The Early History of Temple City Postview: The Renaming of the Town of Temple, 1927-1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s presentation of the early history of Temple City, covering the years 1923-1930, also provided some background of the area on which the town was established, noting the indigenous people’s nearby village of Sibag-na, the Mission San Gabriel’s presence, the Rancho San Francisquito, with the community established at its western edge, and the unrealized Sunny Slope Acres project.

The acquisition of 285 acres of the Burkhard Investment Company’s land on which that last was to be established by Walter P. Temple and his associates, business manager Milton Kauffman, attorney George H. Woodruff and close friend and Alhambra capitalist Sylvester Dupuy, came by spring 1923. The 11 May edition of the Pasadena Post featured the announcement of the creation of what was officially denoted the Town of Temple and the work to lay the groundwork for its development began.

By early August, the first located advertisements began as the promoters, who organized the Temple Townsite Company, hired Byron Marsh and Douglas D. Coughran as the primary sales agents, while several other firms were also authorized to sell lots. The McAnulty brothers firm of contractors, which recently relocated to the area, were retained to build houses for the townsite company. A key component to the project was the extension of the Pacific Electric Railway’s Alhambra line another two miles eastward with a depot completed at the city park on what is now city hall.

Pasadena Post, 4 August 1923.

There were a number of challenges that emerged somewhat quickly. One was that the boom that enveloped greater Los Angeles in the post-World War I period peaked in 1923, so the fever that gripped capitalists and developers began to break as the real estate market cooled. Related to this was that, after an initial burst of sales, a good deal of it speculative in that buyers purchased lots, but held onto them expecting a quick profit on the presumption that prices would continue to rise, there was the expected drop when the decline set in.

Related to this was the fact that Temple and his fellow developers were increasingly concerned about the anemic sales and decided to not renew the contract with Marsh and Coughran. Yet, after hiring the Barry Realty Company, which was one of the other official agents, the townsite company decided to cut ties and assumed promotion itself. The McAnulty arrangement, which involved some financing components, also proved to be problematic as that company experienced monetary difficulties, was late on paying suppliers and this ended up saddling the townsite firm with debts.

In 1925, the California legislature passed the Mattoon Act, which seemed like a solid way to use assessments to raise funds for infrastructure as the state experienced problems in meeting the demand for such necessary elements as highway building and improvements—especially as automobile ownership and use skyrocketed. This, by the way, tied in with the declining ridership of streetcars, so the Pacific Electric’s extension did not prove to be the boon that was anticipated.

Monrovia News, 20 September 1924

The Mattoon Act had a major unanticipated negative consequence in that, if a property owner could not or would not pay the assessment mandated by the legislation, those who held lots on either side had to assume the default. This proved to be an enormous problem in the Town of Temple and it appears to no accidents that, of 1,285 lots laid out in the community, 968 were sold by the end of 1926, but only 7 were reported to have been purchased in all of 1927 and 1928, according to a statement in a securities manual.

By the end of 1925, it was obvious that the developers of the Town of Temple were going to need to find a way to finance the project beyond their own resources and this was done through the establishment of $550,000 in bonds through the well-established houses of the William R. Staats Company and the John M.C. Marble Company. Unfortunately, the situation did not materially enough improve, but the townsite company had another $350,000 bond issue through the California Trust Company in October 1929, just in time for the stock market crash in New York City that ushered in the beginnings of the Great Depression.

Another point raised in today’s talk was that Temple and the others, caught up in the excitement of the boom, were involved in other real estate development in such nearby cities and towns as Alhambra, El Monte and San Gabriel, as well as in downtown Los Angeles. These included movie theaters, post offices, and other commercial projects that constituted something of a “too much, too soon” aspect all-too-often found during the rush to make hay while the sun shines in boom periods. The Temple Estate Company was established to manage these and took on bonded indebtedness, as well.

Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1926.

To top it off, Walter Temple’s building of La Casa Nueva, the spectacular Spanish Colonial Revival house at the Homestead, dragged on for five years and accelerating cost and was also mortgaged—that was due on 29 October 1929, the day of the crash. Lastly, the funding for much of the expenditures with all of what has been described above came from Temple’s royalties from his oil well lease at the Montebello field.

For several years after the first well came in at the end of June 1917, the revenues were remarkable as several gushers were brought in by Standard Oil Company, now Chevron. Montebello, however, proved to be a shallow field and production levels dropped markedly after the early Twenties. Temple and his associates avidly pursued other petroleum prospecting projects throughout greater Los Angeles (Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Ventura) and outside the region (Mexico, Texas and Alaska), but, even with some successes, there were a great many dry wells.

So, there was something of a perfect storm of circumstances that with something that was as deeply speculative and, therefore, inherently risky as the oil and real estate businesses. The Roaring Twenties was an era of over speculation in both (witness the Florida land bust of 1926, for example) in these areas as well as with the spectacularly over-leveraged stock market and the Great Depression was the tragic and inevitable result.

Post, 17 November 1927.

Another notable change amid the difficulties with the Town of Temple enterprise came in late summer 1927 when the town’s chamber of commerce decided that there had to be a new name for the community. As reported by the Monrovia News of 2 September:

Declaring that the name of their town causes serious confusion in handing of mail, the Temple Chamber of Commerce will hold a contest, September 10th, to select a new name for the Temple post office.

According to sponsors of this plan, endless difficulties have arisen through similarity of the name to the Templeton post office in San Luis Obispo county, Temple street in Los Angeles, Templeton [Temple, as it was renamed from La Puente in 1921] school near El Monte, Temple theatre, Angelus Temple [the megachurch of Aimee Semple McPherson] and various Masonic temples.

It should also be noted that there were no zip codes at the time, which would have clearly alleviated the problem raised with the similarity of what was shortened to “Temple” to other place names. The piece also observed that an idea to use “Santa Anita” was rejected because a post office of that name was situated in adjacent Arcadia, being part of the former Rancho Santa Anita. Anyone living within the area bounded by San Gabriel Boulevard on the west, Baldwin Avenue to the east, Olive Street on the north and Duarte Road to the south was eligible to submit ideas.

The Los Angeles Record of the 6th added that the chamber was “following the lead of several other towns in Southern California by deciding its name was confusing to post office officials” and stated that the contest was to last through the end of September. The Los Angeles Times, echoing the News, pointed out that the name “Town of Temple” was selected “because of the extensive interests of Walter P. Temple in the establishment of the town,” though the official tract map merely had the county-assigned number of 6561. It also mirrored its contemporary in pointing out that a three-person committee would determine the winner of the contest, including KHJ radio personality “Uncle John” Daggett, Monrovia banker John H. Bartle, and Mission Play author and future California poet laureate John Steven McGroarty.

Monrovia News, 2 September 1927.

Despite the announced deadline, the winner was not announced until 20 October and this may have been because McGroarty bowed out as “absent from the county” and was replaced by the California editor of the Times, Burton L. Smith. The following day, the paper reported that Bartle, Daggett and Smith announced that,

From approximately 200 suggestions submitted in a contest to choose a new name for this city, “Santa Rita” was selected by the judges . . . The judges met in Los Angeles last week and quickly discovered they had undertaken quite a burdensome task, as nearly every one of the names submitted was appropriate and acceptable but for the fact that they conflicted with names already in use in various parts of the country.

It was added that the winner sent in their suggestion under the name of “Friend of the Community” and this unidentified person asked that the prize (the value of which was not, for some reason, stated, though the News reported that it was $25) was to go to the Temple Community Church, which opened in 1926 in a building on a lot donated by Temple adjacent to the community park.

Times, 6 September 1927.

The Monrovia paper added to the report by stating that “it is understood that the new name has been approved by Chief Postal Inspector R.C. Knox of Los Angeles” and that there were four other finalists: Cordova, Floradena, Los Ramas and San Remo. For some reason, votes were also accepted from far outside the bounds mentioned above, including from Alhambra, Azusa, Glendora, Los Angeles, Monrovia, Puente, Rosemead and Santa Monica, among others.

Yet, while there was some limited evidence that Santa Rita was used, with the News of 1 November, for example, reporting that a women’s auxiliary of the Odd Fellows fraternity was being established by “a number of prominent women of Santa Rita, formerly Temple” and an ad from that paper of 27 October offered a “business lot in Temple (Santa Rita),” opposition arose, especially and hardly surprisingly from the town’s founder.

There is no known evidence, however, that Walter Temple directly threw himself into the fray, but J. Perry Worden, the fussy historian hired by Temple to write a book on the Workman and Temple families but was also tasked with many other small jobs by his patron, was involved at least to a certain extent. The Homestead’s collection has a copy of a letter that Worden fired off to the Temple Times, the weekly paper in town, and which was sent to Thomas W. Temple II, the eldest of the four surviving children in the family.

Times, 11 October 1927.

Dated 5 November (which happened to be the 86th anniversary of the arrival of the Rowland and Workman Expedition to this area from New Mexico), the letter, in Worden’s distinctive and long-winded manner, pulled no punches in its blasting of the renaming concept. Notably, Worden wrote, almost certainly based largely, if not completely, on what Temple wanted conveyed, that protests included one from McGroarty, who was described as “the author so popular among Californians and a lover of California traditions.”

As for Worden, who described himself as “for years committed to the study of California history and the fostering of things sacred in Californiana,” he declared that he “should put myself on record as also most emphatically opposed to such an ill-advised disregard of the pioneer.” He added that, when the City of Los Angeles contemplated changing the name of Temple Street the prior year, 35,000 members of the Native Daughters of the Golden West signed a petition in opposition, claiming that Walter’s uncle Jonathan was still well-deserving of recognition for the street he opened, as a modest one-block dirt lane, in the 1850s. He insisted that “this later eccentric action” at the Town of Temple would be as roundly condemned by the Native Daughters.

Times, 21 October 1927.

Dismissing Santa Rita as “exotic” and apt to confusion with Santa Anita and other place names, Worden added that

This proposition to change the name of Temple to that of almost any other name . . . impressed me from the beginning as both so absurd and so deplorable that I should have long since communicated with you, or others . . . had I not feared that my action, because of my friendly and somewhat intimate relations to certain leaders in the founding of the town, might be misconstrued, and that it might be thought that I was acting as the mouthpiece of Mr. Temple or his associates.

While denying that he’d even been in contact lately with his patron and other Town of Temple promoters and, typically, puffing himself up as a local historical authority, including his boast that he’d secured $25,000 in funding to preserve the old Mission San Gabriel mill in San Marino, Worden attacked “the wiping-out, the neglect and the dishonoring of the time-honored name of the founder of the Town of Temple” and lambasted the “un-balanced hysteria of the hour for things Spanish,” which is interesting given that the Temples were part-Latino, even while the town had racial restrictions for residents and was very public about it.

Typically exaggerated in his argument, the historian even suggested that the name Santa Rita would be associated with an Arizona mining town “whose long tale of crime alone should form about as unenviable a model as one could wish to pattern after,” as if there weren’t myriad examples of the same town or city name being used in multiple states, something he soon pointed out in reference to repeated place names in the Postal Service’s directory. He continued that “a dozen names . . . could easily have been chosen,” which seems to have gone against his argument for choosing anything but the Temple name for the town.”

News, 22 October 1927.

Still, Worden, never one to sacrifice an opportunity to project his authority and vocabulary for the sake of brevity or clarity, pressed on by referring to “the whole proposition to change the name of Temple as a huge joke.” He then displayed no small amount of dripping sarcasm in mocking the idea that the sender of correspondence through the mails

will not get hysterical at the prospect of any senorita’s confidential missive going stray to Aimee’s Angelus Temple, or any $1,000 tailor’s orders miscarrying to Temple Street, in suburban Los Angeles, or any picture post cards intended for a damsel in the Town of Temple fluttering astray into the hands of a simpleton at Templeton.

Working himself up into a typical lather of righteous indignation, the historian called the name-change proposal part of “this new form of radicalism” and “pretty poor stuff for this enterprising Western country, and the progressive age of commonwealth building.” Even as he acknowledged that those behind the scheme may have been “sincere and public-spirited,” Worden called them “grievously mistaken in their duty as men and women of to-day toward the pioneers of yesterday and towards those who are to come tomorrow.”

He went even further in characterizing “this sorry mess” as not just newly radical but “the same old insane folly, the same ungrateful and unworthy disregard for things historic and things that should be held sacred” plaguing America. In the Golden State in particular, Worden lamented that all that was of the luster of the name was being “tarnished” by the realization that “California is no longer the California she used to be.” He persisted in pointing out that in too many cases, the place names of “pioneers” were effaced “through the iconoclastic assaults of newcomers, who have not cared a fig for the Past.”

The first of three pages of a copy letter of 5 November 1927 sent to the Temple Times by J. Perry Worden and forwarded to Thomas W. Temple II, then a student at Harvard Law School.

Finally winding down after nearly three pages of typescript, Worden called such efforts to rename places as selfish, adding “this is what is now [in the] process of development in the promising Town of Temple,” whose residents, he declared, should come together to combat “the stigma that in so short a time [has] dishonored its founder, through the radical advocacy of those whose motives I do not presume to question, but whose common sense, not to worry about their vision, I most emphatically challenge.”

Who knows how much influence Worden could have had with such a heavy-handed and self-conscious attack, but the movement to rename the Town of Temple as “Santa Rita,” not unlike the recent attempt to re-designate Boyle Heights as Hollenbeck Heights (though not because of an “unbalanced hysteria . . . for things Spanish) did dissipate. At the end of September, a compromise was reached as the postal service officially designated Temple City as the new name and the Pacific Electric responded by changing its car and station signs accordingly.

Times, 1 October 1928.

While Temple and his associates sold their interests in the town in May 1930 as financial conditions worsened, Temple City emerged after the Great Depression and World War II as one of the many suburbs that grew dramatically during the post-war boom and it incorporated in 1960. It has certainly been transformed demographically, along with so much of the San Gabriel Valley and greater Los Angeles, but its desirability has remained strong and remembering its origins, in all of its dimensions, through the work of Temple and his fellow developers is definitely a major part of the commemoration of Temple City’s centennial.

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