by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead is happy to be collaborating with the California Preservation Foundation and it second annual Doors Open California program as one of about 65 historic sites through the state providing a unique degree of access with the Museum’s commemoration of the centennial of the construction of La Casa Nueva, the Temple family’s remarkable and unique Spanish Colonial Revival residence.
Constructed between 1922 and 1927, the house has a wealth of architectural crafts, including stained and painted glass, handmade Mexican tile, carved wood and plaster and wrought iron, while it abounds in historical and mythical references to California and the family. Walter P. Temple, his wife Laura González and their four surviving children, Thomas W. II, Agnes, Walter, Jr. and Edgar were flush with funds from a fluke oil discovery, made in 1914 by nine-year old Thomas and realized with the first well brought in three years later, near Montebello.
When the purchased the 75-acre Workman Homestead late in 1917, at about the same time as they bought a Craftsman-style house in Alhambra as their full-time residence, the plan was to use the ranch as a weekend retreat, while the farm land was mostly planted to walnuts. The Workman House, with an 1840s adobe core and circa 1870 additions of red brick, was remodeled and modernized for the family’s visits.
The desecrated and ruined El Campo Santo Cemetery, established by the Workmans in the 1850s, was also renovated and improved with walks, lawns and landscaping, while the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum, built on the site of the destroyed St. Nicholas’ Chapel, was completed in 1921. Three brick winery buildings, constructed by the Workmans in the 1860s, were rendered into an auditorium, dining hall and nine-car garage and other outbuildings fixed up or added.
After some five years of work on the ranch and with no intention of adding another dwelling at the Homestead, the Temples went on a several-week vacation in México in summer 1922 and drew inspiration from the trip. When they returned home, Walter and Laura began sketching rough plans on butcher paper and consulted Whittier contractor Sylvester Cook, who built the mausoleum, on their ideas for a new house, literally La Casa Nueva. Soon, the Los Angeles architectural firm of Albert H. Walker and Percy Eisen, who were designing commercial buildings for Walter Temple as he embarked on a new career as a real estate developer, completed finished plans.
While the Temples were in México, they were introduced to Pablo Urzua, a maestro de obra, or master stonemason, in Guadalajara, the large city in the southwestern state of Jalisco, and he was hired to come north with a crew of workers and make adobe bricks in the traditional way for La Casa Nueva, the Mission Walkway that surrounds it, unusual round planters interspersed in the gardens, and, late in the project, the Tepee, an office and retreat modeled after a similar structure at Soboba Hot Springs, near Hemet, where Walter Temple occasionally stayed.
Tragedy struck soon after the design and early construction work began when Laura González Temple, stricken with colon cancer, succumbed to the disease just three days after Christmas 1922. The devastated family paused work and pondered the future of La Casa Nueva, but, when construction resumed, they decided to dedicate the dwelling in memory of her. On the first anniversary of her death, Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Cantwell, who blessed the mausoleum two years prior, presided over the dedication and blessing of the house to Laura.
Another transformation came shortly afterward when Roy Seldon Price, a Beverly Hills-based architect widely known regionally for his work on Dias Doradas, the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion of film studio owner Thomas Ince, was hired to complete La Casa Nueva. The family frequently joked that the architect’s invoices matched his last name and Price didn’t just pick up the project where it was left, he made a number of important, if costly, choices to remove completed elements, as well as add important features.
To take just one of these, Price designed an impressive carved plaster surround at the front entrance that some might call a churrigueresque ornamental element with the royal coat of arms of Spain, grapes, wheat and oranges that necessitated the move of the dedication plaque of Laura to the northeast corner of the house, but which definitely made the entry “pop” in a way that is hard to describe unless you’re there in person to see the incredible effect.
In the house’s courtyard, the plan was to basically cover the roof of the one-story projecting east and west wings with simple tar paper and a tiled edge. Price, however, prevailed on the Temples to turn these areas into sun decks with the same mosaico tile found in the Breakfast Room and the Barber Shop on the first floor as well as wood beams spanning adobe pillars. Expensive as these undoubtedly were, these decks had a dramatic and decidedly positive effect on this rear side of the building.
Rising costs were also accompanied by the seemingly inevitable change orders and construction delays, not to mention that adobe making could only be done at certain times of the year and, to speed up that process, Walter Temple brought in cement mixers, only to have these machines “gummed up” by the very dense clay, known as “Puente,” endemic to the area. Massive adobe brick kilns were used to fire the material which certainly helped.
Another core issue was that, when the project began in 1922, the Temple oil wells near Montebello were producing substantially and the family’s revenues were in the tens of thousands of dollars monthly. The field, however, was a shallow one, so, as production dropped significantly as the Roaring Twenties progressed and Temple’s other oil projects, under the aegis of the Walter P. Temple Oil Company, throughout greater Los Angeles and beyond did not replicate the success at Montebello, an income problem developed.
This was exacerbated by Temple’s move into real estate development in Los Angeles, Alhambra, San Gabriel, El Monte and elsewhere, as he constructed office buildings, movie theaters, post officers and stores and his Temple Estate Company managed these projects. Then, a century ago this year, he and a few other investors launched the Town of Temple, a 285-acre community managed by the Temple Townsite Company. The growing expenditures of speculative and risky oil and real estate projects, along with the expanding scope and cost of La Casa Nueva was at cross-purposes with declining income.
One solution for both the townsite and estate companies was the 1926 issuance of bonds, which, while bringing badly needed capital for development, also entailed long-term debt requiring regular interest payments on the principal. La Casa Nueva, meanwhile, was also mortgaged so that construction could be completed. That milestone finally took place in later 1927, but, by then, deeply concerning indications about the Temple family’s finances were leading to increasingly desperate attempts to stave off economic collapse.
While the town was reorganized and renamed Temple City in 1928, a well-intentioned state law concerning assessments for improvements, and who would pay for them if a property owner defaulted, in unincorporated communities led to a near complete stagnation of sales. The real estate market, which peaked in 1923, was softened by the end of the decade, as well, and efforts to realize that big gusher or more than one of these that would help save the day in places like Signal Hill and Ventura did not yield the anticipated results.
By the time, the four Temple children graduated from their respective high schools and colleges in summer 1929, the situation was truly dire. Reunited for just a very brief period, the family dispersed as the Homestead was leased to a military academy that moved from Redondo Beach in spring 1930. The Temples enjoyed a fully finished La Casa Nueva for about two-and-a-half-years before it had to be vacated.
Agnes married wealthy Bay Area rancher Luis P. Fatjo and moved to San Francisco. Thomas, with his newly minted Harvard Law School degree, forsook that vocation and, residing with his mother’s sister just a short walk from the Mission San Gabriel, became a historian and genealogist. Edgar married and moved to Los Angeles, while Walter, Jr., who wedded a local, stayed in Puente. To conserve cash, Walter, Sr. did what thousands do now, he resettled in Baja California, specifically Ensenada, though after later sojourns in Tijuana and San Diego and battling cancer, he moved to Los Angeles and died there in 1938.
This story, especially compared to what happened to Temple’s father, F.P.F. Temple, and grandfather, William Workman, not much more than a half-century earlier when their Temple and Workman bank failed, is a dramatic one that ended badly for the family. The Temples, however, left us an incredible house in which to experience, enjoy and educate ourselves. La Casa Nueva is truly a living laboratory for local history and, as the centennial commemoration continues over the next few years, we will further engage in the exploration of that concept, experimenting in that lab with an ever-evolving understanding of greater Los Angeles history and that of the Workman and Temple family.
If this brief summary has sparked your curiosity and inspired you to learn more about this amazing house, join us this weekend for the Doors Open tours, held at Noon, 1, 2 and 3 p.m. and which will offer access to parts of the dwelling and information about it not otherwise available, not to mention a grab bag of goodies and a a great booklet about the house. You can register with the California Preservation Foundation and we hope to see you this weekend!