The Dunsmuir-Hellman House, an arrow shot away from the 106th Street exit of 580, is a world removed from Thirteenth and Franklin Streets where I last worked in Oakland. This testament to the Greco-Roman thrust of our westward course of empire stands in splendid isolation in its own 45 acre valley. When the wild turkeys make a racket or the wind blows, they muffle the the low hum of the hidden freeway. At such times observing the duck pond, the thirty-seven room mansion, the subsiding swimming pool, the tiny grotto and the barn strung out along this valley with a stream running through it, observing all this, one can be excused for imagining oneself in another time and place.
I encounter many interesting people while I paint on the street. I met Annalee Allen this way, in Oakland, around the time of the Loma Prieta Quake (Nov 1989). I was documenting the quake's aftermath while she, as president of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, was working to preserve some of the older historic buildings that had been damaged by the quake.
Recently we've been discussing collaborating on a book that would feature my paintings of Oakland accompanied by her historic commentary. Annalee observed that the Dunsmuir Hellman-House would need to be included.
So I went out and painted it. This seemed a good moment to explore a collaboration. I'm, therefore, turning the rest of this post over to Annalee - my first guest blogger!
Until recently, I thought I knew pretty much all the history of the beautiful landmark
and Gardens located in the Oakland hills, near the
San Leandro border
. I knew the the hidden valley where the mansion stands was once the property of Ygnacio Peralta, son of Don Luis Peralta, whose 44,000 acre
Rancho San Antonio
once encompassed all the land of present day Alameda, Oakland, Piedmont, Berkeley, and Albany. I knew that later the valley belonged to a Gilbert Tompkins who maintained a trotting horse breeding farm with stables and a racing track.
And I knew that the early 20th century Broadway stage actress
helped select the architect J. Eugene Freeman to draw up plans for the stately Colonial Revival style residence for her mother Josephine who, after a years long love affair, was finally able to marry her sweetheart Alexander Dunsmuir, the son of a very wealthy Canadian mining magnate. The star crossed lovers were not able to enjoy their hidden retreat for long, I knew, because both passed away within a few short years, leaving the property to Miss Wallace.
Despite her best efforts Edna Wallace could not keep up the large estate and she soon sold it to a banker, I.W. Hellman, Jr. and his wife who lived across the bay in
and wanted a secluded estate where they could relax and entertain family and friends.
I have come to know a lot more about the Hellman years, from reading a fascinating new book,
written by Frances Dinkelspiel, Hellman's great-granddaughter. From her book I came to know how her ancestor immigrated to California in the 1850s from Bavaria, a 16 year old Jewish boy who started out working in a cousin's stationary store. The author traces the young man's rise from store clerk to brilliant financier and head of Wells Fargo Bank, and how nearly single handedly, he propelled frontier California into the modern era.
It was the
who over several decades, beautified and developed the property which they called Southvale Park, calling upon landscape designer John McLaren (of
Golden Gate Park fame
) to lay out the gardens, swimming pool, tennis courts, and ornamental ponds. The home was lavishly furnished with purchases made when the family traveled to
, and according to her book, through the years there were many family weddings, celebrations and gatherings.
In the early 1960s the family sold the property to the city of Oakland, and since the 1970s a dedicated nonprofit group has maintained the estate and offered public tours and other wonderful community events (the upcoming
Easter egg roll party
on the lawn is one example). Recently the nonprofit's director, Jim deMersman, formally petitioned the
Oakland City Council
to change the name, as a way to honor and celebrate the Hellman family's long association with the Dunsmuir property.
So, if it has been awhile since you last visited, make a date to go up to the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate. Visit
to learn more.
(Written specially for this blog by Annalee Allen.)