The Early History of Temple City Preview: Walter P. Temple and His Boomtime Real Estate Projects, 1919-1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tomorrow at the Homestead at 2 p.m., the Museum offers a talk on the early history of Temple City, which celebrates its centennial this year and which was founded in May 1923 by Homestead owner Walter P. Temple. We hope some of you reading this preview post for the talk can join us, but, in the meantime, here is some context that will help understand more of what the scene was like when the Town of Temple, as it was known before the name was officially changed in fall 1928, was established.

Almost exactly a half-century after F.P.F. Temple, became, in the words of historian Remi Nadeau in his book about the first boom in Los Angeles, which took place from about 1868 to 1875, a “city maker,” including construction of several major commercial structures at the Temple Block and nearby locations, Walter P. Temple somewhat emulated his father by engaging in a number of development projects in the Angel City and the San Gabriel Valley during another major boom in the early 1920s.

Pasadena Post, 24 December 1921.

Walter’s stunning rise to fortune thanks to royalties from oil wells on his Montebello-area land generated from a shocking discovery by his nine-year-old son, Thomas, enabled him to both pursue his own oil prospecting projects while also expanding into real estate development. This latter started in 1919, when Temple acquired a commercial property in Alhambra, where he’d recently moved with his family and which was growing by leaps and bounds during the post-World War I growth period in the region.

In late 1921, Temple completed his first building project on that lot when his Temple Theater opened its doors just prior to Christmas. Within the next year-and-a-half, adjoining and nearby parcels were purchased, including the lot west of the theater at the northeast corner of Main and 4th streets. The 10 January 1923 edition of the Pasadena Post reported from an Alhambra correspondent that

F.A. Utter and Son, well-known funeral directors of this city, announce a splendid new building to be erected at the northeast corner of Fourth and Main streets, by Walter P. Temple . . . Mr. Temple, always with the thought of the development and the advancement of the city in mind, will construct a beautiful and attractive building in keeping with the progress of Alhambra . . .

The single-story Spanish Colonial Revival structure was designed by the prominent Los Angeles architects, Percy Eisen and Albert R. Walker, who were responsible for many landmark business buildings in the Angel City at the time and who were Temple’s architects of choice for his own work. Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, following the Whittier Narrows and Northridge earthquakes and during a remaking of Alhambra’s downtown, the theater and mortuary buildings were demolished.

Post, 10 January 1923.

At the end of April, the Los Angeles Times, in its edition of the 29th, noted that “one of the biggest real estate deals [in Alhambra] in some time was announced today in the sale of the business property at the northwest corner of Main and Fourth streets, comprising seven stores and a fifty-foot vacant lot adjoining to the west, to Walter P. Temple, wealthy oil operator of his city” with the cost being $134,000. Representing Temple, as he likely did with the other acquisitions of lots in the city, was his business manager, Milton Kauffman.

A building was already in progress along Fourth Street, having been started by the seller George Pethybridge, and, when finished in a short time, it became the city post office and a small residential hotel, which took Temple’s name. As for Main Street lot, Temple completed a single-story brick building with several small storefronts on it. These structures have, so far, survived. The article added that the post office would be Temple’s third (his father, perhaps not coincidentally, also built the Los Angeles post office in a Spring Street structure completed in 1874), the others being in San Gabriel and El Monte.

Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1923.

In the latter city, situated a few miles from the Old Mission community where Temple grew up and where Kauffman long resided as his father and then joined him in running a successful store there, the Post reported on 22 March 1923, that

Work has started on El Monte’s new theater and postoffice building on Main street, which is being erected [the building, not the street!] by Walter P. Temple, local oil magnate . . . The new structure will fill the only vacant lot in the present business section . . . It will be a Class A building, lobby decorated in travertine plaster, with art stone and decorative face brick exterior. The interior will be attractively decorated in oil color. Leather upholstered seats and a $15,000 pipe organ will add to the pleasure of El Monte patrons of the movie and an extra large stage will permit of vaudeville.

Arthur L. Sanborn, the operator of the theater, called the Rialto, went on to operate a chain of venues and his family continues the enterprise today. The Times of three days later added that the building, another Walker and Eisen design, was to cost about $50,000, be finished around the first of July, and was to contain a gas radiator heating system not common in theaters. The Rialto closed long ago, but the structure, which has been significantly remodeled, still stands.

Post, 22 March 1923.

Temple’s home community of Old Mission, or Misión Vieja, derived that moniker because the original Mission San Gabriel was established there from 1771 to about 1775 (and Temple, in 1921, erected a monument, though not on the actual site, to commemorate its presence there) and he had an avid interest in the city of San Gabriel because of that as well as the fact that the Workman and Temple family frequently had sacraments at the old stone church at the mission.

Temple acquired a large property across Mission Drive from the facility and, in May 1922, was issued a permit for the post office building, which also contained a real estate office and the city library, at the west end of the tract at the southeast corner of Mission and Santa Anita Avenue. In late June, the Times published Walker and Eisen’s rendering of the structure and an arched window on the Santa Anita elevation was where Thomas Temple had a photo taken while he was dressed in a charro suit for a mission event and this was rendered into a stained glass window for the living room of La Casa Nueva, a replica of which visitors can see today.

Times, 25 June 1922.

At the end of 1922 the Post ran a feature on plans for the San Gabriel City Hall on the eastern end of the Temple property with he donating the lot and also having Walker and Eisen work with the city on the design, which was shown in the article. A $50,000 bond issue was overwhelmingly approved by voters so that work could commence.

The paper added that “the Temple block will be an important part” of a plan to remake the downtown into an attractive upgrade for the Mission City. It was noted that his “old Spanish type arcade” building, designed by Walker and Eisen in spring 1922, was also to be built and work was started on the five-store structure early in 1923, just days after the death of Temple’s wife, Laura González. All of these San Gabriel edifices remain with us now.

Post, 21 December 1922.

While, in the early Twenties, Temple owned properties at Monterey Park and [La] Puente and contemplated conducting developments in both, he wound up selling his interests in the former to pursue further work in Alhambra, while he made no changes to what he held in the latter—one of his holdings was the original 1880s hotel, the Rowland, but its operation did not change during his years of ownership.

Finally, there was another significant investment in real estate and development in downtown Los Angeles, eight or so block south of the Temple Block built by his father and uncle Jonathan between 1857 and 1871, as well as a couple of additional structures on Spring Street that F.P.F. Temple added during the late Sixties and early Seventies. It may be no accident that Walter was drawn to the idea of joining syndicates working on projects on the east side of Spring on both sides of Eighth Street, and which also fronted on the west side of Main.

Post, 4 January 1923.

The major endeavor was the Great Republic Life Building, which was developed by the Central Finance Building Company and the 5 December 1922 edition of the Times reported that the property was acquired from the Ferguson family, long-time owners of the tract, and where a two-story frame structure stood. It added that

Construction work will start about February on a thirteen-story office building at the corner of Eighth and Spring streets.

The site was purchased recently by a syndicate of which Walter P. Temple, George Woodruff, Milton Kaumman [sic], Percy Eisen and A.R. Walker are members, for a consideration in the neighborhood of $370,000.

The president of the firm was oil developer and furniture store company owner, A. Otis Birch, who was also the head of the Great Republic Life Insurance Company, the anchor tenant of the structure. After the building, estimated to cost $650,000 and designed, naturally, by Walker and Eisen, was finished in early 1924, Temple moved all of his companies there, including the Temple Townsite Company.

Times, 5 December 1922.

Under two weeks later, the tract across Eighth from the Great Republic site was acquired and a twelve-story commercial building planned there, as “announced by Walter P. Temple, Milton Kauffman and associates, who recently bought the site from eastern capitalists.” Walker and Eisen’s plans were for a structure to cost about $1 million.

By early May 1923, just prior to the Town of Temple announcement, the National City Bank of Los Angeles was organized and it was to be anchor tenant of the structure, yet another Walker and Eisen design, to be the institution’s name. Woodruff was also a director of the new financial institution. Both the Great Republic Life and National City Bank buildings remain with us today and are, not surprisingly, both largely devoted to residential lofts.

Times, 17 December 1922.

Obviously, it is clear that, as the boom reached fever pitch in greater Los Angeles and peaked in 1923, Temple and his partners were rushing headlong into the fray to try and take as much advantage as they could to make hay while the sun shone. As will be discussed tomorrow, however, the peak was followed by the inevitable decline just as the Temple City project, by far the biggest personal financial investment made by Temple, was being undertaken.

Hopefully, some of you reading this might head down to the Homestead to hear more and we’d love to see you there.

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