I tend to romanticize the past. When life feels particularly hard, I daydream of a time when existence seemed simpler. I think of picnics on rolling green hillsides, a rocking chair on a porch, reading a book by a fire. I imagine children playing freely on a span of lawn, dinner from the garden in the evening, a carriage ride to the general store. I suppose I live in denial that I could be without internet, iPhones, and Instagram. Last Friday was one of those days when the end of a hard week was a welcome sight, and the urge to spend a few hours alone on the couch came beckoning. Instead I grabbed a cup of coffee and chose to spend some “me time” at a place I had read about yet never visited. I suppose it could have been my mindset, but as I wandered the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate, I couldn’t help but think how things seem to have been so much easier 100 years ago. I think I forgot that being a member of high society doesn’t hurt.
Tucked into a small valley just to the east of Highway 580 near the edge of San Leandro, the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate was built in 1899 by Alexander Dunsmuir, the son of a wealthy coal family from Victoria, British Columbia. Sent to run the family’s business office in San Francisco in 1878, Alexander wound up in an affair with his favorite bartender’s wife, Josephine Wallace. Josephine already had two children, William Wallace and Edna Wallace Hopper, a well-known actress. The two did not marry until 1899, once Alexander and his brother took control of the business; therefore freed of his mother’s disapproving eye and financial control. Unfortunately, it is suspected that his whiskey habits got the better of him and he died during their honeymoon to New York in January, 1900. The bulk of his estate was left to his brother James Dunsmuir, but the greek-revival mansion he had built for her just months before, was left to Josephine. She returned to the estate after the disastrous honeymoon and lived there until she also passed away just over a year later in 1901, due to lung cancer.
Josephine’s famous daughter, Edna Wallace Hopper, eventually inherited the home. She rented the estate out to I.W. Hellman Jr., the son of Isaias W. Hellman, a prominent banker and investor at the turn of the century. Hellman Jr. ultimately purchased the property from Hopper in 1906, and it became a beloved family getaway, known as Oakvale Park, into the late 1950’s. It was the Hellman family who expanded the property into a fun-filled retreat complete with tennis courts, swimming pool, glass conservatory with grotto, aviary, greenhouse, garden maze, Japanese garden, and even a 9-hole golf course. It is rumored that the landscape architect John McLaren, designer of Golden Gate Park, helped the Hellmans’ with the plans for the property.
In my research, I connected with local journalist and author Frances Dinkelspiel, the great-granddaughter of I.W. Hellman Jr. As I spent time learning more about the Hellman name and the important role they held in our state’s history, I became even more intrigued about the legacy of the family who inhabited the estate for over 50 years. I.W. Hellman, an immigrant born to German Jewish parents, became the epitome of self-made success in Southern California, becoming the first banker in Los Angeles. He went on to invest in many of the city’s trolley and rail lines, as well as its gas, water, and electric companies. In 1890, he moved his wife Esther and their three children to San Francisco to take over the Nevada Bank. An interesting twist, Esther’s sister was married to Mayer Lehman, the founder of Lehman Brothers.
I.W. Hellman went on to become president of Wells Fargo Bank. Upon his death in 1920, I.W. Hellman Jr. was made president. Sadly, he never knew. Due to illness, he was in a coma at the time of his father’s death, and passed away just one month later, unaware of his father’s passing and his granted presidency. Hellman Jr.’s son Warren later became president of the west coast banking empire. Frances Dinkelspiel has written a book recounting the amazing story of her great-great-grandfather called Tower of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.
The home itself was designed by San Francisco architect J. Eugene Freeman. While I couldn’t peek around its 37 rooms during my visit, I could look up at the window and imagine what it must have been like during its heyday. Over 16,000 square feet, the home includes 10 fireplaces, a Tiffany-style dome, wood paneled rooms with inlaid parquet floors, and servant quarters intended to house a live-in staff of twelve.
The morning I was there, only a few others came and went as I wandered around the outside of the home, and then meandered down the pathways extending towards the north end of the property. It is easy to get lost in its grandeur and to start thinking about what time must have been like so many years ago. While I could hear the hum of the freeway, I tried to imagine what the hillsides were like over a century ago. Meandering creeks, wildlife roaming the sloping hills, picnics on the lawn, grand parties being held. Ms. Dinkelspiel told me that her family adored hosting events on the property; from weddings to concerts to holiday celebrations. In an article she wrote for SFGate in 2009, she recounts her family’s 4th of July extravaganzas. Her great-grandmother loved to host Easter egg hunts, a tradition still honored on the property today with the city’s sponsored Great Egg Hunt, held annually. This year’s event will be held this coming Saturday, March 26th.
I.W. Hellman Jr. passed away in 1920 due to heart failure. His family continued to use the estate into the late 1950’s. The City of Oakland purchased the estate in the early 1960’s. A non-profit organization was formed in 1971 to restore and preserve the estate. In 2010, the City of Oakland became the sole proprietor.
My time spent wandering the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate gave me some much needed peace and quiet. As I later spent time learning about its background, my appreciation for our local history and its twists and turns grew even more.
The Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate is located at:
2960 Peralta Oaks Court
Oakland, CA 94605
The estate grounds are open Tuesday-Friday from 10:00am-4:00pm
Mansion tours are offered April thru September on Wednesdays ONLY, beginning at 11:00am. Please see their website for more information.
I would like to thank Frances Dinkelspiel for her help and generosity in allowing me to use images of the Hellman Family (specific credits noted below). More information about her life and work, including Tower of Gold and her more recent publication, Tangled Vines, can be found on her website at francesdinkelspiel.com.
Image of Alexander Dunsmuir: sourced online via mountainviewpeople.blogspot.com
Alexander Dunsmuir Death in NYT: sourced online via Jerry’s Brokendown Palaces, Copyright New York Times
Image of Edna Wallace Hopper: sourced online via mountainviewpeople.blogspot.com
Edna Wallace Hopper inheritance article in NYT: sourced online via Jerry’s Brokendown Palaces, Copyright New York Times
Old Image of Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate: City of Oakland, Parks & Recreation Department, used with permission
3 images of Oakvale Gardens: Sourced online via LocalWiki
Images of I.W. Hellman, I.W. Hellman Jr., the Hellman Family, the Hellman children with horse & carriage, and the Hellman family together under the tree: supplied by Frances Dinkelspiel and used with permission
Close up historic image of the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate: City of Oakland, Parks & Recreation Department, used with permission
Hellman family on the front porch: City of Oakland, Parks & Recreation Department, used with permission
Image of I.W. Hellman with grandchildren by the pond: supplied by Frances Dinkelspiel and used with permission
Historic image of the carriage house: City of Oakland, Parks & Recreation Department, used with permission
All color images taken by Adrienne Schell