by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted in previous posts here, the economic story of Walter P. Temple through the Roaring Twenties mirrors much of what transpired broadly in greater Los Angeles. When the decade began in 1921, Temple, flush with cash from the improbable fortune fomented by a fortuitous find of oil by his young son Thomas on the family’s ranch near Montebello, began delving deeply in oil and real estate speculation as the region underwent yet another of its fabled booms.
Initially, his real estate work was handled somewhat loosely, but, by the middle of the decade, the Temple Estate Company was established to handle all of the projects in which Temple was engaged, except the Town of Temple, created in May 1923 and which was managed by the Temple Townsite Company. The estate firm worked aggressively in those early years on development in Alhambra, San Gabriel and El Monte, but one of the issues that confronted the company was that 1923 was the peak of the regional real estate market, while another was that oil production at the Temple lease, worked by Standard Oil Company (California), declined dramatically as the Montebello field proved to be shallow.
Other petroleum prospecting projects were undertaken in many areas, including Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill (Long Beach) and Ventura, as well as out of state, but, even with occasional successes, nothing was realized that could make up for the shortfall as yields at Montebello lessened considerably. So, the unfortunate combination of mounting expenses and declining revenues were such that, by early 1926, it was clear that drastic action was necessary to continue with work by the estate and townsite companies.
Both firms took out bonds to finance work at the Town of Temple (which was renamed Temple City in 1928) as well as the remaining project at Alhambra, specifically the Edison Building. The latter was finished in April 1927, while at the townsite, sales had stalled significantly. Later that year, the Temple family’s opulent Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, La Casa Nueva, at the Homestead was completed after five years of work at a significantly higher cost than like envisioned. In early 1928, the Davis-Baker Company of Pasadena was hired to jumpstart efforts at Temple City, as well as to manage the estate company’s buildings. The real estate market, however, continued to cool and progress was slowed.
A last-ditch effort to bring in those gushers that would rescue Temple in his financial distress was undertaken at Ventura, but success there proved to be elusive and, by 1929, the writing was on the wall. Key Alhambra properties were sold that summer, just after the four Temple children (Thomas, his sister Agnes and their younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar) returned home as freshly minted graduates from their various schools (Harvard Law, Dominican College and Dummer Academy—this last a preparatory high school in Massachusetts not far from Harvard).
The joy the family experienced with its long-desired reunion was short-lived. While Agnes married Luis Fatjo on Thanksgiving Day 1929 and embarked on a long European honeymoon before settling in San Francisco with her rancher husband, Edgar and Walter, Jr., also went to the Bay Area to study at the University of Santa Clara. Despite his law degree from a prestigious school, Thomas decided to abandon to prospects of a legal career and pondered going into banking. During that fall, moreover, the crash of the stock market in New York City ushered in the beginnings of the Great Depression.
In the last year of the decade, the painful decision was reached to lease 20 acres of the 92-acre Homestead to the Golden State Military Academy, which relocated from Redondo Beach to operate on the developed portion of the ranch, including the Workman House (where classrooms were situated), La Casa Nueva (used as dormitory and study and entertainment spaces), and the outbuildings, reservoir/pool and other elements.
What the Temples retained was the remaining three-quarters and more of the property, which was mostly planted with walnut trees. The raising of these nuts was a major occupation of farmers and ranchers in the La Puente Valley, with the nearby town of Puente boasting what was then the world’s largest packing house for the high-value crop. While the growing of walnuts was not previously considered a vital part of Walter Temple’s financial portfolio, it became more important as he tried to eke out what income he could to forestall foreclosure on his most prized possession.
After signing the lease with Lawrence F. Lewis, the proprietor of the military school, Walter decamped with his partner, Modesta (Maud) Romero Bassity, for Ensenada, the coastal town in the Mexican state of Baja California, where he intended to live modestly while hoping for a reversal in his situation that would allow him to return to the Homestead. With its heavy foreign (mainly American) investment, Ensenada, where Walter and his late wife Laura González spent their honeymoon nearly three decades before, was the site of another real estate investment in which he was invested: the Playa Ensenada resort.
Just over a mile from the new project, Temple resided in a rental on Ryerson Street (named from a dominant figure in the early days of the community, George Ryerson) and, for a while, his mail was sent in care of the famous Hussong’s Cantina, which not quite halfway between the house and the resort. By the time, however, that the featured object from the Museum’s collection for this post, a 17 October 1930 letter to Temple from the estate company’s manager, Charles W. Tandy, was written, his Ryerson address as utilized.
Tandy (1896-1951) was a native of St. Louis who migrated with his widowed mother (he was an only child) to Long Beach early in the 20th century. After completing his education, Tandy went to work for Southern California Edison’s branch office in the coastal city and was an auditor and accountant. He appears to have continued with the company and remained in Long Beach until he was hired by the Temple Estate Company by 1925.
The firm had offices in the Great Republic Life Building (in which Temple was one of the investors) in downtown Los Angeles and then moved to the Edison Building when that edifice was completed. After that structure was sold in 1929, an office was secured in the Security Title Insurance Building at the southeast corner of Grand Avenue and 6th Street near Pershing Square in Los Angeles. Also housed in this top-floor office was the Pedro Petroleum Company, in which Temple and Milton Kauffman, his long-time friend and business manager, were involved in another attempt to recapture previous petroleum prospecting glory in San Pedro, where the Temple Estate Company owned property.
Tandy’s letter came at a time when there was still hope that the depression that burst forth nearly a year prior might abate and the economic environment improve, but her began by noting,
Things are getting along as well as can be expected under the present conditions, and we hope that within a very short time we will be able to report something favorable in connection with the San Pedro property, although as yet nothing definite has been accomplished. We are putting forth all our efforts to promote the oil proposition there, as it is believed that there is a possibility of a field in that location.
In 1927, Kauffman and unnamed associates (perhaps including Temple) undertook an ambitious effort with the acquisition of over 520 acres of the Dodson Ranch, formerly land owned by descendants of the Sepúlveda family, on the western edge of San Pedro. A sprawling $4 million development plan was announced including a luxury hotel and housing tracts, but that ambitious concept formed by the Western View Land Company, headed by Kauffman, soon foundered.
What remained, however, were some properties held by the estate company, though it looked to sell what it could in a tepid market, while the Pedro Petroleum Company launched a drilling project with a “wildcat” well. This meant that the subsurface geological formations and the presence of potential oil deposits were not adequately explored and the project was a fishing expedition. It was not until June 1931 that the firm began work on its first well near where the Los Palos Hospital is situated now, but this was yet another failed endeavor.
Turning to the Homestead, Tandy reported to Temple that “the walnut crop—from what Mr. Kauffman tells me—is not as good as it was last year, and he estimates that there will probably be a crop valued at about $3500.00, exclusive of the twenty acres under the Golden State Military Academy lease.” In fact, the 17 October edition of the Covina Argus noted that, while 80% of the walnut crop locally was picked, according to the La Puente Valley Walnut Growers’ Association, the total from more than 7,500 acres in the valley was less than half the yield from 1929, which was one of the highest on record, though prices were under a five-year average.
So, this news was hardly cheering, though Tandy added that the grove was “being very carefully guarded” by one of Kauffman’s brothers-in-law, while it was noted that “the Major [Lewis] is looking after the whole ranch in fine shape, and I believe that everything is going along nicely.” Despite this expression of optimism, Temple could hardly have felt that the report was a positive foreboding of his future with the Homestead and his ability to hold onto it.
After noting that Temple’s attorney and fellow investor, George H. Woodruff, had just returned from a vacation, Tandy wrote “I understand that the hotel in Ensenada is now open and presume that the pueblo is enjoying quite a bit of business from the tourist visitors.” While the Playa Ensenada did open about 60% of its rooms, it was rushing to complete the remainder and there was a grand opening held on the last day of October. Despite plenty of publicity, the presence of famed heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey as president of the enterprise, and connections of the Hollywood movie industry, the project did not fare well during the worsening Depression and was another instance of failed investments by Kauffman, Woodruff and Temple.
Emblematic of the economizing effected by the deteriorating financial situation, Tandy enclosed a check for $50, though how much of his boss’s expenses this covered is not known. Also included with the latter were annuity checks for Edgar for that month, which Temple was asked to endorse and return to the estate company office so that the funds could be deposited in the young man’s account with California Bank. Moreover, Maud Bassity sought an extension on the payment of a Great Republic Life insurance premium for her son, Anthony, this being another instance of straitened economic circumstances.
As to Edgar, who, with Walter, Jr., completed one year at Santa Clara but was unable to continue his education because of a lack of ready funds, it was noted that he visited in the office the prior day, probably regarding his annuity, and Tandy wrote “I think Edgar is a mighty fine boy and will make good in his dental profession.” This was the vocation of his cousin, Charles P. Temple, Jr., but Edgar ended up not continuing on that path.
Tandy ended his missive with a postscript that Kauffman went to Idaho to look into the sale of a ranch which, it was hoped “will result in the sale of about 100 lots in Temple City.” Earlier in 1930, the Temple Townsite Company ended its management of the town, turning over that role to a new firm, the Temple City Company. There were, obviously, a significant number of lots held by Temple and his associates, but it is not known whether the Idaho went went through.
What we do know is that, by summer 1932, there were no further options for Temple to maintain his tenuous hold of the Homestead and it was lost that July in a foreclosure by California Bank. Moreover, his stay at Ensenada soon ended and, after a brief period in Tijuana, followed by a stay in San Diego, Temple, who was diagnosed with cancer, returned to Los Angeles. He resided in a cottage at the rear of the house owned by Maud Bassity’s parents and died there in November 1938 at age 69.
We are fortunate to have documents like this to help us better understand and interpret the Temple family story, one that mirrored much of went on during the 1920s, culminating in the national and worldwide disaster that was the Great Depression. We’ll continue to share more letters like this, but also missives dating as far back as the 1840s—including one from October 1845, which we’ll share next week.