by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This year marks the centennial of the commencement of the construction of La Casa Nueva, the remarkable Spanish Colonial Revival mansion inaugurated by Walter P. Temple and his wife Laura González after they and their children returned from an trip to México in summer 1922. Presumably, while traveling in Guadalajara in Jalisco, they met Pablo Urzua, a stonemason who, with a crew of workers, was hired to build adobe bricks in mainly a traditional fashion for the edifice as well as associated elements.
With regard to the latter, it is hard to say what was planned and what was developed more or less “on the fly.” While we know the house came out of rough sketches by the Temples and contractor Sylvester J. Cook of Whittier and then were put into finished plans by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, with Beverly Hills architect Roy Seldon Price brought in in 1924 to continue the project with major changes, there were additions that may well have been added ad hoc.
These included the distinctive planters made of stacked round adobe bricks faced with cement and placed around the dwellings—many visitors find them unattractive, while others like them; the Tepee, which was built as La Casa Nueva was being completed in 1927, after five long years; and the Mission Walkway, with its arched main walls, adobe columns and grapevine-covered trellis connecting the two structural components.
Perhaps the idea came from Price, who seemingly had no end of unusual ideas to add to the house including the addition of the amazing plaster work around the front door, the use of tile, kitchen ware and abalone shells in flagstone walkways around the building, the complete reconfiguration of the Main Hall, or the redesign of the southern wings so the tops were converted to large sun decks instead of merely being covered with paper and tar.
On the other hand, the Temples were filled with a romanticized enthusiasm for pre-American California, which is abundantly clear from the many historical symbols employed in tile, glass, wood and plaster work throughout their highly distinctive and very personalized residence. Specifically, they had a long association and interest in the Mission San Gabriel, from having sacraments there, to residing at its original site in Misión Vieja (Old Mission), to Walter P. Temple’s purchase and development with commercial buildings of the block across from the mission, while being fascinated with the chain of missions built by the Spanish and, in the case of Sonoma, the Mexican periods.
Then again, the concept may have come from a close collaboration once Price, of whom the Temples joked made sure his invoices matched his surname, was hired to complete the house. In any case, Urzua and his men worked for several months each year when the weather was at its warmest and driest to build their bricks in several areas in walnut groves surrounding the La Casa Nueva construction site. Bricks were made for the planters, the northern wall with smaller sections on the east and west, and, on the other three sides, the Mission Walkway.
The main walls rise about eight or so feet with their wide arches including, at several locations, built-in benches with curved backs, while cast-iron lamps project on the interiors and beautifully illuminate the walk. There are two arched openings, one to the east outside the Dining and Living rooms and leading to the Workman House and the other at the southeast corner with a flagstone walk coming from the Courtyard and then beyond the arch leading to a cemented area with a tile panel honoring “pioneer” [the indigenous people, of course, being the actual pioneers) William Workman at the intersection of a driveway between the two houses and Evergreen Lane, which ran from 10th Avenue (now Turnbull Canyon Road) to El Campo Santo Cemetery.
Inside the arched opening here is another tile panel that appears to have originally featured the Temple family coat-of-arms, though our pictorial evidence is, so far, scanty and, when the site was restored in the late 1970s, it was decided to remake the large destroyed panel with one showing various family cattle brands as well as that of Mission San Gabriel. This was a good idea insofar as the latch to secure the double wooden gates (other examples being at that eastern arched way as well as the main entrance at the front or north of the house) is purported an original Workman family brand from the 1840s repurposed for the gates.
As for the walks, they are made of large sections of cast concrete with etched diamond figures and other decorative stylings. Periodically there are tile panels, including ones that feature the castle (Castile) and lion (Léon) representative of the royal coat-of-arms of Spain. Finally, with circular designs are the names and founding dates of the missions and the “mission station” of Pala, attached to and east of Mission San Luis Rey in northern San Diego County near Oceanside.
Notably, as the missions were placed in the walkway, there is no easily discernible order so far as we can tell. That is, they are not positioned by alphabetical order, by founding date, or by geography. Perhaps the Temples had their own method of determining which mission should be placed where, but we have not, to date, figured out or come across any documentation of what exactly this arrangement is. Maybe the layout is random?
When the walkway was built, the Temples planted grapevines on the inside along the columns so that the plants grew onto the low end of the wood trellising which angles up to the top of the arched walls. It appears this was done so that the vines would, in fact, grow and spread more quickly on the trellis work. At some undetermined date, these were removed and, if not replanted than replaced by vines placed on the outside of the walls, which meant they had to climb about two feet higher and over the top of the walls to reach the trellis.
It has been said that these vines were cuttings from the famous mother vine across Santa Anita Avenue from the mission and, in a courtyard, where the Mission Playhouse, to which Walter Temple was major cash donor with his business manager Milton Kauffman serving on its board of directors, was finished in 1927, the same year as the completion of La Casa Nueva. A few years ago, my colleague Jennifer Scerra, sent samples from the Mission Walkway vines and those in the courtyard of the Workman House to be tested as to variety and both came back as the mission grape—this is highly suggestive that both were supplied by the San Gabriel vine.
The incorporation of the Mission Walkway surrounding La Casa Nueva not only significant architectural and historical interest, but provided a nice spot to sit and enjoy the house and grounds (not to mention refreshing late afternoon ocean breezes when those roll in) and an enclosure for the mansion and the last-minute addition of the Tepee that, while not necessary in the 1920s when the Homestead was something of an oasis in a rural, sparsely populated Puente, because almost necessary decades later.
As the City of Industry developed after its 1957 incorporation amid the relentless spread of suburbanization in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, the walnut groves and orange orchards of the area gave way to manufacturing businesses. A general plan incorporated in 1971 included the better arrangement of streets to support continuing development and as the City decided to preserve the Homestead through the creation of the Museum, the area around it continued to involve the construction of new industrial buildings, increasingly for warehousing as well as manufacturing and Don Julian Road was extended eastward to Hacienda Boulevard.
This was necessary to the orderly growth of this part of the City as well as to provide ready access to the Museum, but, of course, meant that traffic would be moving within just feet of La Casa Nueva. While not intended, naturally, for that purpose, having the Mission Walkway on the west, south and east sides does provide a welcome buffer so that a visit to the house, which is fully restored inside and adorned with beautiful landscaping outside, still very much feels like a trip back in time nearly a century ago.
As we commemorate the building of this amazing house over the next five years, we’ll continue to highlight on this blog its construction, decoration, features and other associated components, such as the Tepee and Mission Walkway, as part of the “No Place Like Home” series of posts.