Gold, Guns and Growth Preview: The Expansion of the Workman House During the 1850s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The third in a series of talks about the history of the Workman and Temple families, following prior presentations on the migration of family members to Mexican Alta California and the Los Angeles area and the activities of the families during the 1840s, is this Sunday’s talk, Gold, Guns and Growth: The Workman and Temple Families in 1850s Los Angeles.

It will look at the momentous transformations that came for the families and region with the onset of the Gold Rush at the end of the 1840s and through the first years of the next decade, the growth in the financial fortunes for the Workmans and Temples, and the challenges they faced during a decade of extraordinary tension and violence.

Looking at the growth component, the unprecedented economic windfall experienced during the Gold Rush by William Workman, who began raising cattle as soon he settled on the Rancho La Puente in 1842 and relied on the sale of the raw products of hides and tallow (fat,) shipped from Mexican California and rendered elsewhere into finished leather goods and soap and candles, allowed him to enjoy luxuries not possible before.

For example, after three decades, he decided in 1851 to make his only return home to England. Traveling with David W. Alexander, who came to Los Angeles from New Mexico with John Rowland in late 1842 and who became one of the closest friends of Workman and F.P.F. Temple, Workman spent a considerable amount of time at Clifton, his boyhood home and where he was enumerated in the British census of that year, but also took time to experience the wonders of the famed Crystal Palace Exhibition in London.

John H Temple Portrait Early 1870s
John Harrison Temple (1856-1926), grandson of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and son of their daughter Antonia Margarita and F.P.F. Temple, ca. 1874.

After arranging for a fine marble tombstone for family members buried in the churchyard of St. Cuthbert’s Church just up the road from the Workman house and likely inspired by this and the Gothic architecture present throughout England, Workman returned home in 1852. Within a short time he decided to establish his own private cemetery, El Campo Santo, east of his house at La Puente and the first documented burial was the interment in November 1855 of his older brother David, who, not long after bringing his family to live with William after migrating from Missouri, was killed driving sheep and cattle to the gold fields for William.

About a year-and-half later, William, using plans drawn by artist Henry Miller in October 1856, began construction on a remarkable Gothic Revival brick chapel, with gilt ceilings and stained glass windows, named St. Nicholas’ after his wife, Nicolasa. Bishop Tadeo (Thaddeus) Amat, namesake of a La Puente high school, presided over and blessed the cornerstone laid on the last day of 1857, though construction appears to have continued through the end of the decade. At the same time, a brick wall was built around the cemetery, which is just under an acre in size, and, at an unknown date, an impressive cast-iron fence was built behind the chapel and within which family members, like David, were laid to rest.

The other major improvement to the Homestead during that time, though we lack specifics as to dates, was the significant expansion of the Workman House. Thanks to detailed information from David’s funeral, published in the Los Angeles Star, the region’s first newspaper, we know that the house had morphed from an I-shaped adobe dwelling of 19 feet tall by 72 feet wide to a U-shaped structure with wings, also composed of adobe, extending 150 feet to the south.

For example, the article mentioned that the mourners gathered in the “upper” portion of the house, this clearly meaning the northern I-shaped original, and then proceeded to a room at the “lower” section, meaning one of the spaces in the wings, where the casket was placed. The group then proceeded to the cemetery for the burial. After the graveside ceremonies, conducted under the auspices of Freemasons, of whom David and William were members of the newly established Lodge 42 of the Free and Associated Masons (the 1854 brick building still stands just south of the Plaza in Los Angeles adjacent to the Merced Theatre and Pico House structures), the mourners returned to a reception at the house.

Workman Residence ca 1890
Temple, his wife Anita Davoust, her father Adrian, and the Temples’ two eldest children, Pliny and Francis, at the northeast corner of the Workman House, ca. 1890.

We are also fortunate that the first family historian, John Harrison Temple (1856-1926), son of Antonia Margarita Workman, daughter of William and Nicolasa, and F.P.F. Temple, wrote down, in 1918, his recollections of many aspects of the history of his family, including a detailed description of the Workman House. Because he was born just months after David’s funeral and then was old enough during the 1860s to recall what the house, wihch he owned from 1888 to 1899, contained, we can’t be absolutely sure that what he recorded dates to the Fifties, but it seems reasonable to assume that much of it did. This is especially the case for what could be considered “purpose-built” rooms in the wings, but also for the way he described the original I-shaped “upper” portion.

John, who was operating a service station at the Montebello Oil Lease property owned by his younger brother, Walter, when jotted down his reminiscences and then was caretaker at the Homestead living in the Workman House, stated that, upon settling on the ranch in 1842, “Mr. Workman immediately set himself to building a home, choosing a beautiful site, which even in this day brings expressions of admiration from all visitors as to the beauty of the spot.” John then added that “he built after the fashion of the rich Don of old Mexico” because “Mr. Workman [was] as fmailiar with that country as he was with the United States.”

Next, the layout of the structure was described: “the dimensions of his house were 75×150 feet, and it was built of adobe walls three feet thick with a flat roof.” As to that “upper” section, “the northern portion consisted of three immense rooms, the eastern room, occupied by Mr. Workman and family, the middle room, used as a dining room, and the west room, a reserve [meaning, for guests] room.” John then recorded that “this reserved room subsequently domiciled Mr. David Workman, his brother, when he arrived from Missouri in the early fifties [fall 1854].”

This was the section of the house built during the 1840s and, later investigations showed that the dining room and reserve room appear to have been built at the same time, while the Workman family bedroom was added later, though it could have been very shortly after the other two. As to the rest, John wrote “the southern part of the building consisted of two parallel wings, 75 feet long, making the length of the building 150 feet.”

WH floor plan
A Workman House floor plan, developed by Homestead staff, and providing our best information on the evolution of the structure from the early 1840s I-shaped core to the major remodeling completed by 1870. Note the wings at the bottom and their descriptions, based on Temple’s reminiscences.

The problem here is that the I-shaped section is very clearly 19 feet north to south, though, and John didn’t mention this in his description, there were two small adobe rooms built at the north ends of this part. One of them still stands on the east side of the house, while one on the west side was removed, though adobe wall remnants remain under the circa 1870 brick room that was built at that corner. These, however, were no more than about 15 feet deep, so there was about 35 or so feet from north to south. To get the building to 150 feet in length, the wings had to extend considerably further than 75 feet, so John simply made an error in his calculations.

In any case, he continued that “the parallel wings were devoted to various uses.” The room next to the family bedroom on the east side “was used by him as a smoking and rest room. It contained a large open fireplace, before which he spent his winter evenings.” In the post a few days ago about the replicated chimneys installed at the house in early 1978, it was observed that there was a fireplace in that area of the house, though no indications of it remained so many decades later.

The room to the south of the smoking room “was the well room, where water was drawn for all domestic purposes.” It is certain that the well was outdoors, situated about twenty or so feet from the original core of the house, and, later, when the adobe wings were razed, the well room was rebuilt of brick. John added “the excavation of the old well can be seen to this day” and, during the site’s restoration forty years ago, a trap door was built in the floor so the well can be viewed, as we do with our “Behind the Scenes” tours. John added, “for drawing the water a large English pump was installed with a handle four or rive feet long and a ball at the end weighing about ten pounds.” There was also a version of this telling that indicated a blind indigenous man performed the work of operating the pump.

Continuing with his description of the east wing, John wrote “the next room was the commissary room, for keeping clothing, boots, shoes, hats, [and] blankets, as there were some fifty men always employed and whose wants were supplied from the ranch store.” The use of “commissary” and “ranch store” does seem to indicate that Workman provided these items for his employees to purchase, presumably mainly from their earnings and one wonders how much of a mark-up there was for these goods!

John H Temple ca 1920
Temple’s portrait in John Steven McGroarty’s 1921 book Los Angeles From the Mountains to the Sea, and in which Temple’s description of the Workman House appeared.

There were two further rooms in the east wing, including “the butcher shop, where meats were cut up and sold to the ranch hands. A steer was killed every Monday and three or four wethers [castrated sheep] killed during the week.” At the end “was a blacksmith shop, where a man was always employed in making bridle bits, spurs and doing general repairing for the ranch.”

Moving to the west wing, John stated that “next to the extra or reserved room was Mr. Workman’s sitting or reception room, where he received those having business with him.” When the house was heavily reconfigured and remodeled by 1870, an brick office was built on the opposite northeast wing, next to the small adobe room mentioned above. He continued that “the kitchen was underneath this room and the food was taken up one flight of stairs to the dining room.”

By 1870, when the house was transformed, a large brick room was built in this section and raised, as the rebuilt well room on the east side was, at the level of the of the northern portion. There is a basement room with brick walls and an inlaid brick floor under this that was a kitchen, so it may be that the adobe sitting/reception room was raised, as well. The remaining rooms on the west wing, however, would not have been. It is likely, though, that the sitting/reception room, like the smoking room, was much smaller than the current brick room and the kitchen configured and sized differently than what was done later.

John H. Temple’s written recollections of the layout of the Workman in the book by McGroarty, widely known for his Mission Play, performed for years in San Gabriel and of which John’s brother, Walter, was a major financial supporter.

The narrative continued that “next to the sitting room was the school room, in which Mr. Workman had all his grandchildren [through his daughter and F.P.F. Temple, his son Joseph’s children were not born until 1870 and after and almost certainly none of them were educated at the Workman House] receive their preliminary instruction before sending them out to college or other schools.” It should be noted, too, that public schools did not exist near the Homestead for many years.

One teacher mentioned in this recollection from Frederick Lambourn [misspelled by John as “Lamborn”], who was born in England, moved as a child with his family to Illinois and who came to El Monte in the late 1850s. John recorded that Lambourn worked for the Workmans from 1860 to 1875, although he was for many years the ranch foreman. Lambourn left after winning election to the California Assembly and went on to run a very successful wholesale grocery business when William Turner, the former operator of the Workman Mill on the ranch. John added “the teacher would board with the family and teach the children table manners as well as more formal learning [like the multiplication table.]

As to the rest of that portion of the house, it was written that “there were three other rooms in this wing, these being used to store saddle trees, saddlers, and that pertains to a waquero’s [vaquero’s] outfit, and also for the storage of grain. John continued, “at the end of these two parallel wings was an extension at right angles to a large gate some fifteen or twenty feet wide, with a massive lock and which was shut every night. On top of the gate was an elaborate pigeon house, from which the family derived their squabs and pigeons,” almost certainly for food. Again, given these descriptions, it seems impossible that the wings, with five rooms each for substantial uses, could only have been 75 feet deep, but twice that depth or nearly so seems far more reasonable.


John added that “between these wings and the main building was a patio, an arbor of grape vine, and on either side orange trees, two of which are alive, thrifty and bearing every year, none the worse for their seventy-five years of usefulness.” While the wings were razed in the remodeling of the house, the grape vine arbor, part of which remains today, was retained, though it is not known how long the orange trees stayed alive.

It seems clear that the great financial success afforded by the Gold Rush and lucrative trade in fresh meat to the teeming hordes coming to northern California during that period, allowed the Workmans to build the highly distinctive cemetery and chapel, as well as add substantially to their home. By the later Fifties, however, the Gold Rush had subsided, a national depression broke out, and conditions were challening. The situation only worsened through the first half of the Sixties, which John discussed in his narrative, but we’ll save that for a preview of the next part of the lecture series, so more on that at a later date!

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