonora Hartnell, whose father was the second husband of Walter’s sister, Lucinda, included an anecdote about how some flowers were sent to Walter or his brother Charles and, when Mrs. Temple caught sight of them, she promptly threw them to the ground and stomped on them to graphically show her displeasure at the overture!
Small wonder, then, that Walter and Laura worked very hard and carefully to conceal their liaison when he and she exchanged letters while she worked for Francis and Walter wrote from the Temple Homestead. It wasn’t just Mrs. Temple, however, who had to be borne in mind as the young lovers developed their relationship, because Francis also had to be kept ignorant of the situation.
There was, however, one notable family confidant, as pointed out in another post highlighting one of Walter’s letters to Laura. This was Nicolasa Workman, who helped to arrange communication between her grandson and Laura, who may well have been hired, at least partially, to care for Mrs. Workman. Sometimes, this meant conversations between Walter and his grandmother in the basement of the Workman House so that prying eyes and ears were kept at bay.
This letter is not particularly lengthy and does not have some of details like the basement rendezvous, the flowery verbiage Walter liked to use, or other elements that the other pair of missives contain. It does begin with him playing to Laura’s emotions: “Knowing that your anxiety to hear from me can no longer be confined within limits, I have availed myself of this late opportunity to answer your letter, as I have detained you so long in waiting for it.”
Why would Walter keep Laura on such pins and needles? “The reason why I had deferred my correspondence so long is this; I had borne in mind not to write to you before the occurrence of the First of July Ball.” Now, it turns out that there was, as reported in the Los Angeles Herald of 18 June, “a festival is to be given at El Monte on the 30th of June for the benefit of the Girls’ Home in Los Angeles,” so, perhaps this was the same event despite the different dates cited. El Monte wasn’t all that big a town then, but it is possible there were two happenings back to back. The festival, incidentally, netted $50 for the cause.
In any case, Walter continued that “I expected your attendance on said occasion, so as to participate of a few enjoyable hours, but as I was unexpectedly disappointed I think it time to continue our letter-writing.” With this explanation, however, he felt the need to add “you must excuse me for having overstepped the bounds of propriety in not answering your letter sooner.”
Walter’s next lines are familiar to all of us, who, as love-struck teenagers trapped in trepidation concerning every signal, sign or semblance of attention from the object of our deep desire, are uncertain as to the feelings of the beloved one
It is really inexpressible how much joy your kind favor added to the anxiety with which I awaited your letter, as I had judged from your silence that you had entirely left me in oblivion, but never losing hope of occasionally seeing your sweet face, as the following lines illustrate it—
The more I see you, the more the heat
Of your love to my heart does beat
A budding poet, Walter’s short couplet does, indeed, express all, though he followed with “I don’t write you long letters, because they are too wearisome. Therefore I shall close hoping that this will find you well as it leaves me.” After assuring Laura that, as so many people did in those days when infectious disease was all-too-common and now something more easily relatable to us as we experience our current pandemic and frequently ask if others are staying well and safe, “I am enjoying excellent health,” Walter ended his letter, but not without a postscript.
In it, he asked his beloved if the writing on the envelope was improved, presumably in terms of addressing her as señorita (though he omitted the tilde.) Walter then added, “I suppose Frank hasn’t suspected anything about it,” meaning their surreptitious romance, concluding with “I hope not.”
It was just a little over a year later that Francis succumbed to his ailment and died in early August 1888, just a few days shy of his fortieth birthday and in the same room of the Workman House in which he was born. The ranch was left to his brothers William and John, though the former, living out of state, sold his half-interest to the latter. John, who was married and with two small children (with several more born in ensuing years) moved to the Homestead and Laura left, living for much of the next decade in Boyle Heights, where she taught piano.
It is not known whether she and Walter continued their romance, but it was not until Thanksgiving 1903 that the two, who were then 34 and 32, finally married. Their nineteen years of marriage included five children (a daughter died as an infant, so four lived to adulthood); financial struggles in living at the Temple Homestead; the acquisition of nearby land formerly owned by Walter’s family from the Baldwin estate and on which oil was miraculously discovered by Thomas in the mid-1910s; and their sudden emergence into wealth.
In five years, Walter and Laura went from living in an 1869 adobe house with little money to their name to having a fine Craftsman residence in Alhambra and enjoying the fruits of the small fortune that came from their oil royalties. One of these was the project with La Casa Nueva and Laura’s passing is all the more tragic considering what the Temples hoped for with her “dream house.” This letter is a notable early document about the relationship between Walter and Laura, starting as love-struck teens and ending with the unrealized vision they had for their home and what it meant to them and their family.