Last month I taught a workshop at a fascinating history place that most people have never heard of. Thirty minutes or so east of downtown Los Angeles sits a historic gem surrounded by industrial parks. The six-acre Homestead Museum site explores the history of the Los Angeles area from 1830 to 1930 through the lives of several families who molded the land despite the ups and downs of shifting financial currents. Their story offers insight into the transformation of Los Angeles.
In 1841 the William Workman family migrated on the Old Spanish Trail from Taos, New Mexico to then-Mexican California, and were among the first permanent eastern settlers to this part of California. They acquired and developed a 48,000 acre cattle ranch, Rancho La Puente. They traded hides to eastern markets and added farming to their growing agricultural empire. Workman had started growing grapes in the 1840s and he continued to add to his vineyards, along with acres of wheat and even an experiment growing cotton. The family built a simple three-room adobe which by the 1870s they had transformed into a modern American house. The house is preserved today.
In 1848 their landed switched from Mexican to United States territory. They soon started selling beef to the flood of men who rushed to the state to strike it rich in the gold fields. Daughter Antonia Margarita married F.P.F. Temple in 1845, supposedly the first wedding in Los Angeles history where both parties had an “Anglo” surname. The Workmans and their new son-in-law began to invest in other business opportunities, from real estate to railroads. They also opened a bank. Unfortunately it failed in the economic panic of 1875, and the result was financial ruin and the loss of their beloved ranch.
Skip ahead to 1914 and a grandson of Mr. Workman discovers oil on his father’s property leading to new wealth and allowing the Temples to buy back a portion of the family’s homestead.
As their wealth increased, they commissioned well-known Los Angeles architects to build La Casa Nueva, a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion. Construction took place between 1922-1927, and the family eagerly awaited its completion. Sadly, the matriarch, Laura, suddenly died before the house was finished. Walter Temple continued work in walnut farming and land development, helping found the town of Temple City. But, by 1932 family history had repeated itself he had lost everything due to risky financial investments.
The house went into a period of temporary owners, including use as a boy’s military academy and a sanitarium. The City of Industry eventually saw its value as a history site and purchased the property and restored the two homes, opening the site as a museum in 1981.
Today the property, featuring the two restored homes, offers a glimpse into one family’s love for the land and into a slice of California history. A tour of the homes reveals beautiful architectural detail and craftsmanship, along with stories of generations of a family who worked hard to improve their lives and to enjoy their successes and rise above their financial failures.