by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A good portion of this afternoon’s presentation at the Homestead, “Twists and Turns in the Twenties: The Workman and Temple Family in 1920s Los Angeles,” concerned the building of La Casa Nueva between 1922 and 1927. With all that was entailed in that long period of construction for this remarkable house, an element that was discussed today was the Temple family’s hiring in 1924 of Roy Seldon (sometimes written as “Selden” or “Sheldon” and with an extra middle name of Camillius) Price to finished the structure.
Notably, just prior to his being retained, the Temples dedicated the house to the memory of Laura González Temple, whose death occurred at the end of 1922 just as the building process was underway. On 28 December 1923, the first anniversary of her passing, Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Cantwell blessed the house and a large granite plaque was placed next to the front entry to mark the occasion.
In addition to the dedication to Laura, the marker mentioned the maestro de obra, or stone mason, Pablo Urzua, whose crew built a huge number of adobe bricks for La Casa Nueva, the Mission Walkway surrounding the house, the Tepee next to it, planters around the dwelling and more; Whittier contractor Sylvester Cook, who also handled the construction of the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum in El Campo Santo; and the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, which developed finished plans based on ideas that the Temples and Cook drafted—the company also worked on many of Walter Temple’s real estate development projects.
Yet, when Price took over he immediately embarked on a litany of changes and new ideas that substantially transformed the house and made it much more of the unique building that we enjoy today. Among these was the redesign of the front entrance, including an incredible plaster surround with the Spanish royal coat-of-arms that indicated the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture for the house, and which necessitated the move of the dedication plaque to the northeast corner of the house, and the installation of a wrought-iron cage for the second floor balcony topped with a Temple family coat-of-arms.
Another important one was the reorientation of the Main Hall with the stairs, formerly in the center and split into two sections to get to the second floor, torn out with a wrap-around set built instead. Connecting the two wings on that upper level was a bridge, but Price insisted on removing that and placing a chandelier hanging from the high ceiling instead.
These changes made the space far more open and inviting, as, for one thing, those standing on the first floor could look out the rear door and see the beautiful courtyard and fountain, which would not have been possible before, while the chandelier added dramatic interest and a visual focus.
With regard to the second floor, the large spaces over the projecting wings to the south flanking the courtyard were initially intended to simply be a rather plain roof, but Price prevailed on Walter Temple to allow him to build sun-decks of close to 1,000 square feet on each side. This again added enormously to the visual appeal of the structure, while providing an impressive outdoor space for the family to enjoy (two of the children’s bedrooms opened onto the decks) as well as for entertainment of guests.
Elaborate carved doors leading to the Living Room, Dining Room, Music Room and Library; plaster carvings in the Main Hall and Library; and many other elements of the building were attributable to Price’s eclectic and colorful vision for La Casa Nueva and there is no question that, without his approach and ideas, the dwelling would have been far less striking.
Yet, this came at a substantial cost in more time to complete the structure and in the expenditure of far more money to pay for his innovations. In fact, the Temples joked that the invoices submitted by the architect matched his surname, but they were undoubtedly pleased with the final product, even if it took a half-decade to complete. In addition to La Casa Nueva, Price designed the Temple Estate Building, which had the same wrought-iron cage over its front entrance, as well as tile and light fixtures, found at the house, though the building is no longer extant.
Despite his notable work on La Casa Nueva and his then-famous design of “Dias Doradas” (Golden Days), the Beverly Hills Spanish Colonial Revival mansion of film studio impresario Thomas Ince, Price was not among the best-known architects working in greater Los Angeles during the period. While some of his work survives today, principally in Beverly Hills, he remains somewhat obscure.
Obscurity, in fact, marks his life before he arrived in Los Angeles around 1923. Price was born in St. Louis on 18 July 1889 to Julia May Donovan and William S. Price, with his father being a clerk and bookkeeper when younger and then operating a financial brokerage called Price-Meise and Company. Price was educated at Central High School and, after graduation in 1908, went to Washington University, a short distance from where he lived.
In 1910, his father died but Price continued his education and was class treasurer as a freshman, secretary of the student body as a sophomore, class president as a junior and class vice-president as a senior. He was a member of several clubs, was art editor the yearbook his senior year and served as vice-president of the Architectural Club.
When Price graduated, however, he became a teacher, perhaps because finding a position as a newly minted architect proved challenging. He started as a substitute and then was a full-time teacher at Soldan High School, which was also situated near his residence. When he registered for the draft in June 1917, shortly after the United States entered the First World War, he listed his occupation as “High School Teacher & Architect,” though whether he had much professional work in the latter is not clear. The 1920 federal census indicates that left education and pursued architecture full-time and sources indicate he worked for the prominent firm of Mauran, Russell and Crowell.
By 1923, Price landed in Beverly Hills, which was growing rapidly with a significant contingent of motion picture figures moving to the westside community. In addition to the Ince house, Price helped design the Heegaard Building, which, while significantly altered, still stands in a narrow strip of land at Santa Monica Boulevard and Rodeo Drive.
Over the next few years, he was hired to design residences in the exclusive tracts of Beverlyridge, in Beverly Hills near Benedict Canyon, and Hollywoodland, developed by Tracy Shoults and Sidney H. Woodruff between the Hollywood Reservoir and Griffith Park and where the famous “Hollywood” sign originally marketed the tract, not the film industry. Other work was done at Lookout Mountain, west of Laurel Canyon.
Price also had several notable film industry clients, in addition to Ince, including Lita Grey Chaplin, wife of the legendary comedian Charles Chaplin and for whom he designed a $50,000 Beverly Hills house in 1927 after her divorce from the comedian, and her mother Lillian, who was a descendant of early Californio families, and who built a commercial structure on La Brea Boulevard at 6th Street in 1929. Lita’s grandmother was Luisa Carrillo, daughter of José Vicente Carrrillo and María Merced Williams Rains, the widow of Rancho Cucamonga owner John Rains and the daughter of María de Jesús Lugo, and her great-great grandfather was the noted ranchero Antonio María Lugo.
Across from Ince’s Dias Doradas, Price designed, in 1925, a $100,000 Spanish Colonial Revival mansion for the director George Fitzmaurice, a native of France and of French and Dutch ancestry who began in the silent firm era in 1914, but was at the helm of such notable pictures as Rudolph Valentino’s last film, The Son of the Sheik (1926), Lilac Time (1928), and Greta Garbo’s Mata Hari (1931).
Another motion picture luminary who was a client was the prominent actor Norma Talmadge, whose husband was the important studio executive Joseph Schenck. When Price decided he needed a studio and residence and found a property on Sunset Boulevard near Doheny Drive and completed in 1931, Talmadge held a trust deed of $20,000 she loaned to the architect for the project, which cost about $100,000 to complete, though the structure is long gone.
It may be that the expense of his elaborate West Hollywood studio and house and the economic effects of the Great Depression took a major toll on Price’s practice, the last located source for his work being a Lookout Mountain-area residence he designed late in 1933. Ill health may also have played a part, as the architect died early in 1940 at just age 50. Notably, there were no obituaries found to mark his passing, merely the simplest of death notices in the Los Angeles Times.
Beyond a few surviving examples of his work in Beverly Hills and elsewhere on the west side, La Casa Nueva is the most publicly accessible and almost certainly the most distinctive, personalized of his projects. While Price’s name is not on the dedication plaque, he should be remembered for his transformation of the building, though we will look to post something in the not-too-distant future on his attitude toward the Latino workers and craftspeople employed on the Temple family’s house.