by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When Jonathan Temple settled in the Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles in 1828 and shortly afterward acquired property where Calle Principal (Main Street) and Calle Primavera (Spring Street) met just south of the Plaza, he could have had no idea that he was purchasing one of the most important sites in the community.
Over the years, he built several structures on what became known as the Temple Block, including a two-story adobe built about 1850 at the north end where those two streets met, followed seven years later by a two-story brick building at the south end. In 1854, Temple petitioned the common (city) council to allow him to build a short street heading west from that intersection toward the hills and which was named after him.
In 1859, Temple built the Market House, said to have been designed after Faneuil Hall, the Boston landmark, and which was intended, as its name indicated, to have spaces on the first floor for merchants to rent, while the second level contained the Temple Theater, the first true theater built in town. A poor economy, however, led to the building being rented in 1861 by the county for a courthouse, so the theater was removed for that purpose.
During the first half of the Sixties, the financial situation worsened as a winter of severe flooding in 1861-62 was followed by a horrific drought over the succeeding couple of years. Temple decided to forsake Los Angeles for San Francisco, but died on 30 May 1866 shortly after resettling in the City by the Bay. His estate then sold the Temple Block property to Jonathan’s half-brother, F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, while the courthouse building was purchased by the county.
Just after this, the first significant and sustained period of growth in greater Los Angeles began and F.P.F. Temple, joined by William Workman, was eager to take the opportunity to develop his business interests in the Angel City. In 1868, 1870, and 1871, he built brick structures to complete the Temple Block, the first two being between the adobe and the 1857 structure and the last, a three-story building, was erected once the adobe was razed. In the new edifice was housed the Temple and Workman bank, opened after the two men split with Isaias W. Hellman, their first partner and who formed Farmers and Merchants Bank with ex-governor John G. Downey.
As the small, but growing. business district moved south from the Plaza, the historic center of town, the Temple Block became a core component of that new area. Prominent merchants and professional people, including doctors and lawyers, rented space in the several structures. Booms, of course, go bust and that happened in late summer 1875 after a stock bubble in San Francisco concerning silver mines in Virginia City, Nevada burst. The telegraph brought the dire news of the collapse of the Bank of California, the state’s largest, to Los Angeles and locals, naturally, panicked.
Temple and Workman and Farmers and Merchants, the only commercial banks in town, were besieged by anxious depositors seeking their money. Hellman was in Europe on a well-deserved vacation, so Downey and Temple agreed to suspend operations for a month to stanch the flow of funds out the doors of their respective institutions. That day, 1 September, was the county election and Temple won the race for treasurer, which was more than ironic given subsequent events.
While Temple headed for San Francisco in search of a loan because his bank lacked adequate reserves to meet the demand of his depositors for money, Hellman, learning of Downey’s decision, was furious and raced home to undo the damage. He stopped in New York to borrow some cash and displayed this as he arrived to reopen his bank and reassure nervous patrons that his bank was amply supplied with funds.
Temple, however, was desperate and, rather than declare bankruptcy and sell assets to pay creditors and depositors and keep what was left over, decided to borrow from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, whose luck stemmed from his selling millions of dollars of Virginia City silver stock before the bursting of that bubble and who was investing heavily in local real estate, starting with the acquisition of the Rancho Santa Anita in spring 1875. This loan, made “on rather hard terms,” as Temple expressed to his father-in-law, could not, however, save the stricken bank, as depositors withdrew the borrowed money and the institution failed in mid-January 1876.
Baldwin foreclosed on the loan three years later and took possession of tens of thousands of acres of Temple and Workman property. By then, Temple, who was allowed to serve his two-year term as county treasurer, albeit with a deputy running the office, suffered a series of strokes, from which he died in April 1880. Workman, bewildered by the failure of the bank in which he had no active role and visited by a court receiver pending proceedings concerning his estate, took his life in mid-May 1876.
As to the Temple Block, it was acquired by merchant Harris Newmark, and remained a valuable piece of downtown property. By the great Boom of the 1880s, during which Workman’s nephew, William Henry, was mayor in the peak years of 1887 and 1888, larger buildings with up-to-date amenities sprung up nearby and the Temple Block became less desirable.
By the early 20th century, the enormous growth of the city and county led local officials to try and keep up in terms of core public services. For example, after years of grossly inadequate quarters, two-story city hall was built in 1884 at Spring and Second streets, followed quickly by a Romanesque style City Hall was built on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd streets in 1888, but, within a couple of decades, it, too, proved to be too small.
As for courthouse, the Temple Market House was not nearly large enough and was outdated. So, a year after the new city hall opened, a courthouse, also in the Romanesque style, was built. A rare act of preservation and historical continuity was the reuse of portions of the clock from the tower that surmounted the old building for the new structure.
From the first years of the new century, there was increasing discussion about the development of a unified civic center and plans were submitted at times that often showed both an impressive, if perhaps unrealistic, vision and remarkable ambition. Meanwhile, a Hall of Records was built directly south of the courthouse in 1911, followed over a decade later by a Hall of Justice across from these two buildings on the north side of Temple Street, which expanded greatly as the city pushed west over the decades.
It was decided in the first half of the 1920s (the president of the city council was Boyle Workman, son of ex-mayor and city treasurer William H. Workman) to forego a tremendously disruptive and mightily expense civic center plan for something more localized with an 28-story City Hall, this being the sole exception to an eleven-story height limit for aesthetic reasons, and a broad lawn and walks on its south end, built between Main and Spring (the latter was straightened and extended beyond Temple) and Temple and First.
Among the structures that were razed to make room were the several buildings of the Temple Block. The last of them to go was the three-story one built in 1871 at the north end and, when Walter P. Temple was made aware of its imminent demise, he worked to retrieve some pieces of the building to reuse at the Homestead. Attorney Will D. Gould, who had the distinction of having an office in the edifice from its opening in 1871 until its closing fifty-four years later, helped Temple secure some items.
These included bricks used in the construction of the Tepee home office adjacent to La Casa Nueva and the doors and casing of the vault from the former bank quarters, placed in the basement as an entrance to a closet of cedar cabinets. It turned out that this latter, which included some impressive mountain landscapes painted on the front of the door and other notable details, was not used by Temple and Workman, but, by its successor, the Los Angeles County Bank, which used the same space from 1878.
The long-awaited City Hall, a source of enormous civic pride, opened to great fanfare in April 1928 and this was covered in a previous post on this blog. The highlighted object from the museum’s holdings for this post is a fantastic birds-eye view aerial photograph by A.C. Gates taken from just to the southeast on 12 September 1929.
It shows the impressive building and its site, as well as the Hall of Records (razed in 1973) and courthouse (closed after the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933 and torn down a few years later) to the left; the Hall of Justice (recently remodeled at great cost) next to the top of the tower; the Bank of Italy structure at an odd angle just above the city hall because it was built when Spring Street turned to meet Main and Temple before it was rerouted; and the post office with its rounded southeast corner across from the bank building. These latter two were also torn down years ago.
Also of note at the upper left is the original Los Angeles High School, opened in 1873 and used in the late Twenties as an elementary school and distinctive for its central clock tower. It can be easily discerned as there is a large patch of undeveloped land adjacent to it. To the right of that bare land and on the west side of Hill Street is the second Los Angeles High School, another fine Romanesque structure, completed in 1891. Today the Ramón Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts is on the site, which is now bounded by Hill, Grand, César Chávez, and U.S. 101. A clump of trees at the upper right shows the location of Fort Moore Hill with the Plaza being out of view at the right.
Accompanying photos show the groundbreaking ceremony for the new city hall and at which Boyle Workman spoke; the steel structure for part of city hall with the remaining last structure of the Temple Block at the right, probably in 1926; a closeup of the April 1928 dedication ceremony; and a panoramic view from the southwest of that grand opening. Incidentally, it isn’t all that far away from the City Hall centennial, which coincides with the planned hosting by Los Angeles of the 2028 Olympics!