Getting Schooled While Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. Temple, 12 May 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is fortunate that Thomas W. Temple II (1905-1972), the eldest child of Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez, was both an avid photographer and an inveterate letter writer, much less a diligent collector later of family history, as there is a great deal less we’d know about the family and the Homestead without these attributes.

In the last several years, we’ve featured a number of letters donated to the museum by his niece Ruth Ann Temple Michaelis, including tonight’s highlighted object, a 12 May 1925 missive that he sent to his father from the University of Santa Clara. Thomas attended the preparatory high school at that institution from 1918 to 1922 and spent a semester at the California Institute of Technology, at the end of which period his mother died of cancer.

Naturally devastated and dispirited by the passing of Laura, to whom Thomas was particularly devoted, he decided a return to Santa Clara was the best way for the 19 year old to deal with the massive loss he felt. Over the course of the next several years, he referred often to his mother in letters to family members, most of them being near-weekly pieces of correspondence with his father.

In spring 1925, Thomas was completing his junior year at Santa Clara, with his liberal arts bacherlor’s degree, with an emphasis in law, the next step in his educational career, which would take him to the prestigious Harvard Law School for a three-year course culminating in his juris doctorate degree. Always an excellent and hard-working scholar, the young man began his letter to “Dadup” with the observation “Well, the last few wks. of school remaining will soon be over and then I hope to see you all again.”

The question was how the trip back to southern California would be handled and, in fact, he asked his father, “have you given a thought to my little suggestion of your coming up for commencement and staying while the kids get out,” meaning that Thomas’ younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, would finish out their term at the Belmont School shortly after he was done at Santa Clara for the year.

On the other hand, Thomas added, that an alternative was “even sending up Don [Godman, the family’s chauffeur] for us,” as this “would save a lot of R.R. fare which one should really begrudge the So. Pacific.” Here was a time-old complaint about the dominant Southern Pacific railroad company and its perceived egregious passenger fares (businesses and farmers, of course, complained regularly about freight charges), which Thomas’ forebears likely did a half-century prior!

Thomas appears to have had at least a brief collegiate career as a thespian, as he told his father that the prior Sunday, “we of the cast of ‘The Light Eternal'” gave a performance of the early 20th century play by Martin V. Merle in the Almaden Hills of southwest San Jose (not far from the well-known quicksilver mines of that name) “and had a glorious day.” He added that he’d written his brothers, who were about 25 miles to the north, but received no response, though he observed “no doubt you are the recipient of their letters.”

As to the only daughter in the family, Agnes, who was finishing her senior year of high school at St. Mary’s Academy in southwest Los Angeles, he wondered, “Does she come home twice a month now?” She was, for the time being, the only of the Temple children to be home regularly, though that would change in the fall when she, too, went to the Bay Area to enroll at Dominican College in San Rafael, north of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the Santa Clara yearbook, The Redwood, was being published and Thomas notified his father that “the ad looks very good,” meaning one taken out by Walter, and it was added that “I thought I would mention the Workman Homestead and also included your name among the Patrons.” He also informed his father that “the Padre [presumably the university’s president, Cornelius McCoy) was very glad with the contribution and hopes that the ad will do some good.” Later, Walter committed to paying for a new athletic track, though that project was derailed by deteriorating family finances.

After informing his father that final exams were “posted up” and that he was “getting down to work,” Thomas told Walter that “I have quit smoking this month” and went on to suggest that “I know it will help for tho[ugh] I am not an inveterate smoker, yet it must do some good.” Kicking the habit, however, proved to be futile and he later moved to pipes, which led to his death from throat cancer nearly a half-century later.

When it came to the continuing construction of La Casa Nueva, the Temple family mansion at the Homestead, Thomas inquired “how is Mr. Price coming along?” While Walter and Laura Temple came up with the general concept for the mostly adobe structure after a summer vacation with the children in Mexico three years prior, with drawings completed by Los Angeles architects Albert H. Walker and Percy Eisen, who were mainly focused on commercial structures, Beverly Hills architect Roy Seldon Price was hired to finish the building. Walter, Jr. in an 1980s oral history, stated that Thomas had seen photos of Price’s home for Hollywood director, producer and studio head Thomas Ince and suggested him to his father.

The missive continued with the thought that “I would like to take a trip to Monterey before going home & pick up a few things.” That historic capital of pre-American California, prior to Los Angeles serving as the last of that period, is best known for what is often called “Monterey Colonial” architecture, with a combination of plastered adobe construction, long exterior balconies, and elements of colonial influences from New England. In fact, Jonathan Temple’s 1843 adobe house at his Rancho Los Cerritos in today’s Long Beach, very much bears the hallmarks of that style.

A revival of the style developed in the 1910s and continued to be popular for a few decades and Thomas may have felt a desire to incorporate elements into La Casa Nueva, although it does not have much in common, other than a wrap-around corner balcony for the second-floor master bedroom. The house is considered a Spanish Colonial Revival design, though some consider the Monterey Colonial Revival to be a subcategory.

In any case, Thomas hoped that he could make that side excursion, though he added “it will be so much easier if you come up, or even send the car with Don.” It was common for Walter’s paramour, Modesta (Maud) Romero Bassity, who took care of Laura during her illness and then was divorced not long after Mrs. Temple’s death, to send packages of food to the children while they were away at school and Thomas wrote, “the Jelly & Jams, Sardines & Crackers we have enjoyed very much.” He did note, however, that “I’ll soon be tasting home made food & how I long to see you all again.”

Two days prior was Mother’s Day and the fact that Thomas followed this last comment by asking his father if he’d received the telegram that he’d sent is interesting. He continued by observing,

How fast time helps me to forget, but really such a loss is not to be effaced even by the soothing balms of Father Time.

The letter closed with another reminder to let Thomas know whether Walter was going to drive up to take him home or to send a car to do so and he added, “the ride would be dandy” before he signed himself as “Your Devoted Tomasito” or “Little Thomas.”

While everything seemed likely just fine financially at the time, less than a year later, Walter would have to engage in a major restructuring of his real estate operations, taking out bonds to pay for continued work with his Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928) project as well as the building of his last major building outside of that community, the four-story Edison Building in Alhambra.

Even then, Walter was determined to continue his children’s expensive private school educations, probably banking on the fact that his ongoing search for the next big oil strike, his other major business endeavor, would yield success. This proved to be a chimera, but from 1926 to 1929, his three sons attended schools in Massachusetts, while Agnes remained at Dominican in the Bay Area.

By the time they all graduated from their respective high schools and colleges in spring 1929, several months before the crash of the stock market that precipitated the Great Depression, their father’s financial fortunes were inextricably headed toward failure. Walter’s exile the following year from the Homestead to Ensenada in Baja California, México, was an attempt to economize and salvage the ranch, but, in summer 1932 as the Depression deepened with waves of bank failures across the country, the Homestead was lost.

Thanks to Ruth Ann’s donation, having access to letters like the many written by Thomas gives us a highly personalized dimension to interpreting the Temple family story during the Twenties, so continue to check back for more in the “Reading Between the Lines” series (with occasional coupling with the “Getting Schooled” series and its bent toward education.)

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