by Paul R. Spitzzeri
At his peak in the mid-1870s, F.P.F. Temple was one of the wealthiest, perhaps the wealthiest, person in Los Angeles County. He was president of the bank of Temple and Workman, owned thousands of acres of land in greater Los Angeles, and was a rare Republican victor in a county election when he was elected county treasurer in 1875. He was, by all accounts, highly respected and well-liked and had been for the more than three decades he’d lived in Los Angeles.
Suddenly, in early 1876, it all came crashing down when his bank failed and the institution went into assignment. As an upcoming post will detail, an inventory of the stricken financial firm revealed much that people in Los Angeles did not know about the bank and its titular head. It was a startling downfall to a preeminent public figure as the town moved to a remote frontier town to a nascent small city.
It was on this day in 1822 that Pliny Fisk Temple was born, the youngest of a large family, to Jonathan Temple, Sr. and his second wife, Lucinda Parker in Reading, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston. The Temple family’s New England roots went back to the late 1630s with Abraham Temple, a native of England, who settled in the Massachusetts Colony.
The child was named for a then-famed Congregationalist missionary, Pliny Fisk, whose labors in Palestine and other areas of the Middle East led many American parents to name sons after the religious figure. Little is known of Pliny’s early years, though later letters show a close bond with his mother and siblings. After completing schooling in Reading, he took a business course in Boston, finishing in 1840.
It was from that city, several weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday, that Pliny decided to leave New England and journey to far-flung Mexican California. It was January 1841 when he boarded the brig “Tasso” and headed south on the Atlantic Ocean around Cape Horn and up the Pacific to landfall at Monterey, the capital of department of Alta California. This was in late June and several days were taken to ride by horse overland to Los Angeles, wher he arrived early in July.
The reason was that Pliny wanted to meet (yes, meet for the first time) his eldest sibling, Jonathan. Born in 1796 to a different mother and twenty-five years older, Jonathan left home before Pliny’s birth, sailing to what was commonly known in New England as the Sandwich Islands, which we know as Hawaii. The island kingdom had been almost totally isolated from outside incursions, but, in 1819, the first Congregationalist missionaries arrived from Massachusetts and tremendous transformation (not unlike what greeted California’s aboriginal people a half-century prior) was soon underway.
Jonathan was a merchant in Honolulu for several years, but decided to leave for California in 1827, arriving in San Diego, where he was baptized a Roman Catholic. After a short stay there, he relocated to Los Angeles the next year, becoming the second American or European to reside in the pueblo. Jonathan also opened the town’s first store, which he operated for almost thirty years, and acquired property in the hamlet which proved to be immensely valuable later.
It appeared the Pliny intended to make a prolonged visit in Los Angeles to get acquainted with his brother and then return home, but he changed his plans and stayed permanently. He worked as a clerk in Jonathan’s store and was in town less than a year when news of a gold discovery in the mountains north of Los Angeles spurred him to invest in some of the gold dust mined there.
Perhaps his investment was an incentive to offer his hand in marriage to Antonia Margarita Workman, whose family came overland to the area several months after Pliny’s arrival in Los Angeles. It’s not known how the couple met–it could have been during a Workman family shopping trip to the store, or at a party. One of the more interesting bits of trivia related to the wedding, which took place at the end of September 1845, was that it was the first nuptial in the region in which bridge and groom both had English-language surnames. Pliny also took the opportunity to be baptized a Catholic immediately prior to the wedding ceremony and took the name Francisco. From that point onward, he was known by the initials F.P.F. and he and his wife had eleven children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. The tenth child, Walter, owned the Homestead from 1917 to 1932 and built La Casa Nueva, a centerpiece of the Homestead Museum.
Over the next thirty years, Temple worked in business, ranching and farming. He owned property in the southern gold mining regions around Columbia (now a state historic park), in Fresno County and in greater Los Angeles, including the Temple Block in downtown, where he added three structures to one built by his brother Jonathan and which F.P.F. acquired from his brother’s estate in 1867. Aside from his bank, which was a successor to the institution of Hellman, Temple and Company operated with merchant Isaias W. Hellman from 1868 to 1871, he had interests in many companies dealing with real estate, oil, water and more. His half of Rancho La Merced, located in the Whittier Narrows and a gift in 1851 from his father-in-law William Workman, was a highly prosperous and productive one. Temple served as the second Los Angeles city treasurer in 1851-52 and was on the first county Board of Supervisors in 1852-53. As noted above, after several failed tries for a seat as a supervisor and as county treasurer, he was victorious in the 1875 campaign for the latter.
When his bank collapsed, he was worth somewhere in the vicinity of $2 million and, depending on how wealth was measured (property value, taxes paid, etc.), he may have been the wealthiest person in the county. But, again, it was compromised when the failure took place. So popular that he was not asked to resign when he was slated to take office in March 1876 as county treasurer, he completed his two-year term, though most of the work was done by a deputy. Temple had the dubious distinction of serving in the office while a personal bankrupt, having declared bankruptcy a few months after being installed.
A series of strokes, likely attributed to the shock of his stunning financial fall, began in the late summer of 1876 and caused partial paralysis. After leaving office in 1878, he remained at the family residence at La Merced, but even that property was part of a foreclosure proceeding initiated the following year by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who held a mortgage thanks to the loan he made to the bank. The 1879 foreclosure might have been the last blow for Temple, who died of another stroke at the end of April 1880. He was buried at El Campo Santo Cemetery near the Workman House, which was also foreclosed upon by Baldwin.
F.P.F. Temple was remembered for years after 1876 as the only banker in Los Angeles history to have failed, which remained the case until the Great Depression. By then, though, he was largely forgotten. Ironically, his son, Walter was propelled to wealth by oil found in the same Montebello Hills area his father once owned, but lost to Baldwin, and which Walter bought a small piece of in 1912.
Using the proceeds to invest in other oil projects and in regional real estate, Walter embarked on an ambitious agenda of development not unlike what his father had done a half-century prior. In 1926, fifty years after the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank, Walter borrowed money to keep his precarious business dealings afloat, but, within a half dozen years as the Depression worsened, foreclosures ensued. By 1932, Walter had followed his father’s footsteps into financial failure.