Recap of the California Preservation Foundation Doors Open California Program Tours of La Casa Nueva for Its Centennial Commemoration, 1923-2023

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For the second annual Doors Open California program, coordinated by the California Preservation Foundation, the Homestead was happy to be one of some 65 sites throughout the Golden State taking part in the event which, in our case, involved today and yesterday. This comprised tours of La Casa Nueva with a special focus on the house’s 100th anniversary and an emphasis on the many remarkable architectural features of this amazing Spanish Colonial Revival house, built by the Temple family between 1922 and 1927.

Visitors came to us from local communities like Hacienda Heights and La Puente, as well as from as far away as downtown Los Angeles and Riverside, and they experienced customized content such as a PowerPoint introduction filled with many period photographs, architectural drawings and documents pertaining to the house, as well as access to portions of La Casa Nueva not generally available to guests. A gift bag was also provided including a great color “zine” designed and laid out by my colleague Beatriz Rivas, while editorial work and overall coordination and setup was provided by our Programs Coordinator Gennie Truelock.

The Temple family, October 1919, in a photo by George Steckel.

For this recap, we will largely utilize an essay for the publication titled “Focusing on Family and Fantasy: La Casa Nueva at 100,” and which provides a fairly concise summary of the general history of the building. If you’re reading this and are thinking you’d like to take part in a tour like this, we are looking at offering a version of this next year, so keep an eye out on our website and social media platforms. Over the next four years, we will be presenting a variety of programs related to the centennial of La Casa Nueva, as we further explore how it can be a laboratory for investigating not just the history of the dwelling and the family, but also the region, during the Roaring Twenties.

The title of “Focusing on the Family and Fantasy” refers to the house’s decorative elements connected directly to the Temples as well as to California and other broader historical subjects, with much of this rendered romantically as part of journalist Carey McWilliams termed the “fantasy heritage” interpretation of the pre-American period in the state. The Temples had a direct ancestral connection to that era as descendants of Spanish-speaking Californios as well as British and American extranjeros (foreigners) who migrated to Los Angeles as early as 1828. Despite the authentic linkages, there were plenty of “fantasy heritage” elements built in to La Casa Nueva, as well as their sense of identity, commemoration of history and support of such public presentations as The Mission Play, performed at San Gabriel for about two decades starting in 1912.

One of several sites on the ranch for manufacturing adobe bricks for La Casa Nueva and associated structures. Most of the photos here were likely taken by Thomas W. Temple II.

When the Temples, flush with funds from a fluke oil discovery made at the family’s Montebello-area ranch by eldest child Thomas, who was all of nine years old when he stumbled upon a pool of water bubbling, turning black and smelling of rotten eggs in spring 1914, acquired the Homestead in late 1917, their intention was to invest heavily in remodeling the 75-acre ranch. This included renovations to the Workman House, a reconstruction of most of El Campo Santo Cemetery such as adding the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum, remodeling a trio of 1860s winery buildings for an auditorium/dining hall/garage, and much else.

What was not in their plans was a second house because, at the time Walter P. Temple and his wife Laura González, bought the Homestead, the Temples purchased a substantial Craftsman-style house in Alhambra as their full-time residence. The ranch was intended to be for weekend and other visits, as well as for hosting events of many kinds, including some for over 1,000 guests, while it was planted mainly to walnuts for income. Between 1919 (a pre-existing lease with a Japanese farmer known to us only as K. Yatsuda expired at the end of the prior year) and 1922, a great deal of work was conducted at the Homestead.

The north side of the house, ca. 1925.

In summer 1922, though, the Temples went on an extended vacation in México and the inspiration they drew from our southern neighbor was such that Walter and Laura decided to begin work on a new house, literally rendered into the name of La Casa Nueva. While in Guadalajara, the large metropolis and capital of the state of Jalisco, the family met Don Pablo Urzua, a maestro de obra, or master stone mason, who was hired to bring his crew to the Homestead and make adobe bricks the traditional ways—with the notable exception that adobe kilns, or ovens, were used to bake the bricks.

Walter and Laura, in consultation with Whittier contractor Sylvester Cook, who built the mausoleum, sketched out their earliest ideas on butcher paper and surviving samples show a Mission Revival-style structure as well as an interior layout that was subsequently revised and refined. Important to the couple was a way to employ abundant references to history and myth as often as possible in the structure’s décor, along with a strong sense of family identity. From these initial efforts, it was quite clear that, while there is no shortage of southern California structures built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, La Casa Nueva, which includes 12,400 square feet of space, stands out. So, too, does the context of the site’s history.

A view from the Living Room looking east toward the Mission Walkway and, behind that, the Workman House, ca. 1924.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the house’s history is its relationship with the adjacent Workman House, an 1840s adobe structure with circa 1870 brick additions. That dwelling, built by William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, was the headquarters of a massive 25,000-acre portion of the Rancho La Puente, which was success in the raising of livestock and crops. William Workman’s business partnership with F.P.F. Temple, husband of Workman’s daughter, Margarita, however, ended in financial disaster when their Temple and Workman bank in Los Angeles failed in 1876. The house and 75 acres, however, were salvaged by purchase from a grandson, Francis W. Temple.

In the mid-1880s, a teenage Laura González was working for Francis and managing much of the operation of what was then known as the Workman (or La Puente) Homestead for a frequently absent owner struggling with tuberculosis when she fell in love with his brother, Walter. Though the couple grew up near each other in the nearby community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, situated in the Whittier Narrows area, the young lovers were apparently forced to keep their relationship secret because of the disapproval of his family. It was not until 1903, when they were well into their thirties, that the couple married and lived at Old Mission with their four surviving children, Thomas, Agnes, Walter, Jr. and Edgar.

An early elevation drawing with Walter and Laura Temple working with Sylvester Cook.

Then came the oil discovery, the sudden propulsion to significant wealth, the purchase of the Homestead, the trip to México and the initial planning for the house. After the early concepts were rendered with Cook’s assistance, the Temples turned to the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, then drawing plans for Walter’s growing portfolio of commercial buildings as part of his foray into real estate development. By this time, La Casa Nueva definitely took on its Spanish Colonial Revival stylistic features, while the interior layout was redeveloped and got considerably closer to what was built and completed.

At the end of 1922, not long after construction began, however, Laura died of colon cancer. Her devastated widow and children mulled over whether to continue with the project and, after they decided to proceed, they commissioned a granite marker to dedicate the house to her with a ceremony held on the first anniversary of her death, including a blessing by Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Cantwell. The Homestead may be unique in our region for being thrice-blessed, with Bishop Thadeus Amat blessing the cornerstone of St. Nicholas’ Chapel at the cemetery in May 1857 and Cantwell blessing its successor mausoleum in April 1921.

A detail of a ca. 1923 Walker and Eisen drawing of the east side of the house, though aspects were changed significantly in suceeding years.

Another key development was the hiring, by 1924, of Beverly Hills architect Roy Seldon Price to complete the house. Price, then widely known for his remarkable Dias Doradas for film studio owner Thomas Ince, brought considerable imagination, ingenuity and innovation to his efforts with La Casa Nueva. These, however, literally involved a running Temple family joke was that his invoices matched his surname, as additions, redesigns, removals of such completed components as the central staircase and a bridge connecting the two second-floor wings with replaced elements, and much more not only added significantly to the house’s burgeoning costs but pushed back completion substantially.

There is no question that what Price brought to La Casa Nueva elevated it substantially into a masterpiece of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. But, it meant another three years of work, not to mention late additions like the whimsical Tepee, a home office for Walter Temple based on a cottage in which he stayed while at the Soboba Hot Springs resort owned by the tribe of that name near Hemet.

A Roy Seldon Price drawing of the second-floor west side bathroom—much of this, however, was not built, including the linen cabinets.

As the structure neared completion, however, the Temple family’s finances, mirroring to a degree what happened a half-century before to Walter’s father, F.P.F. Temple, and grandfather William Workman, whose Los Angeles bank failed in 1876, were in deep distress. In 1926, he and his partners in the Temple Townsite Company, which developed the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928), and the Temple Estate Company, which handled all of his other holdings, took out bonds to raise capital to complete projects—though this necessarily entailed the assumption of regular interest payments on the debt incurred, even as it extended full payment to thirty years.

The crux of the problem was that, despite many efforts and much money expended through the Walter P. Temple Oil Company and other prospecting projects, the great success of the Temple lease at the Montebello Oil Field was never close to being replicated. As to Montebello, it proved to be a somewhat shallow field, with fabulous output early, but a marked decline in production after just several years. The Temples realized tens of thousands of dollars per month in royalties in the first years of drilling on their lease, but revenue quickly trended downward.

The courtyard as the house neared completion, ca. 1927. Note the solar panels on the roof, used for heating water in redwood tanks in the attic and used in the second-floor bathrooms.

At the same time, with another of the region’s fabled booms peaking in 1923, the concentrated period of real estate development from 1921 to 1927 meant that expenditures quickly outpaced income and La Casa Nueva’s substantial delays and skyrocketing costs exacerbated an already worrying situation. By the time the house was finished, the economic condition was dire and, while measures were undertaken to try and stabilize the situation, last-ditch oil drilling efforts at such locales as Signal Hill and Ventura were not successful enough to stem the growing tide of debt.

The beautiful dwelling hosted, for the first time in years, a reunited family (save, of course, Laura Temple) in summer 1929 as the four children completed their high school, college and law school educations. The reunion, however, was short-lived. The only daughter, Agnes, married a month after the crash of the stock market that precipitated the Great Depression and moved to northern California and within six months, Walter decided to lease the ranch to the Golden State Military Academy, which relocated from Redondo Beach.

The aim was to earn enough rental income to save the Homestead, but the increasingly worsening depression affected private school enrollment among its many other effects, and nothing could be done to prevent the foreclosure of the ranch by California Bank in July 1932. La Casa Nueva found a second and third life as an institutional building for the school and then, from 1940 to about 1970, El Encanto Sanitarium. While the Temples left many photographs and blueprints for La Casa Nueva in storage in the Tepee’s attic, the owners of El Encanto found and saved these artifacts and their descendants donated them to the Museum before its 1981 opening.

From 1963 to 1975, the City of Industry acquired the site comprised of the Workman House, La Casa Nueva, El Campo Santo Cemetery, a late 19th century water tower, and other aspects of a six-acre parcel that became the Museum. Since our opening in May 1981, the City has fully funded the Homestead’s maintenance and operations and this has allowed the Museum’s staff to develop and administer tours and programs that have been recognized for their quality in presentation.

The southwestern corner of the Main Hall, ca. 1928.

The La Casa Nueva Centennial, with the Doors Open California weekend representing another stage of its commemoration, will continue to include new public offerings as well as ongoing refinements and re-conceptions of this amazing structure as a a veritable laboratory of the history of the Workman and Temple family, the Homestead site, and greater Los Angeles. We look forward to sharing this evolution with our visitors in forthcoming years!

2 thoughts

  1. Extraordinary story of the Temple -Workman estates. Thank you. As a former Miss Montebello, the local history means a great deal to me. Again, thank you

  2. Hi Marian, we’re glad you enjoyed the post, especially as you lived very near where the Temples long resided. Thanks for your interest!

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