by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last week, as Hispanic Heritage Month began, we took a look at the mixed ethnic background of the children of Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband F.P.F. Temple, including how they navigated the two worlds of “American and European” and “Californio” societies in 19th-century greater Los Angeles and, in a few cases, beyond.
Tonight’s post continues into the next generation with their tenth (seventh living to adulthood) child, Walter Paul (1869-1938) and his wife Laura González (1871-1922,) and their four surviving (a daughter, Alvina, died as an infant) children: Thomas W. II (1905-1972), Agnes (1907-1961), Walter, Jr. (1909-1998), and Edgar (1910-1977.)
Walter and Laura grew up a short distance away from each other in the community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, situated in Whittier Narrows around the original site of the Mission San Gabriel, established there 250 years ago this month, but which was forced by flooding to relocate to higher, dryer ground by 1775.
From about the 1830s onward, settlers in the area, in or near which were former mission ranchos like La Merced, Potrero Chico, Potrero de Felipe Lugo and Potrero Grande, included Californio families with surnames like Alvitre, Valenzuela, Bermudez, Manzanares, Sanchez, Basye, Andrade, Morrillo, Vejar, and more. By the mid-1850s, sprinkled among them were a few Americans and Europeans including Massachusetts native F.P.F. Temple and Ireland-born George Barry, but the community was overwhelmingly Latino and a stark contrast to the new town of El Monte, largely populated by Americans from the Deep South.
The Temples wound up there in 1851 through the acquisition of Rancho La Merced by Antonia Margarita Workman’s father, William Workman, and, not long afterward, Feliz González, a musician born in México, married María Ramona Alvitre, whose family was among the first to live in Misión Vieja. The couple had, by 1870, nine children, and, the following year, Laura, who, like Walter, was the tenth in the family, was born.
It turned out, however, that, not that long ago, it was discovered that her mother was not Ramona Alvitre, but, rather, Francisca Valenzuela, of the other family, along with the Alvitres, granted the Rancho Potrero Chico (where the old mission site was located) in the mid-1840s. We learned this through a variety of sources compiled over several years, including Francisca’s 1916 obituary that stated she died at the home of her daughter, even as the 1910 census listed her as an aunt.
Laura was raised in the community, but was sent when old enough to Los Angeles to attend and board at the Catholic girls’ school operated by the Sisters of Charity. How well she knew Walter when they were children is not known, but, by the mid-1880s, Laura ended up living at the Workman (or, La Puente) Homestead and was employed by Walter’s much older brother, Francis, who owned the 75-acre ranch purchased from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin after his foreclosure on a loan to the Temple and Workman bank, the failure of which devastated that family. As noted in previous posts here, Laura took on the responsibility of overseeing farming and winemaking operations at the ranch when Francis, who suffered from tuberculosis, made trips to Arizona and other dry places to seek relief for his lungs.
While residing at the Workman House, Laura began a clandestine romance with Walter, partially documented by passionate letters from him to her, most in Spanish and some in English, as they sought to avoid discovery by Francis, while also getting some assistance from Nicolasa Workman, then in her mid-eighties. When Francis (whose will included bequests to Laura and Francisca Valenzuela) died in summer 1888, however, the ranch was acquired by his brother John, and Laura left, spending much of the subsequent decade in Boyle Heights, where she taught music, specifically the piano.
It is not known if Walter and Laura kept their romance going during the Nineties, during which time, in early 1892, his mother died, leaving him and younger brother Charles the 50-acre Temple Homestead, which was also bought from Baldwin. The siblings later divided the property, with Charles taking the northern portion fronting San Gabriel Boulevard where it meets Durfee Road and which included the Temple family houses, while Walter occupied the southern section, on which he built a wood-frame house used by him and Laura after they married on Thanksgiving Day 1903 and where their children were born. Shortly after that, Charles moved to Arizona and sold his interest in the Homestead to his brother.
Both Walter and Laura were Spanish speakers and they ensured that their children were, as well. As the latter began their schooling, they attended La Puente School, established by F.P.F. Temple and others in the early 1860s and which was just a short distance up Durfee Road from the Homestead (the school was renamed Temple in 1921 after Walter donated a flag pole and the campus is now the district headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while the New Temple School is in South El Monte.) While they were obviously instructed in English, they continued to speak Spanish in the home and, presumably, with the many Latinos who remained at Misión Vieja.
In fall 1912, Walter sold the Temple Homestead and acquired about 60 acres a short distance west—this land was lost by his father to Baldwin in the bank loan foreclosure and remained with the Baldwin estate (“Lucky” having died three years prior.) Temple did not have the cash to buy the parcel outright, so arranged a financing deal from Baldwin’s nephew and executor, Hiram A. Unruh.
What we don’t know is whether there was an assumption that the land, consisting of the Basye Adobe (built in 1869 and lived in for some years by Walter’s sister, Lucinda, and her second husband Manuel M. Zuñiga, who owned a store, saloon and billiard parlor in the structure) and flat land along the west bank of the Río Hondo (the older channel of the San Gabriel River, of which a new course was created in flooding during 1867-68), while the portion in the Montebello Hills was steep and not of much use aside from grazing stock, had any potential value for oil prospecting. There was, after all, from Los Angeles through Whittier and the Puente Hills to Brea and Olinda in northeastern orange county, a belt of oil fields and speculation was that the Montebello Hills area might fit within it.
Sure enough, a discovery of oil indications was made with one source suggesting it came from driving pilings for a bridge spanning the Río Hondo, while the more colorful and dramatic version was that 9 year-old Thomas W. Temple II, playing with friends on the hill portion of the family property, stumbled upon crude rising to the surface and ran home to inform of his father of his “lucky strike.” Whatever the cause, a lease was executed with Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron) in 1915 and the first well was brought in two years later.
With one-eighth royalties bringing in thousands of dollars of monthly passive income for years, the Temples were quickly transformed from a farming family of very modest means to one with a substantial small fortune virtually overnight. They moved to Monterey Park very soon after the oil wells began operating and then bought a substantial Craftsman-style house in Alhambra. The four children began to attend private boarding schools, with the boys attending military academies (all the rage because of the First World War) and Agnes going to Catholic girls’ schools. Because of the tuition involved, it is likely that the demographics of the student population of these institutions was very different than that of La Puente School.
Yet, while wealth put them into an economic and social class far removed from the modest Misión Vieja, they retained ties to their Californio heritage beyond their facility and fluency in Spanish. For example, the Temple children, along with their parents, were heavily invested in commemorating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Mission San Gabriel in summer 1921, including a pageant, in which they had costumed roles, at the mission, while their father commissioned a stone tablet, placed on the family’s oil lease (but actually across San Gabriel Boulevard from the generally accepted original site), to mark the first location of the mission.
They were also major supporters of the mission and John Steven McGroarty’s heavily romanticized Mission Play, which ran for some two decades and over 2,000 performances in theaters next to the mission. This immersion in early California history and their heritage reflecting a strong connection to it was particularly powerful and compelling to Thomas, who became passionate about the history of the region and his family. It also was reflected strongly in their development of the Workman Homestead, which their father purchased in late 1917.
Specifically, the Temples spent several weeks in México in summer 1922 and the journey inspired them to build a new house at the ranch, adjacent to the renovated and modernized Workman House. Having become acquainted with Don Pablo Urzua, a master stone mason, in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, the Temples hired him and his crew to travel over 1,500 miles to the Homestead to build La Casa Nueva.
With Walter and Laura working on rough plans with Whittier contractor Earl M. Wheatland and then rendered into working drawing by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, who mainly designed commercial structures, including ones involving Walter Temple, La Casa Nueva was quickly envisioned as a house to reflect the family’s dual heritage—American and European, on one hand, and Hispanic, on the other.
This was further developed, not long after Laura’s death at the end of 1922, when a new architect, Roy Seldon Price of Beverly Hills, was brought in to complete the house. Price, then widely known for his highly individualized and eclectic Spanish Colonial Revival mansion built for film studio head Thomas Ince, fully embraced the romantic references to Spanish and Mexican California, along with the family’s American and English background. All of this came at greater and greater financial cost, but the results were undeniably impressive.
The degrees to which the four Temple children reflected their Latino heritage varied, with Thomas being the most connected and tied to it, through his burgeoning interests in early California history and genealogy, but they all continued to maintain those links. The most visual representations of this in La Casa Nueva were stained glass windows, placed in the Living Room, of Thomas and Agnes wearing Californio costumes (charro suit, mantilla and comb, and other elements) with these taken from photographs of the siblings at a Mission San Gabriel function. Other prominent examples include a giant three-panel stained glass window in the Main Hall depicts a fictional early California scene with Spanish galleons anchored in a bay with a mission on a hill in the distance, while the eagle from the Mexican flag holds chains for pendant light fixtures in its mouth.
Family letters also make frequent references, sometimes in snippets of Spanish or with Thomas calling himself Tomasito or his sister Inezsita, to friends also descended from early Californio families, while there are Temple family photos showing them at missions, or in costume at functions held at the Homestead (most notably a fiesta for the altar society at Puente’s St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.) When Thomas sought to pour out his soul in letters addressed to his deceased mother, he did so in Spanish.
One of Thomas’ closest friends when he attended the University of Santa Clara was Luis Fatjo, a descendant of prominent Californio families from that part of the state who later married Agnes. When she attended Dominican College, then an all-girls institution north of San Francisco and likely with very few Latinos among its student body, she majored in music and earned a minor in Spanish and her senior yearbook inscription curiously stated that Agnes was “typically Spanish” and explained that this was so because of her temperament and artistic bent!
As the children attended private high schools and colleges, in which Latino were either few or non-existent, their Temple name provided them a form of identity cover, even as their darker complexions and hair and eye color clearly showed that they looked different from their peers. For example, Thomas studied at the highly prestigious Harvard Law School and it is hard to imagine that he woud have had many classmates with any Hispanic heritage. His younger brothers were almost certainly the only students at Governor Dummer Academy in northeastern Massachusetts who had Latino blood.
On Thanksgiving Day 1929, twenty-six years after her parents married and about a half-year before the Temples had to vacate the Homestead as financial problems worsened during the early stages of the Great Depression, Agnes and Luis Fatjo were wed at St. Joseph’s Church with a reception following at the Homestead and newspaper articles, including one written by J. Perry Worden (whose book on the Workman and Temple families remained unfinished), that mentioned their Californio ancestry. The couple then embarked on a long honeymoon, including a considerable time spent in Spain with Luis’ cousins, the Rocas.
It was about this time that Thomas decided that, despite all of the financial and academic investment in his law studies, he would pursue his passion for history and genealogy. He was among the first to pore extensively through early California documents, handwritten in Spanish, to trace the lines of Californio families and wrote articles in time for the 150th birthday of Los Angeles in 1931 claiming that 4 September was the city’s birthday (which it remains, though there have been challenges to that conclusion, as questions have also arisen about some of Thomas’ genealogical findings.)
By 1934, when he became engaged to Gabriela Quiroz (the couple married in November 1938, just a week or so after Walter Temple passed away), whose family was long established in the San Gabriel area, he was becoming an expert on the Mission San Gabriel and he and Gabriela began hosting a “Pioneer Reception” with each year’s September Fiesta. He was the historian for the mission and city and hosted events with his wife for nearly forty years, including the 200th anniversary of the mission shortly before his death in early 1972.
These are some, though not exhaustively so, indications of how the children of Walter P. Temple and Laura González were “children of two worlds.” They were proud of their Hispanic heritage as inculcated in them by their parents and reflected this in a number of ways, including participation in public events commemorating the pre-American past, however romantically. Thomas later took this deep connection to another level with his decades-long work in early California history and genealogy.
At the Homestead, we are always mindful of the role in history of identity, both how people see themselves and how they are seen by others. This is often a complex and highly nuanced issue and can involve contradiction, such as Walter Temple’s Temple City having race restrictions so that a brochure openly stated “only white people of a desirable class” resided in the town founded by a man with a strong Hispanic heritage, but also the last name of Temple. The goal, however, is to learn from interpretations of the past and examining the Temple family’s mixed ethnicity has a purpose.
Next week, we’ll continue with the analysis of this specifically through the many fascinating symbols and references to heritage in La Casa Nueva, so please be sure to check back then.