Behind the Scenes Preview: The Evolution of La Casa Nueva, 1922-1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tomorrow afternoon, our second (and final) virtual Behind the Scenes program, following one earlier this year about the Workman House, looks at the evolution of La Casa Nueva, the remarkable Spanish Colonial Revival mansion built by the Temple family between 1922 and 1927. To, hopefully, whet your appetite for this in-depth look at the house, in a way that can’t be done through a tour, this post gives a general overview of the building, including what the family intended and what turned out to be very different in reality.

First, when the Temples bought the 75-acre Workman Homestead at the end of November 1917, they were just several months removed from a startling change in their fortunes, thanks to oil being found on their Montebello-area ranch, denoted Temple Heights, by the eldest of the four surviving children in the family, Thomas, who was just nine years old when he made his amazing disocvery.

The Homestead, however, was leased to a Japanese farmer (the Japanese were not allowed to own land in California because of a 1913 law) only known to us as “K. Yatsuda.” Because the agreement continued for another thirteen months, the Temples were not allowed to actually occupy the property until the first day of 1919. This is why a brass plaque installed at the site with the name “Walter P. Temple” also has the year “1919” on it.

The Temple family, in a portrait by George Steckel, October 1919.

Among the priorities for the family in developing the Homestead was the remodeling and modernization of the Workman House, the early 1840s adobe dwelling with corner wings and a second floor of red brick added roughly thirty years later; and what was essentially the reestablishment of El Campo Santo Cemetery, which dated to the 1850s, but was very nearly destroyed in the early years of the 20th century through the desecration of owner Lafayette F. Lewis.

Beyond these major projects, the Temples renovated a trio of brick winery buildings, erected in the mid-1860s by the Workmans, and which were refashioned into a nine-car garage, a cafeteria that could accommodate 150 persons, and an auditorium with pool and ping pong tables, a stage, and a motion picture camera platform. A large reservoir, doubling as a swimming pool, with grandstands, dressing rooms, a slide and a diving board, and a tennis court allowing for the playing of handball and basketball, were built to the east of the Workman House.

There were other elements to the work carried out between 1919 and 1922, but what was not in the cards was a second house. The Temples lived full-time in Alhambra, where Walter was making major investments in real estate work, along with projects in Los Angeles and San Gabriel, and used the ranch for weekend and holiday visits. The idea of relocating permanently to the Homestead does not seem to have arisen until 1922.

The swimming pool/reservoir and Workman House in 1921 before any plan was developed for La Casa Nueva.

Moreover, that summer the Temples took a three-week vacation in México. Walter had been there for an extended trip in the mid-1890s and he and his wife, Laura González, believed their children would benefit from a visit to a country in which they had major ancestral ties. What also transpired, however, was that the family was greatly inspired while in that nation to build a new house (unsurprisingly called La Casa Nueva) that reflected a fascinating array of personal and broader historical references in its design and decor.

Not only that, but, while traveling in the major city of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, the Temples became acquainted with Pablo Urzua, a maestro de obra, or master brick mason, so, as they formulated their plans for the house, they decided to hire Urzua and his crew to build adobe bricks from the soil around the building site at the Homestead. Rather than dry the bricks in the sun, as done traditionally, however, Urzua and his men baked them in large adobe kilns, with kindling from the branches of walnut trees planted at the ranch.

As for the design, Walter and Laura worked with Sylvester J. Cook, a contractor from Whittier who built the Neoclassical mausoleum, called the “Walter P. Temple Memorial,” built in El Campo Santo Cemetery where the St. Nicholas’ Chapel stood until it was razed by Lewis some two decades prior. Drawings were made, some of which have survived and will be shown in tomorrow’s presentation, showing that the style was more akin to the Mission Revival that had been popular for many years.

The Temple family while on their trip to México, summer 1922.

Yet, by the time construction started in the last half of 1922, a demonstrative change was made with the hiring of Albert Walker and Percy Eisen, prominent Los Angeles architects who were widely known for their commercial buildings, mostly Renaissance Revival, in the quickly expanding downtown. Walker and Eisen were also hired by Walter to design his commercial building projects, but their renderings of La Casa Nueva definitely moved to the Spanish Colonial Revival style that was quickly becoming ubiquitous in greater Los Angeles. Again, some of the surviving drawings will be shared tomorrow, though there were changes made from those, both during their time and in the next stage.

This stage resulted soon after the death of Laura González Temple at the end of 1922, upon which work stopped as her widow and children grieved and then pondered what to do with the structure, only partially underway just months into the project. It appears that the eldest children, Thomas, then 18, and Agnes, who was 16, became aware of the Beverly Hills architect Roy Seldon Price and his magnificent Dias Doradas house, built for film studio head Thomas Ince, and which attracted some major media attention.

Even though La Casa Nueva was dedicated at the end of 1923, on the first anniversary of Laura’s death, with a plaque installed next to the front door and stating that the architects were Walker and Eisen, Price really should be credited with the vision of what the stunning structure became. For one thing, the entrance would have been rather plain, but Price came up with a beautiful carved plaster surround that not only necessitated moving the plaque to a corner (this location could have been planned in that people were less likely to believe the finished product was from Walker and Eisen!), but completely transformed this vital part of the house.

The dedication of La Casa Nueva in the memory of Laura González Temple, 28 December 1923.  Note the plaque to the right of the front door, but soon moved to a corner, as seen in the modern photo below.

Inside, the stairs in the Main Hall were built up the center and then branched off to the two sides (an earlier iteration called for two sets on either side of the hall) and a bridge was constructed to link these sides. Price, however, successfully argued that the stairs needed to be placed on side and the bridge taken out to open up the hall, give more attention to what became a stunning three-part stained glass window showing Spanish galleons arriving at a California port (likely San Francisco), allow for a view through the rear door to the gardens and fountain in the courtyard and leave room for an impressive wrought-iron chandelier. This, too, was transformative.

In that courtyard, two projecting wings, containing the kitchen, servants’ quarters, a guestroom, a barbershop and other spaces, were single-story, and the idea was to simply paper the roofs, but Price’s persistance proved persuasive as he came up with sundecks of about 1,000 square feet each that had rough wood beams spanning pillars and colorful Mexican tiled floors. Again, this was a masterful stroke in beautifying and making use of what otherwise would have been wasted space.

All of these inventive and brilliant ideas (and there were more), however, came at a cost and it quickly became a running joke with the Temples to note that the architect’s invoices closely aligned with his surname. Moreover, these major changes meant lengthy delays and Walter’s deeper involvement in real estate projects, which included the development of the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928, also meant enormous outlays of funds at the Homestead and elsewhere.

The Temples, with space left next to Walter, Sr. in memory of Laura, 1926.

Meanwhile, at Montebello, production of crude at the Temple lease, after several years of remarkable levels, tailed off considerably as the Twenties wore on. While Walter invested heavily in petroleum prospecting at Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Ventura, Mexico, Texas and Alaska, he was not able to replicate the success found by Standard Oil of California, now Chevron, at Montebello. Basically, expenses grew while income dropped and that certainly was a worrying prospect if it was not reversed.

In spring 1926, it was decided to take out bonds to raise capital for the Town of Temple and for those real estate projects outside of it, basically in Alhambra by that date. While the fresh infusion of cash was obviously critical, the long-term issue was the interest that had to be paid and, unless there was a dramatic reversal of fortune with oil drilling and the rent of space in his commercial buildings, the specter of further financial problems would loom larger in time.

How much diminishing income, in the face of rising expenditures, further pushed back the completion of La Casa Nueva is not known, but the structure was not completed until late 1927, a full half-decade after construction commenced. Even then, there was the building of a detached “home office/retreat” called “the Tepee” and modeled after a cottage Walter used at Soboba Hot Springs, a resort on the Soboba Indian Reservation near Hemet, as well as the installation of landscaping that continued on into 1928.

Agnes and Thomas Temple next to the Water Tower at the Homestead, late 1920s.

Walter appears to have moved into the eastern wing, behind the kitchen, of the house (after having his own “suite” in the late 19th century water tower south of the Workman House) while the building was still under construction, but he and his family only occupied a fully-finished La Casa Nueva for a couple of years. Even then, for all of 1928 and half of 1929, his four children were, as they had been since 1917, away from home most of the year while attending a variety of boarding schools.

The children did graduate from their respective schools in June 1929 and there was a brief reunion that summer. The younger sons, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, though, were sent north to the University of Santa Clara, where their older brother Thomas went from 1918 to 1926 to attend the preparatory high school and then did his undergraduate work.

Only daughter Agnes, engaged in springof that year to Luis P. Fatjo, a former Santa Clara classmate of Thomas and half-owner of a large ranch south of Santa Clara, married him on Thanksgiving Day at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where their father donated a 9-foot diameter stained glass window upon its completion in 1924, followed by a reception at the Homestead. The couple then embarked on a honeymoon in Europe that included a lengthy stay with Luis’ relatives in Spain before settling in a large home in an exclusive section of San Francisco.

Agnes Temple and future husband Luis P. Fatjo at the front door of La Casa Nueva, ca. 1926.  Note the plaster surround, the idea of architect Roy Seldon Price, which necessitated the move of the dedication plaque to a corner of the building (see below.)

As for Thomas, as noted in yesterday’s post, while he completed the rigorous program at the prestigious Harvard Law School and was likely expected to provide his father legal counsel in business, he was never enthusiastic about being an attorney. Despite a standing offer from his father’s lawyer and business partner, George H. Woodruff, to join his firm after passing the bar exam, Thomas hesitated, even as he considered an offer to work in a bank in northern California, thanks to Santa Clara connections. As he often put it, he was “bitten by the genealogy bug” and, one could add, “caught history fever.”

While Thomas pondered his future, a decision was being made for him and the rest of his family once the Great Depression burst forth that fall. Walter’s financial situation was already deteriorating rapidly and a last-gasp effort to save the Homestead, as other properties and interests, including in Temple City, were sold, was to lease it, in spring 1930, to a boys’ military academy, which moved from Redondo Beach.

Walter engaged in a form of self-exile by moving to Ensenada, Baja California, México, where he could live more cheaply. Walter, Jr. and Edgar completed one year at Santa Clara and then had to end their educations. Thomas, moving in to a historic adobe house just south of Mission San Gabriel owned by his mother’s sister, Luz Vigare, found himself in his element and went on to devote his time and energy to genealogical and historical research and writing.

La Casa Nueva as it is today (literally today!) The 1923 dedication plaque is at the corner of the building under the balcony.

While it was really only a home for a couple of years, La Casa Nueva did provide ideal for institutional purposes, both for the military school (known as Golden State and then Raenford) through the mid-Thirties and then, from 1940 to about 1970, as part of El Encanto Sanitarium, which moved to a site adjacent to the house to the north and remains there today. Thanks to the foresight and investment of the City of Industry, the house was fully restored and opened to the public forty years ago last month.

With the pandemic restrictions lifted recently, visitors are able again to tour the house Fridays through Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. (Workman House tours are offered at Noon and 2 p.m.) In fact, why not join us tomorrow for the Behind the Scenes presentation and then come out and see us for an in-person tour after that? You’ll get as complete a history of this amazing house as has ever been available, that’s for sure!

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