Paying Homage to Hispanic Heritage by the Temple Family with the Design and Construction of La Casa Nueva, 1922-1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We continue with our Hispanic Heritage Month posts by following ones the last couple of weeks looking at the mixed ethnic heritage of two generations of the Temple family, including the children of Antonia Margarita Workman, herself of English and Latino (and, likely, native American) ancestry, and her Yankee husband, F.P.F. Temple, and then the offspring of their son, Walter, and his wife, Laura González, with one that explores an architectural expression of their background.

What was discussed in these posts was that these members of the Temple family were members of two worlds, definitely maintaining many cultural practices and attributes of their Hispanic heritage, while also part of the American and European society that became more dominant locally as they grew up from the 1850s through the 1920s.

The rear of La Casa Nueva including a spacious courtyard with a fountain and long porticos along the wings. The planter in the foreground is a reproduction, one of many originally made of round adobe bricks (these are cast concrete) like those used for columns.

It is interesting, then, to take a somewhat detailed look at La Casa Nueva, the mostly adobe house that Walter and Laura began designing together, with measured drawings completed by Los Angeles architects Walker and Eisen, after the family returned from a trio to México in summer 1922 and which was just getting started in construction when she died of colon cancer at the end of that year. The project halted, as the family mourned and, apparently, even considered whether to continue.

Once construction resumed and architect Roy Seldon Price then hired to complete the project, the slow and expensive progress (the Temples joked that Price’s invoices matched his surname) did finally, by late 1927, yield a truly remarkable residence, loaded with amazing decorative work and imbued with many references to the family and their mixed ethnic background. This highly personalized and stylized approach really does make this Spanish Colonial Revival house a standout in a region filled to the gills with structures of that very popular style.

A detail of elaborate carved and painted plaster work surrounding the front door and showing the Spanish royal coat-of-arms.

We are apt, for very good reason, to laud La Casa Nueva as an exemplar of fine architectural crafts in carved wood, tooled plaster, stained and painted glass, wrought and cast iron, and hand-rendered Mexican and machine-stamped American file, but it is also important to point out just how much effort the Temples and their imaginative architect put into making sure that the family was richly represented in the ornamentation of this stunning structure.

Such decorative elements to family and regional history abound, including as a visitor came in formally through the front door, with its Temple family crest prominently displayed atop a second-fllor balcony grille, though on the plaster surround below that is the Spanish royal coat-of-arms showing castles and lions (for the royal houses of Castile y Léon.) This was also the case, though, when a guest came through the rear entrance by a walkway leading up from near where the Homestead’s garages once stood (adjacent to today’s Homestead Gallery building) and where tribute was paid to “pioneer” William Workman and through a Mission Walkway with the names and founding dates of the twenty-one California missions (and the Pala submission) and tile panels including the Spanish coat-of-arms.

The centerpiece of the Main Hall is this outstanding stained and painted glass triptych window showing a romanticized and fictionalized scene of the arrival of Spanish galleons to a bay with a priest blessing the arrival of supplies and goods to a grateful (and colorful) populace.

This only becomes more obvious when entering the Main Hall, from either entrance, and taking in all of the spectacular details employed in the room (clearly, the intent was to impress and this succeeded in spades!) After, coming in from the front, getting past the attention-grabbing front door, its glassed screen and the phenomenal carved plaster surround, it often takes visitors a but of time to take in what is around them.

Most dominant, once it is seen, is the incredible triptych window in stained and painted glass, the true centerpiece of the hall, of a heavily romanticized early California scene. Spanish galleons, evidently from different eras (and not likely to have sailed together) are anchored in a bay with hordes of people, dressed in very colorful clothing (because of the glass not necessarily because that was found at the time), waiting for the unloading of goods and supplies, while a priest raises his hand in a blesing. The presence of a mission atop a hill overlooking the bay is somewhat suggestive of San Francisco, though there is not likely an actual place being depicted.

A carved plaster over wood eagle from the Mexican flag holding the chain from a pendant lamp in its mouth.  Note the cactus leaves on which the majestic bird stands.

Less conspicuous, but very noteworthy, are plaster and wood carvings in the hall. Flanking a large painting of William Workman and holding chains for two pendant lights in their mouths are a pair of eagles like those on the Mexican flag, but instead of snakes held in the mouth, it is the chains, while the majestic birds stand on cactus leaves, as depicted on the flag. Among the several oversized corbels or brackets under the walk that wraps around the space at the second floor level are mythical griffins with lion heads—these were said to be the guardians of Queen Calafía, the ruler of the island of California, as noted in a fictional tale written in Spain in 1510. On adjacent solid wood doors leading into the adjoining rooms, there are many carvings of historical reference, including the Spanish royal coat-of-arms seen over the front door.

One of these rooms is the Library, with beautiful built-in bookcases, also ornamented with hand carving. A door to the courtyard features a quartet of famous authors, including Milton, Shakespeakere, Longfellow and Miguel Cervantes. This latter was the writer of the famous novel, Don Quixote, the full title being The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, published in 1605, a parody of the seemingly interminable romances of chivalry and which purportedly was Walter Temple’s favorite book. In two sets of double windows on the west side of the room are scenes from the famous work, including of the delusional hero meeting a princess and of his retainer, Sancho Panza, on his noble steed (a donkey).

A gorgeous representation of Don Quixote, the deluded hero of Miguel Cervantes’ classic early 17th century novel (Walter Temple’s favorite book, it is said) in the Library.

Another of the main rooms entered off the Main Hall is the Living Room, which, as with the adjoining Dining Room, has wonderful wood carvings on the ends of the exposed beams running from north to south. These were made by Juan Burgos, said to have wandered down to the construction site from Valley Boulevard to inquire if his services were wanted. It is unclear if Burgos decided who the likenesses were that he depicted, but some look like they could be indigenous Americans and conquistadors.

Flanking a set of doors leading from the east side of the room are a pair of arched windows with stained and painted glass windows showing the eldest of the Temple children, Thomas and Agnes, wearing Mexican costumes, including a charro suit and sombrero for the former, and a beautiful white dress, colorful shawl, and a mantilla for the latter. These were actually taken from photographs of the siblings as they took place in one of the fiestas commemorating, each early September, the founding of the Mission San Gabriel.

A stunning tile panel in the Breakfast Room by artist Pedro Sánchez of Puebla, México, a major tile making center.

In an expansive house boasting a treasury of remarkable Mexican and American tile, there is a trio of fabulous panels created in Puebla, a major tile making center of México, by artist Pedro Sánchez, whose work can be found in several places in greater Los Angeles. The Dining Room contains a fine example of a stylized potted plant, while the adjacent Breakfast Room features one with a profusion of color with a peacock eating fruit.

In Thomas’ Bedroom, at the northwest corner of the second floor, there is a Virgin Mary and child with a Twenties twist, as she sports bobbed hair and makeup. Also of note in the Dining Room are doors leading to the Breakfast Room and Kitchen with leather panels on which are affixed iron pieces looking like flattened spurs.

One of the many religious representations found in the second floor bedrooms of the three Temple sons (daughter Agnes, however, had wisteria and roses—her brother, Walter, Jr., used to joke that the boys needed the religious instruction more than she.)

Also of note in the upstairs bedrooms are stained and painted glass windows in the children’s bedrooms of religious figures, including Christ, the Virgin Mary, Joseph and many others. Over a door leading to the Master Bedroom, which went unused (Walter Temple slept in a room intended for a live-in cook behind the Kitchen) is the Mexican eagle, with snake in his mouth, carved in plaster.

Then, in this room, are perhaps the most impresive decorative elements of the second floor, comprised of French doors with amazing stained and painted glass work. The north set highlights the Mexican era and features a wagon train, purporting to represent the arrival of the Workman family in 1841, although they used mules, not wagons. On the east side are doors that show the Temple family’s oil wells (how often do we see oil derricks in stained glass?) and surrounded by symbols of where they’d lived, including emblems related to England and the state seals of Massachusetts and California.

The Temples, as most people, were proud of their heritage and La Casa Nueva was a sort of canvas on which they could, through the art of architectural crafts and decoration, express their appreciation for their ancestry from New England, Great Britain, México, and Spain. Some of this was romanticized (an aspect we’ll explore in next week’s Hispanic Heritage Month post about their commemoration of their Latino background through events at the Homestead and elsewhere), but also sincere.

Yet, there was a two worlds element to the design and construction of the house in juxtaposition with the outside world. Namely, the Temples could find expressions for the appreciation of their mixed ethnicity at this incredible house, yet, when Walter Temple, in spring 1923, established the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928), the community had the type of race restrictions that were nearly universal in greater Los Angeles at the time.

A carving of what looks like a Spanish conquistador on a beam end in the Living Room, rendered by Juan Burgos, who supposedly walked in off the street and asked for work.

In fact, a brochure for the community from the late Twenties stated, bluntly, that “only white people of a desirable class live here.” Let unexplored was who would constitute Anglos of an “undesriable class,” but there was clearly a contradiction between what the family celebrated at home and what was done in the public world.

Of course, last week’s post pointed out that, in her senior year yearbook from Dominican College for 1929, Agnes was described as “typically Spanish,” rather than “Mexican,” though the “typically” part was notable for the discussion of her temperament (i.e., sensitive/emotional/hot-blooded)! Meanwhile, her brother Thomas became increasingly more passionate about the history and genealogy of Spanish and Mexican California and turned that into his lifelong avocation, forsaking the law, for which he was educated.

A panel of a door between the Dining and Breakfast rooms with a leather back and iron pieces supposed to represent spurs.

With the centennial of the building of La Casa Nueva beginning next year and based on an idea generated by my colleague Gennie Truelock with development by a team of our talented staff, including Jennifer Scerra, with her design skills, and Michelle Muro, who’ll employ her abilities with selecting and displaying artifacts, we are now in the early stages of planning an exhibit for the Homestead Gallery that will examine La Casa Nueva’s development over its five-year construction period from 1922-1927. Stay tuned for more on that as the project moves toward fruition by early next year.

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