No Place Like Home (Father’s Day Edition): A Quartet of Photos of Walter P. Temple at La Casa Nueva Under Construction, ca. 1923-1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the most striking of the stories we tell about the remarkable ups and downs of the Workman and Temple families and the Homestead during our interpretive period of 1830 to 1930 has to do with Walter P. Temple’s earnest efforts to honor his family and its history in various endeavors once he was bestowed with significant wealth once the oil started to flow on his lease near Montebello in June 1917.

During the resulting decade, he erected a monument to the original site of the Mission San Gabriel at the lease, in the neighborhood of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, where he was raised, developed the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City) to commemorate his family and, most personally, conceived, with his wife Laura González, and built, mostly after her untimely death at the end of 1922, La Casa Nueva, which is filled with references to the Workman and Temple family and California history generally.

When the Temples purchased the 75-acre Homestead (to which they added 17 more acres) in late November 1917 and then took possession on 1 January 1919 after a pre-existing lease expired, there were plenty of plans for improving the property. This included the remodeling and modernizing of the Workman House; the salvaging of the remains and then renovating of El Campo Santo Cemetery, including the erecting of the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum where St. Nicholas’ Chapel, built by his grandfather William Workman, once stood; the conversion of the Workman wineries, last used for canning and meatpacking during the 1910s, into an auditorium, dining hall and nine-car garage; the building of a tennis court; and the creation of a reservoir that doubled as a swimming pool, complete with dressing rooms and a grandstand.

Temple also built houses for his sisters, Lucinda Zuñiga and Margarita Rowland at the west end of the ranch and dwellings for employees near San José Creek, the property’s southern boundary, and between the wineries and the cemetery. He planted walnuts on much of the 92 acres comprising the ranch, dug artesian wells, including one to fill the reservoir which, in turn, irrigated the trees and other crops, and constructed other outbuildings.

Walter P. Temple and unidentified young woman near La Casa Nueva in its early construction stage, ca. 1923.

All of this work, mostly completed between 1919 and 1922 came when the revenue from the oil produced at the Montebello lease was still at high level, cost many tens of thousands dollars and took place before Temple expanded heavily into real estate projects in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, as well as pushed further into oil exploration as an independent prospector. Eventually, this proved to be problematic as expenses far outstripped income as the Montebello field declined dramatically in production.

Then came the Temple family’s vacation to México in summer 1922—more on that in a post next month—and from which they returned full of enthusiasm and ready to pursue the project that no one could possibly have anticipated would take five years. The design of La Casa Nueva began with simple ideas sketched out on butcher paper and then contact was made with the Whittier contractor Earl M. Wheatland, who built the mausoleum, to discuss construction. Finished drawings were prepared by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Albert H. Walker and Percy Eisen, known mainly for their commercial work in the burgeoning downtown of the Angel City and who designed Temple’s commercial building projects there and in the San Gabriel Valley.

Wanting adobe construction for their Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, the Temples hired master stone mason Don Pablo Urzua of Guadalajara, Jalisco, México and he and his crew were brought up to make the building material, which was then fired in adobe kilns utilizing walnut branches and other fuel to bake the bricks. Because of weather, there was a limited timeframe in which Urzua and his men could work, but it appears that got a substantial amount of work on the outside walls of the building during that last half of 1922.

Then disaster struck when Laura Temple, who was diagnosed with colon cancer, died just after Christmas. Apparently, there was some thought about whether to continue with the building of La Casa Nueva as the family grieved, but construction did resume in 1923. Another major change soon followed, this being the hiring of Beverly Hills-based architect Roy Seldon Price, who received much attention for his work on “Dias Doradas,” the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion of film studio owner Thomas Ince, to complete the project.

The house was certainly further along in this view showing Temple on a long wood plank near what became the Music Room on the west side of the structure, ca. 1924.

The Temples joked that Price’s invoices matched his surname as he urged some dramatic changes to the partially-completed structure, including the reworking of the Main Hall, which had a center staircase, replaced by a wraparound, and a bridge from one side of the second floor to the other and which was torn out with a large chandelier placed in that area instead. The flat roof of the wings projecting southward from the main block of the house were going to simply be covered with tap paper and red roof tiles at the edges, but Price convinced Walter Temple to convert these into beautiful, but costly, sun decks.

With Price’s ideas prolonging work, but to usually stunning effect, what might have been a two-year timeline dragged on to five, but the results were truly spectacular, with La Casa Nueva becoming a highly customized showpiece brimming with gorgeous decorative elements, including abundant uses of stained and painted glass, handmade and hand-painted Mexican tile along with machine-made American file, carved plaster and wood, and much else.

When completed at last late in 1927, Temple had plenty of reason to be proud of the final product and his attorney, George H. Woodruff, wrote him that year that, far into the future, tourists would be visiting the Homestead (and, in some cases, climbing its trees!) and that prognostication has certainly been borne out. What was not anticipated when the work began was that the Temples would only live in the finished residence half as long as it took to build.

The additional work and cost came as the family’s finances worsened through the mid-1920s, with oil revenues dropping and expenditures heading the other way, so that bonds were taken out in 1926 to pay for ongoing real estate development at Temple City and Alhambra. La Casa Nueva was mortgaged, as well, so that it could be finished and that came due on 29 October 1929—the week the stock market crashed in New York City and ushered in the early stages of the Great Depression,

The advanced, if not fully complete, stage of work on the west side of the Mission Walkway seems to indicate a rough date of 1925 for this view of Temple standing on and amid rough cut trunks or branches of trees, though their purpose (fuel for the adobe kilns that baked the bricks?) is not readily apparent.

Six months later, the Temples vacated the house and ranch to make way for the occupancy of the Golden State (later Raenford) Military Academy, which leased the Homestead and began operations with the 1930-1931 school year. The rent of the property to the Academy was a last-ditch effort to stave off what was almost certainly inevitable and California Bank, holder of the mortgage, foreclosed in July 1932.

There is a clear distinction between a house, as the structure, and a home, in terms of how the dwelling is used and the Temples certainly did not get to realize the latter as they hoped, from Laura Temple’s death and the absence of the four children (Thomas, Agnes, Walter, Jr. and Edgar) at boarding schools most of the year to their move from and loss of the property by the end of the Twenties.

Still, they left in La Casa Nueva a beautiful, evocative legacy, as well as a laboratory, through its design and décor as well as the family’s history, for learning more about greater Los Angeles, including how racial and ethnic identity are reflected in how people see themselves and in how they are seen by others. With the Workman House and its 1840s and 1870s phases as emblematic of the transformation of local life in the 19th century and La Casa Nueva carrying through some of that history, even if very romantically, and then incorporating what was going on in our region through the Twenties, the Homestead truly offers an unusual historical experience for visitors.

This year, specifically this summer, marks the centennial of the commencement of construction on La Casa Nueva and, for the next five years, we’ll explore the building of the house in a variety of programs. Meanwhile, this Sunday is Father’s Day, so this seemed an opportune time to offer another edition of “No Place Like Home” and the eighth installment sharing photos of the house being built by sharing a quartet of photos showing Walter Temple on the construction site.

This image gets us closer to the completion of the house, though the presence of debris and other clues (the curved trim piece around the French doors behind Temple don’t appear to be finished yet) show construction work was still ongoing, though the year might be 1926.

The earliest looks to be the one showing Temple and an unidentified young woman standing by a part of La Casa Nueva that can’t easily be identified, though there is a window (note the wood form for creating the adobe arch) behind them. Also impressive is the size of the individual adobe bricks as seen by some stacked by the woman. Perhaps the next oldest shows Temple standing on a long board near what became the Music Room on the west side of the house, with the French door openings showing the interlocking courses of bricks with fill in between them, while above looks like what may be cement lintels.

The third photo doesn’t show La Casa Nueva, but with the western section of the Mission Walkway, which surrounds the house on three sides, looking like it was nearing completion, it does look like this is the next in temporal order. A pair of stacks of round adobe bricks used for the walkway’s columns, as well as for the distinctive planters that were placed around the building, are of note. Temple stands amid stacks of tree trunks or branches laid out on the ground, though the purpose for them is not known—perhaps they were fuel for the adobe kilns?

The final image appears to be latest because it shows Temple standing in front of the finished French door, with its carved panels, on the exterior of the east side of the Living Room. While there is some debris around him, the installation of the doors probably would not have taken place unless the building was in a fairly advanced stage. The range of the photos looks to be from roughly 1923 to 1926 and it would hardly be surprising if most, if not all, were taken by Walter’s son, Thomas, who was an avid photographer and to whom we are indebted for his documentation, when he was home from school, of the building of the house—otherwise, our visual record would have been very sparse.

We’ll have more construction photos to share, including some from the recent donation made by the estate of Josette Temple, so be on the lookout for those in future editions of “No Place Like Home” as we celebrate the centennial of the construction of La Casa Nueva.

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