by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s a small little artifact, being a score card for the Sunset Fields golf course, which has not been in existence for almost three-quarters of a century, but it does have an interesting set of links to history, including that of the Workman and Temple families, so let’s see how tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection goes beyond the specific and to the general.
The Rancho Cienega o Paso de la Tijera was one of the smaller ranches of Mexican California, comprising one square league of about 4,200 acres when it was granted in 1843 by Governor Manuel Micheltorena to Vicente Sánchez, a prominent Californio, who twice served as alcalde (mayor) of the pueblo of Los Angeles and whose grandson, Tomás, was a popular and well-liked Los Angeles County Sheriff for eight years from the late 1850s to the late 1860s. Don Vicente died within three years of the land grant and, later, Don Tomás assumed primary ownership.
The Sánchez family established their ranch headquarters, though Tomás maintained another primary residence, on the lower slope of the eastern exposure of a range of hills and ran stock on the Cienega. This included the end of the Mexican period when raw hides and tallow were shipped from San Pedro from rendering into finished leather goods and soap and candles, as well as the glory days of the Gold Rush when regional cattle were in high demand, at great profit, for fresh meat.
As the Gold Rush dimmed and floods and droughts wracked the region in the first half of the 1860s, the region’s rancheros were mainly caught in a dire dilemma trying to keep their properties on a paying basis. Another complication was the lengthy and expensive process of securing a federal land patent for these ranches after Congress passed an act in 1851 to deal with claims that had to be proven with documentation and witness testimony.
It was not atypical at all for these claims to run for two decades and, in the case of the Cienega, that was what happened, as Don Tomás finally received his patent in 1873. By that time, the dire economic days of a decade prior were followed by the first economic boom in the region, which began a few years after the Civil War and stretched into the middle of the 1870s. As land values rose and development projects were increasing in outlying suburban areas surrounding Los Angeles and with stock raising largely replaced by agriculture, Don Tomás got an offer he couldn’t refuse and sold the Cienega.
The purchasers were Daniel Freeman, owner of the adjoining Rancho Centinela, which was to the southwest; Arthur J. Hutchinson, a British-born investor; Henry S. Ledyard, managing cashier of the Temple and Workman bank, one of two commercial institutions in Los Angeles; and the bank’s president, F.P.F. Temple. It was 1875 and Temple and Freeman were actively promoting a townsite on the latter’s ranch called Centinela, including a proposed narrow-gauge railroad from Los Angeles to the Pacific where Ballona Creek emptied into the ocean.
Developments like Centinela and others of the time, including Artesia, Pasadena. Pomona and San Fernando, were reflective of rapidly changing uses of land in greater Los Angeles and the process of subdividing ranches into farm lots and towns would only accelerate with greater rapidity in succeeding years. Meanwhile, whatever plans the new owners had in mind for the La Cienega, these ideas came to a sudden and stark end when the boom underway in the region for several years went quickly and demonstratively bust by the end of 1875.
A silver mining stock bubble involving Virginia City, Nevada burst in San Francisco, with one of the fortunate beneficiaries being Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, whose early sale of his shares in mining companies netted him several million dollars. A panic brought down the Bank of California, the state’s largest, and the furiously ticking telegraph relayed the news to Los Angeles. Depositors besieged the two commercial banks in town, Farmers and Merchants (controlled by ex-governor John G. Downey and managing cashier Isaias W. Hellman) and Temple and Workman.
Hellman, who was out of town, was furious when Downey agreed to join Temple in suspending their bank’s activities for a month in September to try to calm the roiling waters and rushed home to reopen his bank (and engineer Downey’s removal as president) before too much damage was done. Temple, however, who happened to be elected Los Angeles County Treasurer the day he and Downey made their deal to suspend, was desperate for cash to reopen his institution.
This brought in Baldwin, who used some of his stock sale proceeds to purchase Rancho Santa Anita in the San Gabriel Valley earlier in the year and noticed that Temple and Workman possessed enormous acreage in the region. Rather than declare bankruptcy and sell his and his father-in-law’s considerable assets to pay depositors and creditors, Temple elected to make a deal “on rather hard terms,” as he expressed it to Workman, and executed a loan with Baldwin that was going to be very difficult to repay.
Among those properties mortgaged for the loan was La Cienega and the bank reopened in early December, only to have depositors steadily stream in to close their accounts, thereby withdrawing the borrowed funds. Baldwin made another advance and then refused more, so the bank shut its doors for good in mid-January 1876.
Baldwin waited three years to foreclose as the interest on the loan accumulated to the point where no one could pay it off. In 1879, he took ownership of La Cienega along with many thousands of acres, mostly in the San Gabriel Valley, formerly held by Workman, who committed suicide in May 1876, and Temple, who was still allowed to serve as county treasurer despite his extraordinary status as a bankrupt.
As in the case of another rancho, La Merced, situated in the Whittier Narrows and which was half the size of La Cienega, Baldwin took over property that included a large amount of largely barren hills and which had little practical value in those days. Within a few years of his death, which took place in 1909, though, matters changed dramatically.
The expansion of the oil industry in the region, which dates back to work done in modern Santa Clarita from the mid-1860s and where Temple, for example, was an early prospector, accelerated in the 1890s after Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield brought in a well just west of downtown Los Angeles. In short order, oil drilling took place throughout the region and, as at La Merced and its Montebello Hills, the La Cienega and its Baldwin Hills, became an area of frenetic activity in the last half of the 1910s. In both cases, Baldwin’s heirs, his daughters Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker, cashed in at levels even greater than they received from their late father’s estate.
As the expansion of the City of Los Angeles grew rapidly in the first decades of the 20th century, other forms of development soon made its way out to the La Cienega. One of these was the acquisition of a few hundred acres from the Baldwin estate for the development of the Sunset Fields golf course. That sport was also experiencing a great surge of interest in the region during this period, with courses springing up in many areas.
Sunset Fields was described in The Los Angeles Times of 12 December 1926 as a facility that “will give the pay-as-you-play golfing fraternity of Southern California practically the same accommodations to be found at private clubs” and it was reported that “the completion of plans and the specifications for their proposed clubhouse” was released the prior day. This included structures in the “Colonial style of architecture” including interior decorations and furnishings, locker rooms and showers for men and women, and a large swimming pool.
The designer of the courses was William P. Bell, who worked on many local courses in his career, with his start being at Annandale in Pasadena, where the Pasadena Military Academy, attended by the sons of Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez attended after the couple made a small fortune from oil royalties derived from Montebello Hills wells on land Walter acquired from the Baldwin estate, which, decades before, foreclosed on the property with the Temple and Workman bank loan.
Bell went on to work with course architect Willie Watson on such projects as Annandale, the San Diego Country Club, and the Hacienda Country Club in La Habra Heights, not far from the Homestead. After 1920 and, as the popularity of golf surged, he was working on his own, designing such courses as the Woodland Hills Country Club and Long Beach Country Club. With partner George Thomas, Bell included the Bel-Air Country Club, Riviera Country Club, Los Angeles County Club and the Palos Verdes Country Club in his portfolio. A later solo design was the Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, built around the 1840s adobe house of Jonathan Temple for his Rancho Los Cerritos headquarters. Bell’s son, William F., followed his father’s footsteps as a legendary course designer, including at the Industry Hills facility now part of the Pacific Palms Resort.
Two weeks after the aforementioned article, the Times reported that “one of the oldest adobe houses in Southern California, believed to be at least 140 years old . . . is to be slightly remodeled, and used as a caddy house” for the new course. With the walls said to be in good shape, “a new roof and plaster is all that will be needed to put the building in shape.” Its explanation of the history was that the Sánchez family were the first owners, followed by “a titled Englishman” (it was likely meant Robert Burnett, a Scottish nobleman, who had the nearby Centinela), and then Baldwin. It was added that “three persons on the place have been farming the land for the past twenty years” but did not know when the adobe house was constructed.
On 20 February 1927, it was reported by the paper that there were two adobe structures being converted for use at Sunset Fields, with “a new roof of rough singles, an outside wall of stucco, a new coat of plaster inside and a tile brick floor” completed in the three-room building that was the 1790s dwelling and “which is to be used as the executive offices of the club.” On 1 May, the Times noted that “another adobe house, built at the same time, is now being fixed up as another unit of the clubhouse and it will be used as the golf shop and caddy house.”
The first course was finished on 1 July, but was given two months’ rest before the official opening on 4 September following a special foursome exhibition match the prior day featuring a pair of top professionals and two of the region’s finest amateurs. Two wells drilled on the property allowed for plenty of water to make the course “greener than any other in Southern California.”
It was likely no accident that the club was being created as housing developments were reaching the Baldwin Hills area. By late summer 1927, for example, the Viewpark development of over 300 units built by the prominent Los Angeles Investment Company advertised that a prospective buyer could “Golf Near Your Home in . . . “Viewpark.'” It was stated that the new Sunset Fields was just to the north and “experts say it is ‘sporty.'” For a green fee of just $1, all-day play could be had on weekdays, while play could be had for just fifty cents more on weekends and holidays. Homes in such styles as “Elizabethan,” “Italian,” and “Spanish” could be purchased from $8,750 to $30,000 with unparalleled views to downtown and the claim that it was just a 5-minute commute to Tenth and Broadway.
Shortly after opening, it was announced that Sunset Fields “has done and will do a great deal for Southern California golf” and drew away congestion from the links to Griffith Park, while likely to draw many tourists the upcoming winter season. It began a reservation system so that players could avoid “the tedious wait that has in the past characterized municipal golf both in California and the East.” Being 15 minutes from downtown (that may have been the number intended for the Viewpark ad!) was believed to be an added attraction for the course.
On 11 October, a banquet was held to provide the official grand opening of Sunset Fields, though the start of course number two did not occur until early in 1928 with completion within about six months. Meanwhile, in March, a 9-hole “mashie” (or “pitch and putt”) short course for informal play and for beginners was available free to anyone aiming to be “potential champs” until the roughness was smoothed out.
The scorecard for the second course includes rules on the front and back cover, while Jim and Dale played on the par-71 course 28 September 1929, with the former finishing in 110 strokes and the latter sixteen strokes behind. Jim was able to make par once on the 405-yard fifth hole, though he was one over on six other holes. Dale was one over on that fifth and on the eighth.
Sunset Fields lasted not quite twenty years and, as housing and commercial development lapped up against its emerald greens and land values skyrocketed after World War II and its great regional boom, it was decided by owner Paul W. Trousdale, who was thirty and just starting out on what became a spectacular successful real estate development career, including such areas as Compton, Long Beach, Wilmington and areas of the San Fernando Valley. In the mid-Fifities, he purchased the Doheny Estate and developed Trousdale Estates, one of the toniest residential areas in the nation. In fact, his home in that community was just listed this summer at over $30 million.
While most of the Sunset Fields property of just above 300 acres became part of a large residential and commercial development by Trousdale’s Crenshaw-La Brea Company (its treasurer was Howard F. Ahmanson of Home Savings and Loan) which includes todays Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. As for the La Cienega adobe houses, they were acquired with three acres in August 1947 from Trousdale for $60,000 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and became part of the St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church complex, being used for services until a church was constructed there. A driving range operated on a small part of the old course until it closed in 1954.
In 1972, reportedly at the suggestion of famed black architect Paul R. Williams, the Consolidated Board of Realtists, an advocacy group of African-American realtors formed in 1949 “to discuss the inequitable and prejudicial treatment” of black real estate brokers in Los Angeles, purchased the adobe. Though the group sought to raze the adobe and build a five-story office building, the structure was declared a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1988, though it was significantly altered by its many owners, including Sunset Fields over the years.
With offices, a large auditorium, two meeting rooms and a commercial kitchen among other elements, the Sánchez Adobe has persisted for over two centuries and lays claim to being the oldest surviving building in the City of Los Angeles, besting the Avila Adobe (that family was connected by marriage to the Sánchez family with Don Tomás having Avila as his middle name) by some twenty or more years.