Reading Between the Lines: A Letter from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. Temple, 31 October 1922

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in other entries in the “Reading Between the Lines” series of posts, Thomas W. Temple II, the eldest of the four surviving children of Laura González and Walter P. Temple, was a dedicated and consistent letter writer to his parents while he attended various boarding schools over about a dozen years between 1917 and 1929. When the family became the beneficiary of an astounding little fortune thanks to oil found by Thomas on their ranch near Montebello, he was sent to military academies, including Page in Los Angeles and the Pasadena Military Academy on the western edge of that city where the Annandale Country Club is not located.

He then went north to attend the preparatory high school of the University of Santa Clara, where some of his uncles went decades before, and he completed his studies there in spring 1922. That summer, the Temples went on a lengthy vacation in México and were inspired to begin the construction of La Casa Nueva, the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion that wound up taking five years to build.

Meanwhile, Thomas enrolled at the California Institute of Technology, commonly known as CalTech, and, although the prestigious school was just a few miles from the Temple residence in east Alhambra, he stayed in the dormitory. The 17-year old declared his major to be engineering and he was interested in getting a degree and then helping his father seek out opportunities in prospecting for oil (stumbling on the find at the Temple lease was, apparently, going to translate into finding new fields based on a developed knowledge of geology and other elements!)

Tonight’s entry in the series is a letter Thomas wrote to his father, addressed to the family’s residence in Alhambra where the city’s Methodist Church is now situated at Main and Almansor steets, on Halloween 1922 and, in mentioning the holiday, he noted, “tonite is Halloween and the boys will no doubt raise cain around here—in the Dormitory.” It’s too bad he didn’t indicate just exactly why hijinks were in store as CalTech students are known for the innovative and high-tech pranks and practical jokes. He did add “I suppose they will taken all the Freshmen out as usual,” though, again, it would have been nice to know what constituted the “usual.” All he followed up with was “we might as well make the best of it.”

As to his younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, Thomas noted, “no doubt the kids wish they were home tonight to play with that pumpkin they had in the tree.” There, again, one wonders what was going on there! Incidentally, the younger sons were also at boarding school at the Pasadena Military Academy for another couple of years. He continued that “‘Twas only a short time ago when I had you making Halloween pumpkins for me as a little fellow.” Though he was still in his teens, Thomas mused, “how fast go the years. Perhaps too fast. They go before you realize it.”

The missive was written “between meals” and Thomas told his father that he returned to campus two days before just fine, though “I hated to leave home.” He was happy that his brothers and sister Agnes were together for the weekend “after being away a month.” As to his sister, he wrote, “I can’t tell you how proud I am of my sister. She is gradually becoming a young lady.” At fifteen, “she will develop into a beautiful flower” under the care of the nuns at St. Mary’s Academy in southwest Los Angeles where she would graduate from high school in 1925.

As to his brothers, Thomas observed that they were growing rapidly (Walter, Jr., was 13 and Edgar turned 12 at the end of the year) and were “realizing what is before them as well as he splendid opportunities granted them by so faithful and watchful a father (it is interesting that nothing was said here about their mother).” He continued that “soon we will have a house of grown folks” but Thomas added that “we shall never change in our love for our dear parents who thru [sic] the help of God have made it possible for us not only to strive for better things but to actually accomplish them.”

With regards to his education, Thomas reflected on a discussion he had with his father “concerning a classical education,” though specifically what was considered as part of that track is not known. For example, one longstanding framework for a classical education emphasizes the trivium, meaning the mastery of grammar, logic and rhetoric. It appears this is what Thomas referred to when he wrote “looking over my high school work I find that tho[ugh] I have rated as high in my mathematics as I have in my English and Latin, I find that I was better prepared for the Classical than for the Technical.” He added, however, that “nevertheless, one interested in the oil industry must naturally be acquainted with the fundamentals at least.”

As for his studies at CalTech, Thomas told his father that “my work here I find it very hard—a vast difference from dear old Santa Clara,, not only in studies, but in environment, as well.” He went on to observe that being a freshman was “not the sweetest thing in life.” Still, he assured Walter, Sr., “I am striving, digging tooth and nail and if I have any talent whatever as an engineer, I shall know it in 3 months.”

Thomas then turned to new real estate development projects being pursued by his father, writing that, in regards to work at San Gabriel, where Walter, Sr. owned a block across from the Mission, “the proposed buildings or arcades to be constructed east of the office [the two-story Temple Building] are beautiful, I saw them Sunday after getting out of mass.” He continued that Mr. Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, was at the office and showed Thomas the plans.

Pasadena Post, 2 December 1922.  Note the useful information on the rapid growth of Alhambra at the time.

With regard to a new development at El Monte, Thomas continued, “I also liked very much the proposed theatre building,” this being what became the Rialto Theatre and he joked “I was telling Milt that he and Sid Grauman should go into busines, I know they would make excellent partners.” Grauman was the impresario known for his elaborate and ornate Chinese and Egyptian theatres in Hollywood.

Thomas also told his father “I am glad you sold the Bradbury Park Property,” this being a 40-acre tract east of Alhambra and north of San Gabriel along Las Tunas Drive, the extension of Main Street from Alhambra, and acquired by Gurdon C. Harris, who began advertising for the sale of lots by the end of the year. The letter continued that, in divesting of the parcel, Mr. Temple avoided “a lot of campaigning, advertising and solicting,” though he added that he hoped it would do well because “it should be the residential district of San Gabriel” given its proximity to the country club, of which Walter, Sr., was a member, the street car line and major streets. Later in the year, Mr. Temple and partners sold another tract in Alhambra at Garfield Avenue and the “Ocean to Ocean HIghway,” or Valley Boulevard.

Los Angeles Times, 31 December 1922.

Seven months later, Walter, Sr. and his partners, Kauffman, George H. Woodruff and Sylvester Dupuy, acquired 285 acres of a failed project called Sunnyslope Acres and announced the creation of the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928. Despite Thomas’ comments in the latter, that project woujld entail far more “campaigning, advertising and soliciting” than what would have happened with either Bradbury Park or the Alhambra tract.

In concluding his missive, Thomas noted that, when it came to his education, “I hope always to make the following year better than the last. At Santa Clara, I was able to do that.. I hope to met with as good results here.” He then had to close as he had to head to class and wished that his father was “enjoying yourself in yourway and that peace reigns at home.” In a marginal note he asked his father to send “Love to Meema,” Thomas’ nickname for his mother.

The situation at home would, in fact, change dramatically in succeeding weeks. Laura González Temple’s health took a sudden and steep turn for the worst and she died at the end of the year from colon cancer. The grief felt by Thomas was, naturally, overwhelming and the challenge at CalTech also proved to be very difficult and he like knew in three monts, as he wrote, that he was not cut out to be an engineer.

It was almost certainly for academic and psychological reasons that he withdrew from CalTech and returned to the comforting, supportive and familiar world of Santa Clara, where he resumed his undergraduate studies and where he stayed for three more years. Meantime, Walter, Sr. further directed his energies and money to his growing real estate porfolio, including the Arcade Building at San Gabriel and the Rialto Theatre and post office project at El Monte mentioned in the latter, while he also took on major work like the Town of Temple and investment in two Los Angeles skyscrapers built by syndicates.

We are fortunate that Thomas was an assiduous correspondent, as his letters provide such an important personal perspective to what the Temples experienced during those years, just as we can be grateful that he was an avid shutterbug as his photography proved invaluable in documenting the building of La Casa Nueva, family vacations, events and other elements. As for these letters, we are grateful to his niece, Ruth Ann Temple Michaelis, for her donation of a trove of these documents over the years along with photographs and other valuable Temple family objects.

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