by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon’s “Flirting with History” event combined a picnic, including hands-on activities, dance demonstrations, and a special tour in which visitors were led through the Workman House and La Casa Nueva and, at five stations, heard excerpts from family letters related in some way to love, whether romantic, maternal and otherwise.
The number of people for the first three tours, at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 was excellent, with just the last one at 4:00 being sparsely attended. More importantly, guests seemed actively engaged and genuinely impressed by the variety of letters and what they revealed about members of the Workman and Temple families in their correspondence from the 1840s to the 1920s.
Easily the most unusual and distinctive location used for the program was the basement at the Workman House in a reading of an 1887 letter by Walter P. Temple to Laura Gonzalez. The reason for this is to come as we progress with the discussion, but, first, a few words about the situation involving the two.
Laura Gonzalez was born in 1871 in the community of Misión Vieja (Old Mission), situated in the Whittier Narrows between the present-day cities of South El Monte, Pico Rivera, Montebello and Whittier. One of her neighbors was Walter P. Temple, who was born a couple of years before her, in June 1869. The community was small and tight-knit, so the two must have known each other well in their childhood.
In 1887, the Homestead was owned by Walter’s older brother, Francis (1848-1888), who’d been the winemaker for his grandfather William Workman and remained residing on the property when Workman took his life after the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876. Four years later, with money made from wine-making on the ranch as foreclosure proceedings on a loan by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin were finally instituted, Francis purchased the Workman House and 75 surrounding acres from Baldwin.
Francis, known to his family as “Pancho” (a common nickname for Francisco), was successful at running the ranch and operating the vineyard and winery, but he also was beset with tuberculosis and frequent spent long stretches away from the property. Surviving material indicates that he left much of the management of the Homestead to the teenage Laura Gonzalez—a remarkable circumstance both for her age and gender.
Yet, Walter in falling in love with Laura, apparently did so at the risk of blatant disapproval from his brother (and perhaps others in the Temple family.) So, the teen romance was kept a secret to almost everyone. That’s where the letter comes in.
First, though, let’s get a taste of the purple prose and heightened emotion, the 17-year old Walter, commands and displays towards his fifteen-year old paramour:
Never had my soul ascended to such loftier realms of endless bliss and happiness as on Sunday evening when I received your most esteemed favor, which like an opening bud spreading its lovely leaves to catch and perfume the warm rays of an evening’s sun, it did infuse into the inner portion of the bosom’s core its most sweet redolence, and consequently my insufferable anxiety with which I awaited some pleasing tidings to crown me with its precious contents, was, at the receipt of your epistle, suddenly transformed into something inexpressible, or rather a tranquility too elevated to be described by means of correspondence; although this joyous occurrence has compelled me by the weight of my own affection to make you a partaker of some of my poetical compositions, as a specimen of which I have dedicated the following poetical lines to your image of limpid purity.
Yes, that is one sentence! But, it’s easy to understand how a young man, carried away with the emotions that teenagers experience with the early experiences with romantic love, can soar to such heights. As to those lines:
Tis a maiden by the sweet name of Laurenza
Lovely as the placid rays of yonder moon
To whom I ventured to pen this stanza
As a token of my love for you so soon.
Speaking of heights and soaring, here’s Walter’s next concise sentence about his feelings for his beloved:
We are but a model of earthly angels, only lacking these precious instruments of flight which are gifted to us when we depart this terrestrial paradise, and enter into those realms of eternity, to be numbered among the countless spirits that adore the fates of heaven; but as we were created wingless had the Divine Providence bestowed upon us the consolation of having our naked arms transformed into plumage, I would undoubtedly soar about the sky to be a member of your society.
There was, however, some drama as Walter attempted to get a previous letter to Laura, so he went into a lengthy explanation of how this was planned and conceived. To assist with the effort, Walter worked with his 85-year old grandmother, Nicolasa Workman noting that when he brought her home by a cart from Misión Vieja, “I opened the letter so as to give her a hint on the subject, and she was not too dull to take the hint for she presently asked me whose letter it was, and I told her it belonged to you . . .”
After speaking to his brother for a spell, Walter “took her to her room, and there I again opened the letter to read it, and to see what she had to say about it, whereupon, she readily questioned me how I would manage to give it to you, and I told her I was going to bring it back home until you would call . . .” Nicolasa, however, had other ideas, telling her smitten grandson that “it was too troublesome and in that case she could give it to you herself.”
Finding his grandmother’s suggestion to be a good one, Walter came back to the Workman House for another visit and “I went to her room to give her the letter, and on entering she told me that you had made your appearance into the room, and [she] had informed you of the letter, so I left it to her.”
Now, as to why today’s tour ventured down into the basement for the reading of the letter, Walter continued “after [I] being out for half an hour or so, she came down [to] the cellar, and I most assuredly thought she had lost or hidden it, as she appeared to be kind of glad, and so we talked for another half hour, and I was so enraged for not having the opportunity to ask her about it . . .”
After telling Francis that their grandmother was not feeling well, Walter continued that “it was getting late to come home, so I immediately asked her about the letter and she told me she had given it to you, but I could not rest positive considering her condition, and, at last, she told me she had lost it, then said she gave it to you.” Puzzled and dejected, Walter headed home.
Still, the star-crossed ardent teen implored the object of his affection:
But Lorenza, you may not fear anything about it, for as long as our correspondence is of an upright, just, and honorable character or nature I think no one shall be so bold as to maliciously suspect anything contrary to the rules of propriety in respec to our communication . . .
As part of the reading, colleagues provided me excerpts from two contemporaneous editions of the etiquette manual Decorum, including applicable sections on courtship and letter writing. After using more flowery prose to express his love, Walter added a postscript:
I did not write the way I had proposed to you (that of writing invisibly [anonymously]) because I considered it too troublesome to you, and as I think there is no danger of Pancho to open my letters, and in case he should ask you who writes to you from El Monte [the nearest post office to Old Mission] tell him it is from some of your relatives here, and I am certain he will never discover your correspondence.
Finally, enclosed with the letter in the envelope addressed to Laura at “Puente Station,” but with no indication, of course, of the sender, Walter added more poetry, including this sample:
Some school roses may have a claim on beauty
Otherwise there would be no choice of flowers;
But thou art the very image of limpid purity,
During the recreation hours.
So divinely formed, and so divinely fair
That I cannot conceal my love for thee;
After seeing you now and then and not share,
A sweet kiss to carry me beyond the sea.
There were three more stanzas, followed by more declarations of love, for fear of “intruding upon your ladyship” and yet poor Walter found it “an utter impossibility to restrain my love” without a reciprocity from Laura, for whom “I have always cherished as much love and veneration for you as it is in my nature to feel for any human being.” Still, he implored his beloved: “do not discover [disclose?] me and keep this where no one can read it.”
Remarkably, Walter and Laura finally married, but it was another 16 years before the two wed at Thanksgiving 1903. The couple had five children, four living to adulthood, and resided at Misión Vieja, where, in 1914, their oldest child, Thomas, miraculously discovered oil on their ranch. Three years later, a few months after the first well, drilled by Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), came into production, Walter purchased the Workman House and 75 acres lost by his brother, John, in 1899.
Walter and Laura, who lived in Alhambra full-time, embarked on extensive renovations and additions to the Homestead over the next five years. In 1922, after returning from a lengthy vacation in Mexico, they began the building of La Casa Nueva, a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion the design of which Laura was extensively involved.
Stricken by colon cancer, however, Laura died at the end of the year, just as the main walls of the adobe house were laid. As would be expected, her death rocked her family to the core, even as the construction of the home continued until its completion in late 1927 and her husband expanded his oil and real estate businesses through the remainder of the decade.
One of the letters shared today in La Casa Nueva was a heart-rending one, penned in Spanish, by Thomas to his departed mother. It expressed the concerns of a young man, two years older than his father when writing the above letter nearly forty years before, over the situation with his family bereft of a mother and wife whose presence was clearly and sorely missed. That letter is a subject for another post!