Behind the Scenes Preview: Early Descriptions of the Workman House, 1856-1865

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tomorrow afternoon at 2, we will offer a virtual version of our Behind The Scenes tour, which, for several years, took visitors to areas of the Workman House and La Casa Nueva that are normally not part of our regular public tours. As we are not likely to be able to offer this tour for a while to come, our virtual visit will takes us through the history and many changes over the decades to the 180-year old Workman House.

This will include what we know of the three-room adobe built by William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste in the 1840s; subsequent additions that included wings of 150-foot length to the south; the major remodeling completed by 1870; a modernization and renovation undertaken by Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez about 1920; use of the building by a military school and sanitarium from roughly 1930 to 1970; the exterior restoration of the late Seventies and very early Eighties; and interior renovations that took place from 2007 to 2015.

It’s a lot of ground to cover, but with plenty of images, quotes from historical accounts, summaries of studies conducted in the last couple of decades, and more, we hope that those joining us will get a feel for how this fascinating building has transformed over its long life. The plan is to follow later in the year with a Behind The Scenes tour of La Casa Nueva, getting a similarly in-depth look at how this stunning Spanish Colonial Revival mansion has evolved as it approaches the centennial of its construction, which lasted from 1922 to 1927.

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The center of the three adobe rooms of the 1840s portion of the Workman House as it looks today.

Tonight we look at a quartet first-person accounts describing the Workman House and other elements of the Homestead, these being among the earliest detailed descriptions and dating from 1856 to 1865. There was a brief statement given at a land claims commission hearing in October 1852 by Benjamin D. Wilson, who was a mayor of Los Angeles and state senator as well as proprietor of the famous Lake Vineyard estate in modern San Marino and who came with Workman to this area from New Mexico in late 1841, and which merely stated that the Workmans built an adobe home on the Rancho La Puente in summer 1842, planted a crop of corn and beans, and remained in the house until the deposition a decade later.

Three years later, after the tragic death in summer 1855 of William’s brother, David, who was driving livestock for his brother to the gold fields, a detailed article about the mid-November funeral gave us a simple description of the Workman House, noting that there was an upper (northern) portion where the original adobe structure was built, and a lower (southern) section, in which the coffin was placed, and this was the wings projecting to the south.

Another year passed by and there was a visit from an artist, Henry Miller, who traveled through California drawing sketches of the California missions. In October 1856, Miller stayed with the Workmans during his passage through greater Los Angeles and he noted that

Mr. Workman’s house is a one story building of adobe and forms a square with a yard in the middle. The house is well-finished, and painted with oil colors on the inside and outside, imitating marble, and afterwards varnished.

The “square with a yard in the middle” clearly means the main portion at the north, the wings going to the south and a connecting gate at that end, leaving a courtyard in between. This was a common layout for residences in the region, another prominent example being that of Jonathan Temple, the half-brother of the Workmans’ son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, whose Rancho Los Cerritos dwelling, while two stories in the main section, had projecting wings to the west toward the Los Angeles River and a wall and gate at that end.

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A corner of the earliest section of the basement under the center room shown above, with its dirt floor, plastered adobe walls and hand-hewn, not mill cut, beams.

Also noteworthy is Miller’s reference to an imitation marble finish in oil colors, of which we have a reproduction on the north and south porches and of which an original sample was found several years ago under plaster in a room at the northwest wing of the building. These would show that there were interior and exterior examples of this faux marbled painting dating back to at least the time of Miller’s sojourn at the house.

Miller didn’t provide any further descriptions of the dwelling, though he did note that “on the flat roof over the gate [at the southern end of the courtyard] is placed a handsome square apartment on which is a little turret, having a very imposing and neat appearance.” While the word “apartment” might, to modern ears, suggest a living space, Workman’s grandson, John H. Temple, who was born in April 1856, six months before Miller’s stay, wrote in 1918 as he gave a very detailed description of the house, that “on top of the gate was an elaborate pigeon house, from which the family derived their squabs and pigeons” which were used for food.

The artist added that “there is a fine and large vineyard and orchard in which grow 12,000 grape vines and an abundance of fruit of all kind . . .” He also scored a commission from his host, writing “amongst the drawings which I made for Mr. Workman was a plan for a chapel which he is going to build here for the benefit of his Indians who live near his house in their shantees and who work for him, earning 50 cents a day.”

Presumably, Miller drew sketches of other elements of the ranch, including the house, though not of these has, apparently, survived the ravages of times. This is really a shame, as we have no images yet of the Workman House before its radical makeover in 1870. Years ago, a member of the family of former Los Angeles mayor Stephen C. Foster, who married into the prominent Lugo family of Rancho San Antonio southeast of Los Angeles, told me that his father had a photograph of a one-story adobe and some gentlemen, including Foster, Workman, and Fenton M. Slaughter (who owned a ranch near modern Chino), and that he wondered if it was the Workman House. I was told later that prying the photo loose even for a brief showing and copying was fruitless and who knows what happened to it, as it has been nearly thirty years since that conversation!

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A brick room, built about 1870, at the southeast corner of the house and restored to a late 19th century bedroom with furniture donated to the Homestead in the late 1980s by the Temple family.

The chapel, however, was built, with the cornerstone blessed by Roman Catholic Bishop Tadeo Amat on the last day of May 1857 and construction completed within a few years. Constructed of brick in the Gothic Revival style and with gilt ceilings and stained glass window, St. Nicholas’s, as it was named, must have really stood out in the rural landscape of Rancho La Puente and was, along with the expanded Workman House, a reflection of the family’s significant wealth generated by the boom times of the Gold Rush.

In 1858, a committee of the California State Agricultural Society toured the state to report on the condition of the many farms and ranches which formed the backbone of the economy, though the Gold Rush had ended, a national depression broke out the prior year, and dire days of flood and drought were on the horizon. In any case, a very brief statement produced by the committe was that:

His [Workman’s] buildings are of adobe, colored and penciled to represent stone. They form an oblong square court, 75 by 150 ft., in which many of the tropical fruits are sufficiently protected [presumably from winds] to flourish the entire year. His whole arrangements in and about his house are indicative of taste and intelligence.

The committee also noted that the chapel was under construction and reported that there were some 10,000 vines in the vineyard and the description of the “oblong square [rectangular] court” and the finish on the building accord well with Miller’s statement. It is also interesting to note the laudatory statement that the Workmans maintained their home and other aspects of the Homestead with “taste and intelligence.”

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The original cobble-lined water well was outside next to the adobe house, but was later enclosed in an adobe room and is now in a brick room built about 1870.

Finally, there was the 1860 visit of John Quincy Adams Warren, who, unsurprisingly, hailed from Massachusetts, the home state of the Temples, and who was in business in San Francisco with his father, James, in a store, Warren and Son, that was widely known for its extensive horticultural inventory. James Warren had a long background in horticulture from his days in the Commonwealth State before migrating to Gold Rush California and helped form the California State Agricultural Society and the influential publication, The California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences, which lasted from 1854 until just eight years ago.

J.Q.A. Warren’s description of the Workman House for the magazine observed that

The main building or residence is in the form of an oblong square; in the center is a large open courtyard, containing tropical fruits, and an arbor of trellis work, covered with grape vines running the entire distance. There is a beautiful garden back of the house, filled with fruit trees and flowers; this is inclosed by a brick wall, 90 feet square and 7 feet high.

There, again, is the use of “oblong square” to describe the main house, wings and enclosed courtyard, though Warren noted the vine-covered arbor, which, presumably, was there for some time, if it was “covered with grape vines running the entire distance,” and yet it was not mentioned by the agricultural society committee or Miller.

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In the northeast corner of the attic is this remnant of a single-gabled and wood shingle-covered roof predating the multi-gabled roof above it that was installed about 1870.

What is curious, though, is the reference to the garden as being “90 feet square,” which seems to mean that each side was 90 feet long, and had a 7-foot high brick wall, and that this appears to have been separate from the “large open courtyard, containing tropical fruits” and the vineyard. The only possibility is that the garden “back of the house” was on the north side, but, again, it was not mentioned by the others, unless it was of very recent construction. It is notable that the earliest known photo of the house, taken about 1870 or perhaps a little later, does how a wall at the northern, or the formal front, of the house, so this appears to be what Warren noted a decade or so earlier.

He went on to give some substantial details about the agricultural element to the Homestead, which we’ll save for a future post on the Workman family’s farming history, though Warren also gave some particulars about the chapel, as well. This included its dimensions of about 1,100 square feet inside, with walls sixteen inches thick and nineteen feet high, while the steeple was fifteen feet high. He also observed that there were “50 hands, mostly Indians, vaqueros, &c . . . employed upon the place.”

In 1865, the agricultural society committee returned and there was some great detail about what was grown around the home (and, again, we’ll save that for later), while the comment on the Workman House was that

The house is a well-built adobe, cemented, quite enclosing a court-yard, and is about 90 feet front by 200 deep. This and Mr. Temple’s [at the Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows several miles to the west] are the best built adobes we have seen in the State. Mr. Workman has every convenience which could be desired in a large plantation; house, workshops of various sorts, and a beautiful flower garden, well protected by a good brick wall.

Unfortunately, almost nothing was said in these four acounts about the interior of the Workman House, save for Miller’s brief comment about the wall finish. Still, these are valuable early descriptions about the building and tomorrow you can hear about its history by joining us for the Zoom-based talk at 2 p.m.

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