Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Laura Gonzalez Temple only lived 51 years, but she had a remarkable journey ended prematurely by cancer. Though she passed away just months after construction began on La Casa Nueva, which her husband completed five years later, there is no question that this stunning Spanish Colonial Revival home would not be what it is without her input and inspiration. For those of us who work as paid and volunteer staff members or are visitors to the museum, her legacy is reflected in the unique character and quality of the home.
Laura was born on 10 August 1871 in the Old Mission community, so named because the original site of Mission San Gabriel was there, south of El Monte. Little is known about her early years, but by the mid-1880s she was working in the household of Francis W. Temple, owner of the Workman Homestead, consisting of the Workman House and 75 acres of vineyards and orchards.
Francis, the second child of Antonia Margarita Workman, daughter of the Homestead’s first owners William and Nicolasa Workman, and F.P.F. Temple, was responsible for wine-making for his grandfather in the mid-1870s when the family’s Temple and Workman bank failed.
After William Workman’s tragic suicide in May 1876, Francis stayed on at the Homestead and continued to operate the vineyard and other ranch activities. When, in 1879, Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin foreclosed on a loan made to reopen the bank, Francis negotiated a purchase of the Homestead, finalized the next year.
Surviving letters, documents and a ledger kept by Laura at the time indicate that, despite her youth, she was entrusted with major responsibilities at the Homestead during the mid-1880s. This appears to be so mainly because Francis, who had tuberculosis, had to spend considerable time in places like Yuma, Arizona trying to deal with the disease and its ravaging effects on his lungs.
Yet, Francis’ much-younger brother (they were 21 years apart) Walter, who lived with his mother at the Temple Homestead in Old Mission, also fell in love with Laura. Several surviving letters from Walter to Laura, in English and Spanish, are overflowing with the kind of teenage emotion that we would expect, but there was a problem.
The romance essentially was secret, at least from some members of the Workman and Temple family. Laura was essentially a household worker, albeit entrusted with important tasks, and one letter specifically mentions keeping news of the romance away from Francis. Clandestine meetings were held between the young lovers, although they were given assistance in this by Walter and Francis’ octogenarian grandmother Workman. More on this in later posts when some of these letters will be highlighted!
On 2 August 1888, Francis died, just a few days shy of his 40th birthday, and the Homestead went to his younger brother (and Walter’s elder sibling), John. Laura was no longer needed at the ranch, though she did receive a small bequest in his will, so she moved out, spending some of her time in subsequent years living in Boyle Heights, where she taught piano.
it is not know whether her romance with Walter continued uninterrupted or not, but it was not until Thanksgiving Day 1903, when he was 34 and she was 32 (common ages for nuptials now, but hardly then), that he and Laura were married. By then, Walter and his younger brother Charles inherited the 50-acre Homestead from their mother and then divided the ranch. After marrying Laura, Walter built a wood-frame house on the southern section of the property and the two began a family. Charles then sold his interest in the property to Walter.
Between 1905 and 1910, five children were born to the couple. Thomas Workman Temple II, named for his father’s oldest brother, was born first in January 1905, followed by a daughter Alvina, who lived just two weeks in February 1906. A second daughter, Agnes, arrived in August 1907 and then two more sons, Walter P., Jr. (February 1909) and Edgar (December 1910) rounded out the family.
During the first decade of their marriage, Walter and Laura resided on the family homestead, where apples and walnuts were raised, though Walter also worked as a teamster and insurance agent among other endeavors. Then, in late 1912, Walter sold the Temple Homestead and made a surprising arrangement with the estate of Lucky Baldwin. The deal was that he would acquire 60 acres of land, formerly owned by F.P.F. Temple, in and adjacent to the Montebello Hills and only a few hundred years west of the Temple Homestead, and borrow the money from the estate to do so. Why this was done is not known, but the result was even more surprising.
On the 60-acre tract was the Basye Adobe, built in 1869 by Rafael Basye and used as a home, store and saloon over the years. One of the residents and proprietors was Walter’s sister, Lucinda and her second husband, Manuel Zuñiga, before they moved to Arizona in the early 1900s. Walter, Laura and their four surviving children occupied the house for less than two years when eldest child Thomas made an astounding discovery.
In April 1914, after a heavy rain, the nine-year old was playing on the hillside west of the house when he found indications of oil in a pool of water bubbling up to the surface. The following year, a lease of the property was made to Standard Oil Company of California, which also secured a lease with the remainder of the Montebello Hills owned by Lucky Baldwin’s two daughters. After the first Baldwin well was successfully drilled, Temple well #1 was completed at the end of June 1917 (as covered in this blog at the end of this June).
With a one-eighth interest in royalties, the Temples were catapulted to sudden and significant wealth. By the end of 1917, Walter and Laura purchased a large Craftsman-style home in Alhambra as a full-time residence while also purchasing the Workman Homestead, lost by Walter’s brother, John, in 1899. A lease of the ranch continued through 1918, so it was not until then that the Temples could begin work on renovations and additions.
As oil revenues from Montebello rose, the Temples quickly remodeled the Workman House, worked on the nearly ruined El Campo Santo Cemetery, and other projects. Additional oil projects in California, Mexico, Texas and California were accompanied by Walter’s venture into local real estate by the onset of the 1920s.
In summer 1922, the Temple family vacationed in Mexico and were so inspired by their trip that, on their return, they decided to build a new house, La Casa Nueva, adjacent to the Workman House. The Temples recording their ideas on butcher paper, which were rendered finished drawings by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, designers of Walter’s structures in San Gabriel, El Monte, Alhambra and Los Angeles.
In addition, an adobe making crew was brought from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico to hand-form bricks in the traditional way and craftsmen were employed for ironwork, woodwork, plaster carving and glass making. The main adobe walls and wood framing were nearing completion when Laura Temple’s health worsened, due mainly to cancer. Specific concepts and designs for the home’s interior often came from Laura’s ideas, but, when she passed away on 28 December 1922, she did not have the chance to see those come to fruition.
Work halted on La Casa Nueva for a time after her death, but then resumed. Walter Temple arranged for the home to be dedicated to her on the first anniversary of Laura’s death at the end of 1923 with the installation of a plaque next to the front door. After a new architect, Roy Seldon Price, was hired the following year, his reimagining of the front of the house meant the plaque to Laura was moved to a corner of the building where it remains.
Still, many of her ideas were incorporated into the home, which was finally completed at the end of 1927. Sadly, the Temples only occupied the fully finished residence for about 2 1/2 years, moving in May 1930 to allow for occupancy by a boys’ military school in an attempt to save the Homestead from foreclosure. The idea failed, however, and the ranch was lost in 1932.
Despite the fact that Laura never lived in La Casa Nueva, her ideas implemented for its design and decoration do live on nearly a century later.