by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was warmer today than yesterday, but still a pleasant day for the second day of our Ticket to the Twenties festival. Sundays are just about always busier for our weekend events than Saturdays and today proved to be no exception. In fact, while we probably near 2,000 visitors yesterday, today might have been closer to 3,000. While we have to get a final count together, these numbers, should they hold up, would make this year’s event one of our most popular ever and even better attended than last year’s stellar turnout.
Unlike yesterday, I didn’t get a chance to leave La Casa Nueva where volunteer and docent Bethanie LaFond and I gave introductions before guests took a self-guided tour of the first floor’s main rooms in the Spanish Colonial Revival showcase. That meant, unfortunately, that I didn’t get to take in the amazing Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys, see the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles fashion show, or get a sneak peek at Michael Mortilla’s keyboard accompaniment of silent movies.
Because of its proximity at the West Lawn venue adjacent to La Casa Nueva, I did get to take in brief snippets of the wonderful performances of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, a fixture in Los Angeles since 1956, and which recently returned to regular performance after losing the lease on its original location. It was great fun to see the three theater members entertain our guests and hearing the thunderous applause at the end of the two shows was obvious testament to how well received they were.
Of course, being “trapped” at our remarkable 1927 historic landmark with its phenomenal architectural crafts and its compelling history was hardly a stay in purgatory! We had perhaps 450 or more visitors go through the house during the four-hour event and it’s still surprising how many first-time visitors we have at these large events.
So, the combination of giving concise introductions to the home and the Temple family that built and briefly occupied it and the reaction visitors have when they walk through the ornate front door and are greeted with the feast for the eyes that is the Main Hall is always something to see.
Getting a good introduction is always integral to enjoying an experience at a site like ours, so, while Bethanie and I did what we had to do to bring the story of the Temple family to life, even in capsule form, that story can’t help but impress visitors with its variety of human experience.
Walter P. Temple, we pointed out, was just six years old when the Los Angeles bank owned by his father, F.P.F. Temple, and grandfather, William Workman, was shuttered in a remarkable financial collapse that was the nascent city’s first major business failure (though hardly the last!) Consequently, he did not grow up with wealth, though he did inherit, in 1892, 50 acres of land and a pair of homes built by his parents on the Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows several miles west of the Homestead.
About a decade later, he married Laura Gonzalez, a native of that area, commonly known as Misión Vieja or Old Mission because the original Mission San Gabriel was situated there. She actually was an employee of Walter’s brother, Francis, when he owned the Homestead in the 1880s and there was a “forbidden romance” of sorts between Walter and Laura, who were both in their teens.
The pair weren’t married until 1903, well over fifteen years after their relationship began, and the couple settled in at the Temple Homestead mentioned above, bearing five children, of which four lived to adulthood. In 1912, Walter sold the Homestead and acquired about 60 acres just to the west from the estate of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who’d foreclosed on a loan to F.P.F. Temple and William Workman as they desperately tried to save their bank and took possession of many thousands of acres of their land (including where today’s city of Baldwin Park is located, as well as the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles.)
Not quite two years later, the eldest of Walter’s and Laura’s children made a staggering surprise discovery of oil on the property in what they called “Temple Heights” on the northeastern slopes of the Montebello Hills. In 1917, Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron, drilled the first well, which came in a solid producer and over twenty more followed, several being gushers.
Months after the first well came in, Walter and Laura purchased the 75-acre Workman Homestead, which was lost in 1899 by another brother of his, John H. Temple (I couldn’t help but make a little show of it when one of John’s descendants and his family sat in on one of my intros to the house). The couple immediately renovated the Workman House for weekend use and made many other improvements, including a near-complete remaking of the El Campo Santo Cemetery and other major investments.
It was not until a long summer vacation to Mexico in 1922 that the Temples decided they would build a new home (La Casa Nueva) adjacent to the Workman House (la casa vieja, of course). While in the major southwestern metropolis of Guadalajara, they met and hired Don Pablo Urzua, a maestro de obra or master mason, who brought his crew up over several years during appropriate weather to make adobe bricks for the imposing mansion, the original plans of which were drawn by the well-known Los Angeles architects, Walker and Eisen, who designed many of Walter Temple’s commercial buildings.
Sadly, Laura Temple’s death from colon caner at the end of 1922 put a brief halt to work and, when it resumed, a new architect, Roy Seldon Price, was soon brought on board. He made major changes including the dramatic front entry plaster work that really sets that part of the house apart. He also reconfigured the stairs in the Main Hall, pushed for the completion of the sun decks above the south-facing wings and made many other important changes.
The family joked that Price’s invoices matched his last name and the extra time was also a factor in the five-year construction period. In fact, Walter took out a loan to complete the building and that was due on 29 October 1929, the week the stock market in New York crashed ushering in the Great Depression.
So, the Temples, who’d only lived in the fully completed home since late 1927 were forced by financial problems to vacate in spring 1930, having leased the 92-acre Homestead to a boys’ military academy. This last-ditch effort to save the ranch failed, however, and California Bank foreclosed and took possession of the property in July 1932. Walter, who’d presaged today’s settlement of thousands of Americans in Baja California when he moved to Ensenada and then lived briefly in Tijuana before residing in San Diego, died in 1938 in Los Angeles.
The school remained for another three years after the bank took over and, in October 1940, Harry and Lois Brown bought the ranch for their newly created El Encanto Sanitarium. The facility operated in the two houses and other buildings for nearly three decades, before being forced by the state of California to move to modern facilities built immediately north of La Casa Nueva.
The City of Industry, only six years old by then, bought the Workman House and cemetery in 1963 and followed that a decade later by acquiring La Casa Nueva. The city’s contribution to the American Bicentennial of 1976 was to establish the Homestead as a historic site museum, though extensive restoration and renovation of the site meant that the grand opening was deferred to 1981.
Hearing this story and then walking through the five main first-floor rooms of the house definitely makes a marked impression on visitors. This was enhanced today by having pianist Dennis Aguilar regale our guests with his enthusiastic and exuberant playing of the 1893 Steinway grand piano in the Music Room. Dennis has been performing at festival events for a few years now and he gets louder and more sustained applause with each appearance.
After he finished, though, a guest quietly asked a docent stationed in the room if he could play the instrument and she came to get my permission. After telling him, we’d be happy to hear him perform, we were treated to a remarkable treat as John Reed-Torres demonstrated his remarkable talents by playing a couple of ragtime tunes and some other pieces. After he was finished, he mentioned, in a low-key way, that he played at ragtime festivals in South America as well as in the U.S. and performs at the Old Time Music Hall in El Segundo.
It was just about time to close up for the day and weekend when John played the last notes of the final song of his short impromptu performance, but what a way to wind up one of the most successful Ticket to the Twenties events we’ve ever had. In fact, it went so well, we’ll probably have to have it again next year!
Profuse thanks have to be given to my talented and dedicated colleagues on our paid staff who put a great deal of time and energy to making these festivals go so smoothly and to our volunteer staff of about seventy persons who give tours, staff information tables, help with crafts and games, and answering questions and sharing our history at the Workman House and La Casa Nueva. Thanks to you all for your excellent work!