Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
At today’s second in a series of three lectures this year on themes related to the First World War, journalist Edmon Rodman shared the extraordinary story of his discovery of Sargeant Joseph Kauffman, who died in a battle in the Argonne Forest at the end of the war and who was memorialized by Walter P. Temple with a monument, dedicated in 1919 and located since 1930 in Temple City Park.
My shorter presentation gave an overview of the Kauffman family and their journey from Europe to greater Los Angeles in the late 19th century, with particular attention paid to Joseph Kauffman’s older brother Milton (1882-1956).
The Kauffman family was headed by Isidor, a native of Alsace Lorraine not far from where Joseph died, and Ernestine (Teany) Laventhal, who was born in Los Angeles and whose parents migrated from Prussia. Teany’s father, Elias. was one of the first Jews to live in Los Angeles and was a merchant from the early 1850s. By 1880, the Laventhals migrated to Tucson in the Arizona territory and then to the notorious Tombstone, though they returned to Los Angeles by the middle of the decade.
As for Isidor, he left Havre in France in 1867 and landed in New York, before making his way to Cincinnati, where he lived for several years and was naturalized there in 1872. Isidor moved to California by the end of the Seventies and lived in Redding and a mining town near Chico, working as a merchant. In 1881, he resettled in Tucson, where he met and married Teany Laventhal. The first two children, Milton and Jules were born in that area.
The Kauffmans then came to greater Los Angeles and eventually settled in El Monte, where Isidor, now known as Isaac, opened a store that became a mainstay in the largely agricultural community. Their second son, Jules, died in the Riverside town of San Jacinto, which was where people with lung problems often went to take in the drier climate for the ailments, and perhaps the 13-year old passed away from such a condition. That same year, 1895, Joseph was born.
In the meantime, Milton joined his father in what was known as the Kauffman Mercantile Company and was groomed to succeed Isaac in the business. Milton, however, also had a strong desire to work in real estate and later dated his start in the business as taking place in 1906. His earliest transactions took place in El Monte, but he also began acquiring land from famed mining magnate, race horse breeder, and land owner, Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin.
Baldwin, who loaned some $340,000 to the bank of Temple and Workman in 1875 and then foreclosed on it when the loan went unpaid in the aftermath of the institution’s failure months later, owned about 25,000 acres of land once owned by Temple and Workman on several area ranches, including Workman’s half of La Puente. In later years, Kauffman claimed he was an agent of Baldwin’s, but after the latter’s death in 1909 and once the massive estate was settled, Kauffman acquired more Baldwin land.
In the early 1910s, Kauffman was a prime mover in the creation of the town of Baldwin Park, which was on former Rancho La Puente land. He subdivided and sold farm plots and house lots, gave land for churches and schools, and was accounted “the presiding genius of this district” in a laudatory article in the Covina Argus newspaper in June 1912.
Later that year, Kauffman acted as an agent for one of his longtime store customers and friends, Walter P. Temple, in acquiring property at the northeastern edge of the Montebello Hills from the Baldwin estate. This was land owned by Temple’s father, F.P.F., before the bank failure and foreclosure by Baldwin. Perhaps Kauffman’s long dealings with the Baldwin interests provided for the remarkable terms of the sale in October 1912, in which Temple acquired 60 acres without having the cash to even make a down payment, so the estate loaned him the money. The Temples then occupied an 1860s adobe house on the property.
Even more stunning was that, a year-and-a-half later, in April 1914, Temple’s eldest child, Thomas, stumbled upon oil on the hillsides. A lease was arranged with Standard Oil Company of California, which did the same with Baldwin’s heirs, daughters Anita and Clara. A test well on the Baldwin portion successfully brought in oil and then the first Temple well, as covered in a recent post here, came in at the end of June. Within several years, the Temples had several high producing wells on their lease and were catapulted in sudden and significant wealth.
Kauffman became Walter Temple’s business manager and the two launched into a wide array of oil and real estate projects over the next decade. Petroleum prospecting was conducted in Alaksa, Texas, Mexico, and many locations in southern California, including Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, and Ventura. The initial royalties (1/8 of the total revenue) from Montebello were used to buy property in downtown Alhambra in 1919 and then in El Monte, Monterey Park, Puente and San Gabriel.
Temple and Kauffman were later joined in partnership by Los Angeles attorney George H. Woodruff and Alhambra-based sheep rancher Sylvester DuPuy. The group formed a syndicate with others, including north Orange County oilman and furniture maker A. Otis Birch, to build two 11-story commercial buildings in downtown Los Angeles.
Another major project was the subdividing and development of Temple City, which was launched in 1923. Major projects took place in Alhambra, El Monte and San Gabriel between 1921 and 1927, during which time the Temple Estate Company was formed for all projects outside of Temple City, which was developed by the Temple Townsite Company. Kauffman was the manager of all of these interests on Temple’s behalf.
Kauffman was also a director of the Mission Playhouse Corporation, which planned and built a new theatre in San Gabriel for the famed Mission Play, a romantic performance inaugurated in 1912 and which was viewed by around a million persons during its nearly two-decade run. Temple was, with Henry E. Huntington, the largest single donor to the playhouse, which opened in 1927 and still operates today as a community arts venue.
However, by 1926, a decline in the fortunes of the oil side of Temple’s business coupled with increasing investments in funding for real estate projects led to the sale of bonds to continue the work. Debt from the bonds and other expenditures, such as the completion of Temple’s lavish home, La Casa Nueva, here at the Homestead led to a financial disaster that came to a head in the early years of the Great Depression.
Kauffman continued to manage the affairs of the Temple Estate until it went defunct and then went on his own in real estate, though it appears he went through lean times as so many did during the Depression years. By the World War II era, he was working in Inglewood and engaged in his first home building projects there.
Then in the postwar period, when the economy boomed and the population surged, Kauffman finally hit it big. Recognizing that the South Bay and southeastern portions of Los Angeles County were growing in large part due to the massive infusion of defense industry jobs, Kauffman began tract housing developments that targeted defense workers and veterans who used FHA loans to buy homes.
In the late 1940s and first half of the 1950s, Kauffman and his associates launched some 50 projects that included a staggering 20,000 houses and Time magazine listed him as the fourth largest home builder in America. In Torrance, Kauffman built 5,000 residences and other subdivisions were in Norwalk, Bellflower, Whittier, La Mirada, Ladera Heights/Baldwin Hills, West Covina and Puente. In the last three areas, Kauffman projects were built on lands once owned by the Workman and Temple families.
Kauffman, in fact, promoted his fiftieth anniversary in real estate in 1956 by touting his association with Lucky Baldwin. By then, however, he was battling diabetes and a serious heart condition and his second marriage had unraveled to the point that his wife sought control of his multi-million dollar estate. In November of that year, Kauffman died at the age of 74, survived by his wife and his son from his first marriage.
The story of Milton Kauffman is a remarkable one in many ways. The son of a Jewish immigrant and successful merchant in El Monte, he experienced some major successes and significant failures in his early years in real estate. Then, late in life, he rebounded with the fortune of good timing and the skills of identifying good locations and market conditions to build an empire that was among the biggest in the country. His life is a rare example of linking development in the boom years of the early 20th century to that of the post-World War II era, even though his name has largely been forgotten today.