On This Day: The Birthday of Walter P. Temple (1869-1938)

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On 7 June 1869, Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband F.P.F. Temple welcomed the tenth of their eleven children (eight lived to adulthood), Walter Paul. It is known why they chose that name for their seventh son, though the family raised an orphan, Walter Drown (whose family migrated from Iowa in 1853, during which his mother drowned when their ship capsized, while his father, an attorney and county district attorney, died a decade later) whose legal guardian was William Workman.

Walter was raised at the Temple family homestead on the Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows, just north of the dam of that name, and at his birth, his father may have been the wealthiest citizen in Los Angeles County, based on newspaper sources, while his grandfather Workman could have been second on the list.

In any case, the Workmans and Temples were at the pinnacle as successful ranchers and farmers and Walter’s father and grandfather were also newly minted bankers, having launched their enterprise with merchant Isaias W. Hellman, the prior year. Moreover, F.P.F. Temple had an ambition to take a very active part in the upbuilding of Los Angeles’ growing business community as the Angel City and its environs were in the midst of the first significant and sustained period of growth that started not long before Walter emerged into the world.

A portrait of Walter P. Temple from the Tucker Studio, Covina, 1928.

Over the next several years, the trajectory of the family’s fortunes continued to rise dramatically and it was reflected in such aspects as the Workman House’s “extreme makeover,” which was completed when Walter was still an infant, while the Temples augmented their adobe house with a two-story French Second Empire brick residence. The youngster’s older brothers were being sent to colleges and universities out the area, including Santa Clara College in northern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Law School in the Temple family’s ancestral home state.

With banking, real estate, oil and a wide range of other areas of enterprise, the Workman and Temple family rode the boom at the crest of the wave, but the inevitable bust meant a wipeout of staggering and disconcerting proportions. Much of this was the headlong rush to make hay while the sun shone, but there was also a naivete at hand that was only exposed when the family bank collapsed in 1876 following an economic crash and panic and an inventory revealed poor management of the institution.

Walter was just six years old when this disaster took place and the impact on his future was stark and abrupt. William Workman, stunned at the catastrophe and facing the crumbing of his substantial empire, took his own life that May. F.P.F. Temple, who’d won election as Los Angeles County treasurer as the crash occurred and took office six months later after his bank was shuttered and he was readying to declare bankruptcy, suffered a series of strokes that led to his death in April 1880.

The young man received his early education at the La Puente School, actually located just a short distance from the Temple homestead (his father donated the land and was a founding trustee.) He and his younger brother, Charles, the last of the children in the family, later attended high school at St. Vincent’s College, a Catholic school that later became Loyola Marymount University. Walter also took courses at Woodbury Business College in Los Angeles, though it is not known if he was working toward a degree.

The Temple family in 1926 including, from left to right, Edgar, Walter Sr., Agnes, Thomas W. II, and Walter, Jr. The space in the back next to Walter was left to remember Laura, who died in 1922.

While a teen in the mid-1880s, he developed what looks to have been a clandestine love affair with a neighbor, Laura Gonzalez, who worked at the Workman Homestead for Walter’s brother, Francis, and which has been discussed in previous posts here. It is not entirely clear if they remained together in the many years that followed prior to their marriage in 1903, but it is remarkable that what started as a teenage romance culminated in their wedding when the couple were in the early thirties.

In 1892, Walter’s mother died, leaving him and Charles the 50-acre Temple Homestead, including the two houses mentioned above. They rented out the old adobe structure, used for years as the winery of Giovanni Piuma, who later became a prominent winemaker in Los Angeles. In the early 1900s, Charles, after some difficult legal issues, which will be covered in future posts here, sold his interest to his brother and moved to Arizona.

Walter and Laura resided in a frame house built near the older structures, which, unfortunately, burned during that first decade. They had five children with a daughter dying shortly after birth, leaving three sons and a daughter who grew to adulthood. Walter farmed, was a teamster, sold insurance and tried other endeavors, but a dramatic change took place in fall 1912 when he sold the Temple Homestead and bought about 60 acres just a short distance to the west on and at the base of the extreme northeast corner of the Montebello Hills.

This was land formerly owned by his father and that was lost to Elias J. Baldwin in his 1879 foreclosure on a loan made to the Temple and Workman bank. Baldwin died three years prior to the purchase, which was arranged through the estate’s executor and, more interesting, Temple could not pay outright for the land so essentially borrowed from the estate by paying for it in installments.

It has been suggested that he, or his friend Milton Kauffman, an El Monte merchant who dabbled in real estate and oil, were more than aware of the dramatic developments in petroleum prospecting in a “belt” from Los Angeles through Whittier and the Puente Hills to the Olinda field in modern Brea. Whether the acquisition of what he called “Temple Heights” was based on a hunch or not, a staggering surprise sprung when, it was averred, the eldest child in the family, Thomas W. II, who was nine years old, ran home after playing in the hills to inform his astounded father that he’d found indications of oil.

This was spring 1914 and, while another account suggested the oil was discovered when piles for a bridge were driven into the earth and seepage accumulated, it was about a year later that the Temples arranged for a lease of part of their land to Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron. A similar deal was made with Baldwin’s daughters and heirs and a test well on their tract proved successful in late 1916. In short order, Temple well #1 was drilled very close by and the next June it proved to be a successful producer, one of many in succeeding years.

With their one-eighth royalty bringing in thousands of dollars a month, the Temples were suddenly propelled to significant wealth, though Montebello proved to be a somewhat short-lived field which peaked in production within just several years and then went into a slow decline. Though Walter embarked on oil projects throughout greater Los Angeles and never achieved the levels that his Montebello wells reached, he also moved heavily into real estate, doing so when that industry was in another of the series of booms that characterized growth in the area.

Added to that was the purchase, in late November 1917, and the subsequent extensive development of the Workman Homestead over the next decade, most prominently with the building of La Casa Nueva, which took place over about five years, including after the death of Laura in late 1922 just after construction commenced. As his income declined and expenses mounted, however, Temple had to rely on the issuing of bonds, requiring regular interest payments, to continue projects that were in process. By 1928, the financial situation was becoming increasingly problematic, but, despite this, Walter continued to send his children to expensive private schools.

This leads to tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s holdings, recently acquired from the estate of the late Josette Temple, granddaughter of Walter and Laura. It is a letter, dated 1 February 1928 and on Workman Homestead letterhead, from him to his youngest children, Walter, Jr. (Josette’s father) and Edgar, who were attending Dummer Academy (yes, Dummer!) in Massachusetts, and it is interesting on several levels. One of these was Walter’s lengthy description of the death and funeral of his sister, Lucinda Zuñiga, who’d lived with her husband, Manuel, in their own home at the Homestead for several years.

He began by telling his sons, “I am writing you more fully concerning” her death, telling them that “her end came suddenly when we least expected it.” Manuel, meanwhile, was also quite ill, and was said to be “in much better health, and busy preparing a hot-bed for his tomatoe and chili plants,” though he passed away three months later. As for Lucinda’s funeral, there were “well-deserved notices” in newspapers and many of her old friends were present on what was an unusually beautiful day for January.

The service was held at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, completed several years before with Walter donating a large rose-themed stained glass window, and he said “there was a mass of flowers, and lovely music . . . under Miss Renee Didier,” whose sister, Nellie, later married Walter, Jr, while it was added that “the kindly priests did all they could to add to her honor.” The result was such that the observances “would have you feel that Aunt Lucy had certainly many friends and was highly esteemed.”

As for the pallbearers they included descendants of early Californios from the Sepulveda and Dominguez families, Joe Romero (the “Barbeque King” whose daughter was Walter’s paramour after his wife died), Temple City investor Sylvester Dupuy (whose “Pyrenees Castle” home in Alhambra has been notorious in recent years because of its association with the recently deceased music producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector), and Bernardo Rowland of the family that owned Rancho La Puente with the Workmans.

The boys were told that “we laid the remains at rest in the family Mausoleum” and Walter then turned philosophical as he ruminated that “in such a life as was hers, you may see the value of living so that people may be sorry when you have to die” and added “I know that you will be sad at such news but such is Life and we must face the future bravely and cheerfully.”

The Temples took two major summer vacations, to Mexico in 1922 and to New England four years later, with the three sons enrolled at Harvard Law School and Dummer (which is the oldest continuously operating private school in the nation, having been founded in 1763, although it has only been in recent years that the name was changed to Governor’s Academy, because his surname was thought to be an impediment to attracting students!.) Yet, there was long an intention to take another such trip abroad in summer 1928.

First, though, Walter informed his sons “I expect you to work hard in the meantime and to finish with credit to yourselves, and to Dr. Ingham [Dummer’s headmaster] and his teachers who are helping you to win and to become useful citizens.” As to the proposed destination, he added,

I have been planning a little trip to Europe, to see something of the Old World, so as to give you boys a chance to travel and profit by observation and experience in other lands.

At the moment, he could not assure them the trip would happen, but added that “the affairs of the Temple Estate Co., are being readjusted satisfactorily and unless something unforeseen turns up I see no reason why we may not make the trip.” Otherwise, he went on, he wanted his sons to travel back home “by way of Canada on the Canadian Pacific R.R.” naming such locales that the route covered as Montreal, Winnipeg, Regina, Moose Jaw, Banff and Lake Louise, and, finally, Vancouver.

From there, a short steamer trip to Seattle would be followed by a rail excursion on the Southern Pacific “straight for your home towns, Los Angeles and Puente, with a Big P.” Walter remained his sons that this was the route taken by himself, Maud Romero Bassity, and Agnes, the Temples’ only daughter, who remained at Dominican College in the Bay Area while her brothers studied in Massachusetts.

With this, Walter abruptly concluded his missive with a quick “so much for today boys,” though, given that he was a communicator by the brevity of the telegram until very recently, these more lengthy, detailed and highly personalized letters were undoubtedly a great thrill for his sons. It turned out that the European trip was scuttled as the affairs of the Temple Estate Company, which handled most of his real estate project, were not as satisfactory as hoped. Moreover, Temple City, renamed in 1928 from the original Town of Temple, was also “readjusted” with a new sales company and marketing plan, but that, too, did not improve matters there.

By summer 1929, after the four Temple children graduated from their respective schools, large properties were sold to try to pare down mounting debt, but the situation only worsened after the October crash of the stock market and the resulting onset of the Great Depression. In spring 1930, the Temples leased the Homestead to a military academy and vacated the property. Walter, Jr. and Edgar completed a sole year at the University of Santa Clara just after their father removed to Ensenada in Baja California, México to try and save on expenses.

In summer 1932, however, nothing further could be done to save the Homestead, the last of Walter’s holdings, and it was lost to a bank foreclosure. After some time in Ensenada, followed by stints at Tijuana and San Diego and ill with cancer, he returned to Los Angeles and lived in a small house behind Joe Romero’s Lincoln Heights residence, where Walter died at age 69 in November 1938. He was buried at Mission San Gabriel, after the bank which owned the Homestead refused to allow his interment in the mausoleum he completed a century ago this year in El Campo Santo at the Homestead. In 2002, however, Josette Temple arranged for his remains to be reburied at the little cemetery he extensive renovated soon after he bought the Homestead.

So on this day we commemorate Walter P. Temple’s birthday with his summary of his notable life, filled with the ups and downs that mark much of our human experience, and this letter, one of many documents recently donated from his granddaughter’s estate, helps us, as others given by the family have throughout the years, better understand this remarkable family’s history.

Leave a Reply