Celebrating Hispanic/Latino/Spanish Heritage by the Temple Family During the 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, there has been a good deal of discussion about whether it needs a name change and, while this is something that should definitely be investigated, our focus with this last post for the commemoration is more about how the Temple family celebrated their heritage because there was no shortage of romanticizing what was often called the “Spanish” past of California.

Walter P. Temple (1869-1938) was the tenth of eleven children (and seventh of eight who lived to adulthood) of Antonia Margarita Workman, whose father William was from England and whose mother Nicolasa Urioste hailed from Taos, New Mexico, and F.P.F. Temple, a native of Reading, Massachusetts whose family arrived to that colony in the 1630s from England. Like the rest of his siblings, Walter was steeped deeply in the traditions of both sides of his family and he and his wife, Laura González, instilled this dual heritage in their four surviving children (a fifth, daughter Alvina, died soon after birth), Thomas W. II, Agnes, Walter, Jr. and Edgar.

Los Angeles Times, 29 July 1921

As for the family as a whole, they, in the design and decoration of their La Casa Nueva, built between 1922 and 1927 next to the Workman House at the Homestead, indulged freely in celebrations of their ancestry from England, New England, Spain and México throughout the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural masterpiece. Again, much of this was done in a very romantic fashion, with, for example, the centerpiece stained and painted glass window in the Main Hall showing a trio of Spanish galleons (from different eras) anchored in a bay with a mission on a hill overlooking the scene, while residents gather to celebrate the arrival of supplies and a priest offers a blessing.

There were other ways in which the Temples celebrated their Latino heritage during the 1920s, while doing so in ways that provided a smother sheen to history than what actually transpired, though they were, of course, hardly alone in doing this. An early example came with the commemoration in summer 1921 of the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the founding of the Mission San Gabriel.

Thomas and Agnes Temple in costume, perhaps for the 1921 celebrations.

On Sunday, 31 July, reported the Los Angeles Times, Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Cantwell presided over a “pontifical high mass,” meaning a religious observance conducted by a bishop, followed by the unveiling of a statue of Junípero Serra, who established many of the California Missions, with “a little Indian boy” doing the reveal—the prevailing view was that Serra and the Franciscan missionaries were doing God’s work to save the souls of the benighted native people and this stance has increasingly been questioned and disputed even as Serra was canonized six years ago.

A barbeque was offered after the services and then, at 3 p.m., in an open area near the theater where the Mission Play, a passion play performed since 1912 and penned by John Steven McGroarty and which lionized the missionaries, was offered, a pageant, written by Lillian Burkhart Goldsmith, a vaudeville comedic star and prominent clubwoman and property owner in Los Angeles, was presented. As explained by the Times,

The pageant will show the coming of the two padres [Pedro Cambón and Angel Somera, sent by Serra in his stead] from San Diego to found the mission, the conquest of the redskins, [and] Spanish soldiers and caballeros mounted and in gorgeous costume. Most picturesque is the Spanish wedding of the period ten years after the founding of the mission. This will be followed by the departure of the bride and bridegroom on horseback. Soldiers starting out to found the city of Los Angeles, to which none wanted to go, so that it was necessary to draft our first citizens, will be shown.

Adding that accuracy was assured with the staging and costumes, with much of the latter comprised of “heirlooms in the families of the descendants of some of our earliest Spanish settlers,” the paper noted that “grandchildren of those same pioneers are among those in the cast.” Carroll Nye, who was a “dramatic interpreter at the University of California” and not quite 20 years old, handled the recitation of a prologue and then played one of the early governors of Spanish California. Nye, a few years later, went into acting and scored some leading roles after 1925 before becoming a character actor, with his best known role that of Scarlett O’Hara’s second husband in Gone With The Wind (1939.)

Times,1 August 1921.

More about the pageant can be found in an earlier post in this blog, but it should be noted that Laura González Temple and her eldest children, Thomas and Agnes, played parts in the performance, as did Elmer Potter, who later went to work for the Temple Estate Company. The same day, a plaque commissioned by Walter P. Temple was dedicated to mark the original site of the Mission San Gabriel at the southwest corner of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue in the northeast corner of Montebello.

The actual location of the institution, which moved to its current site in 1775, was actually to the north across San Gabriel Boulevard and on the west bank of the Río Hondo, the older chanel of the San Gabriel River, but the spot where the monument was installed happened to be owned by Temple, whose oil lease on about 60 acres in the hills behind the marker, as well as the flat lands leading to the Río Hondo, was the surprising source of his wealth from oil extracted by Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron.

The 1921 marker at the Temple oil lease at Montebello marking (incorrectly—it was across the street to the north) the original site of the Mission San Gabriel, established in September 1771.

That money also paid for the granite stone, which still stands at that corner—a monument at that locale which was dedicated in 1919 and honoring Joseph Kauffman, whose brother Milton was Temple’s business manager and who was killed in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, was moved a little more than a decade later to Temple City Park, where it remains today. Once more, this was a prominent way to praise the missionaries, while the indigenous people of our area were simply not part of the narrative.

With regard to the Mission Play, Walter P. Temple was an avid supporter and, when McGroarty sought to build a much larger and more impressive theater for the performance, Kauffman joined the board of directors to oversee the fundraising and the building of the Mission Playhouse. Even though Temple recently took out bonds to complete building projects for his Temple Estate Company (which handled his various real estate holdings outside of Temple City) and Temple Townsite Company (developer of that town), he decided in early July 1926 to take out a substantial amount of stock in the theater project.

Thomas Temple and Viola Rowland, ca. mid-1920s.

The Independence Day edition of the Times noted that “Walter P. Temple, wealthy oil man and pioneer of the San Gabriel Valley, has subscribed for $15,000 worth of stock in the Mission Play Corporation.” This comprised about two-thirds of the amount raised to date in the valley, though there was a separate amount sold in Los Angeles. The paper quoted Temple as saying,

It’s the biggest thing we’ve got out here and we should give it first consideration, both as a business investment and as a community enterprise. They can build fine structures and boulevards anywhere but there can be only one Mission Playhouse filled with California traditions.

A week later, the paper thought it worthwhile to add that “Walter P. Temple of San Gabriel, who has just subscribed $15,000 toward the establishment of John McGroarty’s Mission Play and is now described as a ‘millionaire oil man,’ had to buy the land that made his fortune ‘on time.'” It is true that Temple, when he sold his family’s 50-acre Homestead in fall 1912, acquired 60 acres to the west and formerly owned by his father before it was lost in 1879 to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin by foreclosure on a loan he made to the stricken Temple and Workman bank.

Times, 4 July 1926.

Moreover, he did arrange with Baldwin’s nephew and executor (Baldwin died in 1909), Hiram J. Unruh, to pay for the property in installments and, in spring 1914, oil was found on the property by a 9-year old Thomas W. Temple II. A lease executed with Standard Oil the following year yielded fruit in summer 1917 when the first well was brought in that created the family’s fortune.

Incidentally, another $15,000 stock subscriber was the very wealthy capitalist Henry E. Huntington, whose San Marino estate, now the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens, was not far from the mission. The Playhouse was completed in 1927 and, although the Mission Play only survived for another few years, the structure, long called the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, recently resumed its original name and remains a performing arts venue owned by the city.

A negative of the Mission Playhouse at San Gabriel, completed in 1927 for the presentation of the very paternalistic Mission Play, which was avidly supported by Walter P. Temple, subscriber of $15,000 in stock for the venue’s construction.

As for the Workman Homestead, which Temple owned from 1917 to 1932, La Casa Nueva wasn’t just a monument to the Workman and Temple families and regional history, but it was sometimes a venue for romantic celebrations of the Latino heritage of the Temples. One such example was held by the Altar Society of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in La Puente, which held a costumed lunch and event at the Homestead in April 1928.

Surviving photos, including large cabinet card originals recently donated by the estate of Josette Temple, Walter’s granddaughter, taken by Clarence W. Tucker, whose studio was in nearby Covina, show members of the orgnaization (including Baldwin’s granddaughter Rosebud Mullender) dressed in costumes evocative of, if not original to, the pre-American era of California. While there were many such “costume parties” in our region at the time, this one did contain several people, including Temple and members of the Rowland family, among others, who were descended from early Californio families.

Part of the St. Joseph’s Altar Society group at the newly completed Tepee built adjacent to La Casa Nueva, taken by Clarence W. Tucker of Covina, April 1928.

There was at least one other occasion documented by photographs in which the Temples donned their costumes and indulged in a bit of fantasy role-playing about being dons as in the days of the pastoral era of California, when William Workman was proprietor of a domain of some 25,000 acres (and this was just half of the massive Rancho La Puente, which he shared with John Rowland.) There were, however, undoubtedly more such instances that did not get recorded for posterity, or else photos were lost or have not yet surfaced.

Yet, the homage to heritage continued, largely as practiced by Thomas W. Temple II, whose expensive education in law at Harvard was laid aside because, as he put it, he was “bitten by the genealogy [and history] bug” and decided to pursue his passion while residing at San Gabriel from 1930 until his death just over four decades later. Thomas, who married Gabriela Quiroz, whose family also lived for a long time in San Gabriel and Alhambra, became the historian for the Mission San Gabriel and the City of San Gabriel and also researched the genealogy of early Californios families, including by being among the first to systematically peruse the often-challenging to read records of the missions.

Thomas Temple, left, Walter P. Temple, center with serape on his right shoulder, and guests next to La Casa Nueva and the Tepee, late 1920s.

For much of that forty-year period, he and Gabriela hosted a Pioneer Reception, held during the fiesta that marked the mission’s founding each September, while other events and commemorations were planned and executed by the couple at the mission over those many years. In rcognition of his long service to that institution, Thomas was given the signal honor, upon his death early in 1972, of burial with the priests in the courtyard adjacent on the north of the old stone church, being the only layperson to be granted that honor. Again, these events tended to put the Spanish missionaries and others on a pedestal, while the story of the Indians were generally downplayed or presented as dependent on the wisdom and protection of their supposed benefactors.

Our views of much of that history of early California has evolved and transformed in the decades since, but this doesn’t mean that the approaches taken by the Temples and others of their time to celebrating and commemorating their Latino heritage should be dismissed out of hand. Mostly, these affectations were taken in good faith and with a belief in the authenticity and accuracy of the history being honored.

Thomas Temple wit wife Gabriela, left, and niece, Inez Kalend, at a Mission San Gabriel event, ca. 1970.

At the Homestead, we want to acknowledge the efforts made by the Temples to recognize their antecedents, while continuing to utilize our critical thinking skills to develope interpretations that analyze, fairly and honestly, how the family’s nods to the past were carried out. We have a remarkable living three-dimensional laboratory in the form of the Homestead’s historic complex of structures (the Workman House, La Casa Nueva, and El Campo Santo Cemetery) as well as a diverse collection of historic artifacts to help us in this endeavor, as well as events and publications, like this blog, to present our narratives to the public.

Whether the name of Hispanic Heritage Month changes and regardless of whether it is during that month or beyond it, we’ll continue to explore how the Temples dealt with their Latino ancestry (and their Anglo one, obviously), especially over the next five years as we mark the centennial of the amazing La Casa Nueva.

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