La Casa Nueva as a Laboratory for Unraveling California’s Spanish Fantasy Past

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

University of California, Los Angeles Professor Jeremiah Sladeck’s presentation this afternoon, “Unraveling California’s Spanish Fantasy Past” was an eloquent and powerful analysis, given with surgical precision, of the many ways in which the Golden State’s pre-American history was, from the late 19th century onward, recast and reconstructed to promote an ideal and idyllic version for myriad reasons.

Much of the motivation was financial, as a bevy of boosters broadcast, far and wide, the romantic notion of the state as a placid and peaceful paradise, though this was especially true in the south from San Diego to Santa Barbara, for tourists and settlers. Most of those targeted, from the Boom of the 1880s (when William H. Workman was mayor of Los Angeles) and after, were whites from other parts of the country, and they generally took to the notion hook, line and sinker.

Professor Jeremiah Sladeck giving his presentation, Unraveling California’s Spanish Fantasy Past, this afternoon.

One of the most powerful elements of this fantasy was the immensely popular novel, Ramona, penned by Helen Hunt Jackson, who had a larger social and political purpose for her tale, which was to bring the plight of the indigenous peoples of California to a broader public. Instead, her love story between the title character, a native and Scottish woman, and Alessandro, son of an indigenous chief, captured the attention of millions and a cottage industry was soon built around the tale and the struggle of California’s Indians was almost completely ignored.

Another aspect, having more long-term effect, though in a very different way, was the interpretation of California’s chain of 21 missions, spreading from San Diego (1769) to Sonoma (1823), and which were generally promoted as bastions of deep faith, engendered tenderness and earnest efforts by Franciscan missionaries patiently and persistently instructing the benighted native peoples, often referred to as savages or wild children, in Christianity and the adoption of agriculture and handicrafts.

One of three painted and stained glass windows made in 1982 by John Wallis Studios of Pasadena in the lobby of the Gallery where Prof. Sladeck gave his talk and which shows a Spanish soldier, sword drawn, overseeing the labor of an indigenous Californian.

The towering figure in this comforting story, enshrouded in legend and myth, remains Junipero Serra, recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, and who founded nine of the missions. There were, of course, many missionaries in the system, including the subject of Prof. Sladeck’s dissertation, Fermin de Lasuén, during its roughly 65 years of existence, and, while we have to be cognizant of the fact that the actions of each varied, the sum of the missionary project in California was almost entirely represented from their perspective, not those of the native Californians.

Much as has been the case with colonized people of color throughout the world, the purpose of missionary work was crystal clear: the religious and spiritual beliefs and observances along with most of the cultural and social practices of these people were to be broken down, discarded and replaced with those of the colonizer, whatever country from which they came. Accepting that this idea was believed wholeheartedly by the missionaries, whose methods of colonization were, of course, very different from those of the merchant and the military, the results were, naturally, devastating to the indigenous people.

On the eastern side of the Mission Walkway is this incised reference to the so-called “Queen of the Missions,” the fourth in the chain, San Gabriel.

A good deal of the interpretation of what transpired during the so-called Mission Era (roughly, 1769-1834) focuses on the staggering population decline of California’s Indians due to alcoholism, disease and violence, with much of this attributed to the Spanish and Mexican soldier or to the civilians living in or near the missions. While there is undoubted truth to much of what has been stated, the role of the missionary has been significantly understated. Professor Sladeck, with many often grim and gruesome examples, detailed the degradation of the indigenous Californian under the mission system and left a strong impact on his hearers.

There were other Spanish Fantasy Past components, as well, such as the roughly two decades of the La Fiesta events held in Los Angeles from the 1890s to the 1910s and the Mission Play, the passion play held at San Gabriel for about another twenty years from the 1910s to the 1930s, both of which promoted a pretty and pastoral view, with the latter focused especially on the valiant work of the Franciscans at the missions. Professor Sladeck also briefly noted the popularization of the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture as another means to refer, albeit abstractly, to the pre-American past in a manner that was aesthetically pleasing, if not, usually, directly historical.

A portion of the door surround at La Casa Nueva’s front entrance with the Spanish royal coat-of-arms, representing the merged houses of Castile y Léon.

A notable example, though, of a Spanish Colonial Revival house that has both a stunning architectural beauty, but it steeped in historical references that embodies so much of the spirit of the Spanish Fantasy Past is La Casa Nueva, the house built at the Homestead by the Temple family from 1922 to 1927, and of which the Museum is celebrating its centennial over several years. Walter P. Temple was an avid supporter of John Steven McGroarty’s Mission Play, modeled after the German Oberammergau, providing the largest individual donation, along with Henry E. Huntington (whose rail and real estate empires traded heavily on the Spanish Fantasy Past), toward the Mission Playhouse.

The Temples, though, also are representative of some of the complicated dynamics behind the Spanish Fantasy Past, through the Mission Play, their involvement in San Gabriel fiestas for anniversaries of its founding, Thomas W. Temple II’s long years as the city and mission historian, and in other ways. Undergirding their participation in that concept were the deep personal connections they felt and expressed because of their ancestry, especially that through Laura González Temple’s mother, Francisca Valenzuela (1848-1916), whose life-span went from the American seizure of Mexican California to the earliest versions of the Mission Play and who descended from other early Spanish-era families with the surnames of Bermudez and Lugo.

A Franciscan missionary blessing arriving ships with an indigenous person, albeit looking very Europeanized, in a lowered position in front of the padre in the triptych painted and stained glass window in La Casa Nueva’s Main Hall.

Walter P. Temple had another Spanish Colonial family line through his mother, Antonia Margarita Workman (1830-1892), who made sure her eight surviving (of eleven) children were well-steeped in the traditions of that side of their ancestry, and his grandmother Nicolasa Urioste (1802-1892), whose birth at Taos and baptism of her two children, Margarita and José Manuel (1833-1901), at that New Mexican town’s Indian pueblo church is highly suggestive of her indigenous ancestry.

As recently noted here, Walter spent nearly a half-year in 1894 in México, where his elder brothers, Thomas and William, also resided for long periods, the latter especially. In summer 1922, Walter and Laura took their four children (Thomas, Agnes, Walter, Jr., and Edgar) on a several-weeks sojourn to México so that the latter, aged 11 to 18, could learn something of a significant part of their background. Four years later, after Laura’s death, the Temples did much of the same thing on a summer trip to Massachusetts, from which Walter’s father’s family hailed.

The eagle and snake from the Mexican flag carved in plaster on a wooden beam in the Main Hall with chains from pendant lamps hanging from the bird’s mouth.

So inspired were Walter and Laura by their Mexican experiences that they immediately embarked on the design and construction of La Casa Nueva. This initially involved their ideas captured on butcher paper with a Whittier contractor, Sylvester Cook, and then refined and rendered on buildable plans by the prominent Los Angeles architectural team of Albert H. Walker and Percy Eisen. An added aura of authenticity, however, was brought to bear with the hiring of Don Pablo Urzua, a maestro de obra (stonemason) from Guadalajara, Jalisco, México, and his team of adobe makers, who used the thick puente soil at the site to form bricks and then, instead of sun drying them as in days of yore, baked them in kilns of adobe. It wasn’t just the house that featured adobe construction—the Mission Walkway, surrounding La Casa Nueva on three sides, is built of the earthen material and its concrete floor is incised with the names of the 21 missions interspersed with blue and yellow tiles, including some with the Spanish royal-coat-of-arms (see below.)

The fullest flights of fancy, though, came to the fore through the 1924 hiring of Beverly Hills architect Roy Seldon Price, who is not nearly as well known as others of the many practitioners of the Spanish Colonial Revival style which pervaded the region at the time. Price, fresh off the remarkable, though sadly long gone, Días Dorados (Golden Days, an especially apt Spanish Fantasy Past title) residence of motion picture studio head Thomas Ince, came to La Casa Nueva with a dazzling and dizzying array of ideas, many endearingly eccentric.

Thomas W. Temple II in costume at a Mission San Gabriel fiesta in a window at the east end of the Living Room. This was created from a photograph of Thomas standing next to the city’s post office, built by his father Walter in 1923.

Price’s assuming the reins of the project meant its extension in time and its expansion in cost, leading the Temples to wryly joke that his invoices matched his surname, but there is no doubt that his work transformed the house into something unusually customized and imbued with the Spanish Fantasy Past in ways that would not have otherwise happened. A crowning example was his redesign of the front entrance with a powerful plaster door surround (which some suggest is representative of churrigueresque (say that ten times fast!), a form of decoration characterized by elaborate decoration of surfaces such as that found here.

Crowning the surround, which has grapes and wheat, apparently in reference to what the Workman family raised in and around the Homestead in the 19th century, is the Spanish royal coat-of-arms, with the castle-and-lion motif representative of the houses of Castile and Léon. Inside, the Main Hall is an almost overpowering mélange of decorative features in plaster, wood, iron and stained and painted glass filled with references to myth, legend and history.

Agnes E. Temple depicted in a window across from that of her brother.

This includes representations in plaster-carved wood-frame beams of the half-eagle, half-dragon griffins who ferried California’s mythical namesake, the dark-skinned Amazonian Queen Calafia, ruler of an island nation of only women, as told in the early 16th century chivalric novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián (Adventures of Esplandián). Across the hallway are other beams with the eagle-and-snake motif from the Mexican flag—with pendant lamps hanging from the eagles’ mouths.

The centerpiece of the two-story space is unquestionably that massive triptych (three-part, with the sides opening for ventilation) stained and painted glass window at the south end. This panoramic masterpiece of the glass arts depicts the very foundation of the Spanish Fantasy Past, galleons (albeit, from three different centuries) landed at a bay unloading supplies for the Spanish settlers of Alta California—there is an indigenous person here and there, though looking very European—with a mission on a hill overlooking the gorgeous scene. The profusion of color, naturally, makes the representation even more powerful and attractive, but it’s what is missing that goes to the heart of Professor Sladeck’s presentation.

One of the four renderings in painted and stained glass of scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, Don Quixote.

In the adjoining Living Room, the Temples placed, in prominence, Thomas and Agnes in stained and painted glass windows decked out in costumes placing them in a pointed perspective of scions of the pre-American past. Importantly, these images came from photographs showing the eldest Temple children in costume at one of the San Gabriel fiestas, so it has the literally illuminating effect of showing the family as representatives of the Spanish Fantasy Past as well as descendants of some of the region’s earliest European families. We make a point of juxtaposing these images with a copy of a 1928 promotional brochure for their father’s Temple City, which very clearly told readers of the community’s race restrictions (“only white people reside here—white people of a desirable class” the document baldly states) to point out important contrasts.

The Library boasts a door to the Courtyard with painted glass busts of prominent Anglo authors, William Shakespeare, John Milton and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, along with Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, whose epic tales of Don Quixote were said to be Walter Temple’s favorite and scenes in stained and painted glass of which grace the two sets of double-windows on the western side of the room. It is worth pointing out that, next to this, is a Music Room with five sets of French doors feature ten painted glass portraits of the pantheon of classical music composers from Bach to Wagner—all hammering home European cultural influences.

A bas-relief plaster rendering of the eagle and snake over the entrance to the Master Bedroom.

On the second floor, a bas-relief plaster rendering of the eagle-and-snake design from the Mexican flag is over the door entering from the Upper Main Hall to the Master Bedroom. That space, unused because of Laura’s passing just months after the La Casa Nueva project, includes two-sets of French doors, one on the north and the other on the east sides, leading to a wrap-around balcony, with painted and stained glass windows. The north side, representative of the Workman family, not only shows a wagon train centerpiece, though the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841 from New Mexico did not have wagons (certainly not Conestogas), but has representations of the seals of Spain and México.

For over four decades, La Casa Nueva has been interpreted as a fully restored late 1920s residence and there is, of course, great value in that immersive experience with furniture and furnishings from that era, artifacts from the Museum’s collection placed among them, and the incredible decorative elements of the house all part of the visit. What we’ve began to discuss very recently is how we can refine the interpretation of this amazing house as a laboratory for regional history and especially with it as a particularly revealing one for such concepts as the Spanish Fantasy Past so deftly traced today by Professor Sladeck.

As the centennial commemoration of La Casa Nueva continues, we’ll look to examine more of its capabilities as a laboratory for understanding regional history, including the Spanish Fantasy Past dissected by Prof. Sladeck.

As we continue our commemoration of the La Casa Nueva Centennial through 2027, we’ll work further on this laboratory idea and look for ways to bring this to bear on a variety of programming, including guided and self-guided (including audio) tours, presentations like today’s talk, blog posts, and others. There are many exciting possibilities afoot and we’ll see which come to fruition in the years ahead.

4 thoughts

  1. I just finished reading Ramona for the first time and quite enjoyed it in the context of the 1880’s. BTW, Ramona’s father was Irish and her mother native.

  2. Thank you Paul. You took me on a trip down memory lane. All the wonderful stories I used to tell the visitors!
    Wow! Celebrating the centennial of the house……amazing!

  3. Hi Lillie, we’re glad you enjoyed the post and that it was a reminder of your days as a Homestead volunteer. Look for more about La Casa Nueva and the Temples in future posts!

  4. Thanks, Winston—I actually meant to type “Scottish” not “Spanish,” so thanks for the heads-up!

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