Behind the Scenes Postview: Documenting the Building of La Casa Nueva, 1922-1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon’s Behind the Scenes presentation of the evolution of La Casa Nueva was, in terms of visual documentation, a reversal from its predecessor concerning the Workman House, given early this year. Because of the age of the la casa vieja (the old house,) we have very few photos of the Workman House prior to 1900, with one of those acquired just a couple of months ago. So, we relied heavily on images from much further along in the 20th century.

In this case, however, not only was La Casa Nueva built during much of the 1920s when personal cameras were abundant, but the Temple family had its own resident shutterbug in eldest child Thomas W. Temple II. Throughout the five-year construction period and beyond, Thomas was a regular and reliable photo documentarian of the house and, to a certain extent, much of the rest of the Homestead. He is also the source of images of family trips and activities of all sorts, adding to the value provided for us now.

An early photo of the construction of the south end of the west wing of La Casa Nueva.

We have to also thank the family of Harry and Lois Brown, owners of El Encanto Sanitarium, however, for their preservation of many of these images, as well as the blueprints that still are with us. That is because, when the Temples left the Homestead in spring 1930 after leasing it to the Golden State Military Academy, which moved from Redondo Beach to take occupancy and then after losing the ranch two years later to foreclosure by California Bank, the family did not return to claim these items.

The photos and blueprints were squirreled away in the attic above the distinctive Tepee, completed just after La Casa Nueva was finished, and they remained there until the Brown purchased the ranch in fall 1940. As it was, there was pest damage to some of the blueprints, but the Browns’ rescue of these material and the later donation of them, along with photos they took during the early years of their ownership of the property, to the Homestead upon its restoration in the late 1970s and early 1980s, not only preserved them for posterity, but were crucial in our later understanding of the house’s evolution.

At tjhe opposite end, at the northeast corner, of the house is a shot of the building in a more advanced stage.

Thomas’ photography of the building of La Casa Nueva also mainly took place while he was away for most of the year at school. While he attended the California Institute of Technology for the fall semester of 1922, his first term in college, he decided, after the death of his mother at the end of that year, to return to the University of Santa Clara, where he’d graduated from the preparatory high school.

So, from early 1923 to spring 1926, he spent most of his time in northern California, returning for summers and some holidays, especially Christmas. Once he earned his bachelor’s degree from Santa Clara, he and his younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar was sent to Massachusetts, the Temple family’s ancestral home state, to further their educations (daughter Agnes, slated to go with them, decided to remain at Dominican College in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, and was, thereby, home more often during the year).

The east side of the house taken from the second floor sun deck on the west side. Note the Water Tower and part of the 1860s winery building converted by the Temples into an auditorium in the background.

Working diligently in the rigorous three-year program at the renowned Harvard Law School, upon which he was, after earning his degree, he was likely expected to represent his father in business, Thomas, of course, looked forward eagerly to returning home. Obviously paramount was reuniting with his father and sister, but he, like his siblings, also was excited to see the progress at what they joked was their “mud palace” or “adobe bungalow” and to further record the advancements with his trusty camera.

It is fortunate that, from time to time, he took images on a broad scale, showing large section or, when possible, the entirety of, what was about a 9,000 square-foot structure, as well as details. We also can be glad that he sometimes captured workers, specifically the crew of Don Pablo Urzua, the maestro de obra, or master stone mason, hired by the Temples when they came across his work in Guadalajara, the major city in southwest México, during their summer vacation there in 1922.

Looking through the entrance gate at the southeast corner of La Casa Nueva with the east side of the Mission Walkway in construction.

Thomas took a few dozen photos of the construction site of the usually massive adobe bricks required for the house’s thick walls, including the large pits, adobe kilns (ovens) used to fire the freshly-made bricks, and some of Urzua’s crew. All too often, laborers, many of which were Latinos and often not given due credit for their work (architect Roy Seldon Price gloated in a rare article about the La Casa Nueva project that he was able to secure “cheap Mexican labor”) are left out of photographs, so it is great to have at least a few showing these men doing their critical work.

There were also instances in which he took images of his father, who was only very infrequently photographed, at the construction site, or of his siblings, so these are also great to have, even if the vast majority of the views are of the house with no one in sight. Once in a great while, there is even a photo of Thomas alone or with others at the site, so it may be that he got his sister or one of his brothers to snap these pictures.

La Casa Nueva from the Water Tower with a very rural Puente Valley in the background.

It was pointed out and, to an extent, demonstrated in the presentation, that only a few indoor photos were taken. It is not known exactly why this is, though it is probable that a major factor was that personal cameras, like, say, the Kodak Brownie box version, were not particularly well suited to indoor use. Whatever the reason, we find just a handful out of many dozens of surviving images of the inside of La Casa Nueva and only a very few showing furnishings, most prominently, of the Library.

Some of the photos are instructive in showing the rough adobe walls, composed of courses of larger bricks, while smaller ones were used, with a different kind of mortar, for arches. Once these were completed, a rough coat of adobe plaster was applied, followed later by a finish coat of whitewashed plaster, which was then troweled to give it a distinctive textured finish. Only a couple of photos show that some of the interior walls were wood frame as opposed to the thick adobe walls of which most of the house was comprised.

The courtyard of the home nearing completion while landscaping is being worked on in the foreground. Note the solar panels on the main roof and the open eastern sundeck.

It is also interesting to see the transition of the roof from the installation of plywood sheeting preparatory to the red tiles that were a hallmark of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. On the south face of the roof, a modern touch was the installation of solar panels (these were also added to the Workman House) used to heat water, stored in redwood tanks still in the attic today, for the second-floor bathrooms. Tile was also used for the angled roofs of the porticos in the courtyard and the shelves between pillars on the open sun-decks over the wings flanking the courtyard.

Of special interest was the landscaping in that space, including the laying of flagstone walks, also done at the front and east side of the building, the planting of bushes and shrubs including some in the highly distinctive adobe planters installed around the house, and, most especially, the dramatic fountain. This had two millstones, one larger and the other smaller, as centerpieces with these dug up in 1924 on a nearby ranch owned by a member of the Rowland family, purchased by Walter Temple, and left leaning against some pillars by the Water Tower until the construction of the fountain.

Looking at the Courtyard, the southern section of the Mission Walkway and taking in part of an old adobe structure that contained the laundry from a viewpoint on the main roof of the house.

While the house was finished by late 1927, the late addition of the Tepee, a structure modeled after one in which Walter Temple stayed at Soboba Hot Springs on the Soboba Indian Reservation in Hemet and which was his home office/den, continued on for a bit longer. It, too, was manufactured from adobe bricks and these had to be specially sized to account for the tapering of the walls from the bottom to the top, or at least toward the peak.

That’s because the upper portion was actually completed using red bricks salvaged from the Temple Block, a series of four structures built by Walter’s father F.P.F. and uncle Jonathan between 1857 and 1871. When these were razed for the building of Los Angeles City Hall, the newest of those structures was still standing when Walter found an intermediary, attorney Will D. Gould, whose office was in that building from its opening to its demolition, some 55 years, to help him salvage the bricks for use at the Tepee.

A notable landscaping element is the pergola built off the Music Room at the northwest corner of the house and which was later removed.  The cypress tree at left, however, is still standing.

Gould also assisted Temple is acquiring the vault door from the former Temple and Workman bank quarters, though it was much later learned the door was not from that bank, but the succeeding Los Angeles County Bank, which opened in 1878. Still, not only is it a great old piece of equipment, it had a gorgeous landscape scene on it and other stylistic design elements that were fully restored in the late 1970s/early 1980s work carried out on the house by the City of Industry.

These unusual elements, along with many customized features of the house representative of family and local and California history in stained glass, tile, and carved wood, help make La Casa Nueva a truly distinctive building and one that makes for a particularly apt laboratory for understanding our regional history. Steeped deeply in this, it is not surprise that Thomas, “bitten by the genealogy bug” and never enthusiastic about a legal career, became the historian of the Mission San Gabriel and the city in which it is located.

Interior photos of La Casa Nueva from the Twenties are pretty rare, but here is one of the amazing front door with its custom handle and lock set, which was advertised in magazines by its manufacturer. Check out the vase in the window seat at the left.

Fortunately, thanks to the interest and care of the owners of the military school, Major Lawrence V. Lewis and his sister Evelyn Horton; Harry and Lois Brown and their sons, owners of El Encanto; and, especially, the City of Industry, which has invested heavily in the restoration and operation of the Homestead for many years, this amazing structure is still with us.

It is available to see on guided tours Fridays through Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m., excepting the fourth Friday through Sunday of each month and, if you missed today’s program, it has just been uploaded, along with other presentations and the museum’s introductory video, on the Homestead’s YouTube channel.

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