When I stumbled on information about the Schilling Gardens late one evening, a double dose of irony was at play. I had just finished reading a book I thoroughly enjoyed called The Forgotten Garden, the story of an abandoned girl at the turn of the 20th century and her connection to a secret garden inside a maze on the other side of the world. I had also just arranged my visit to Oaktown Spice Shop; since I am curious about connections to Oakland history, I spent a bit of time looking into Oakland’s involvement in spice trading, which didn’t turn up much. The name Schilling rung a bell; images of old red and white spice tins popped into my head. As I opened more windows on my screen and read article after article about this hidden treasure on the western shores of Lake Merritt known as the “Gold Coast”, I discovered that this once treasured oasis of a local spice tycoon is a shadow of its former self. Furthermore, its remnants may completely disappear as development encroaches on the lakeside community. I knew it was a story I had to share.
The story begins with August Schilling. A German immigrant who came to San Francisco in 1870, Schilling went to work for J.A. Folger & Co., the now well-known producer of coffee, tea, and spices. Hard work and a relentless drive took Schilling to partnership status within five years. Four years later a friendship with a fellow German from his hometown, George F. Volkmann, would lead to his departure from the company in 1881 and a new partnership with Volkmann; the spice company known as A. Schilling & Co. was born. The two men grew their brand quickly, in part due to the success of their pure product line, “Schilling’s Best”, spices absent of additives & dyes, which was a common practice at the time. New headquarters were erected in 1903, only to be destroyed three years later by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Prohibition skyrocketed sales of flavoring extracts during its thirteen year hold due to their high alcohol content. August Schilling died in 1934 at the age of 80. World War II slowed down the companies progress since spices were hard to import from overseas. The company rebounded shortly afterwards, but the company was sold in late 1946 to McCormick & Co., a year after the death of Volkmann. McCormick & Co. continued to use the Schilling name on the containers due to its popularity.
While Schilling never lived in Oakland full time, he maintained a “country estate” on the shores of Lake Merritt. Built in the 1880’s, the estate occupied the land between what is now 19th and 20th Streets, bordered by Lakeside Drive, Jackson Street, and Snow Park. Its gardens were beautiful, complete with rustic bridges, redwoods, rare plants, and towering faux bois arbors, which is an artful technique popular during Victorian times where concrete is sculpted to look like wood. Schilling was clearly a lover of nature and the outdoors; the Schilling company headquarters built in 1903 included a Japanese tea garden complete with fish pond and an arched bridge. He hung large canary cages from the ceiling in the courtyard, and even built a conservatory on a bare hill behind the plant. The estate in Oakland was not his only country home, in his later years the spice magnate turned his attention to a huge piece of property in Woodside known as Portola Hills, which was lovingly described by a gardener in an article written for the Menlo Park Almanac in 1994. Complete with a deer park, several lakes, vegetable gardens, multiple greenhouses, redwood meditation groves and more; the estate took over fifty gardeners to maintain. Schilling appreciated the joy and peacefulness that the outdoors could bring, and clearly he had the wealth to create his own idyllic version.
It begs the question, what would August Schilling think of what has happened to his beloved gardens? The Oakland property was often accessible to the public in the early 20th Century, the gates left open so lakeside residents could enter and enjoy their tranquility. The estate was sold in 1919 when Schilling turned his attention to his Woodside property. The house was torn down in the 1920’s and replaced by two apartment buildings which became Gold Coast icons, the Bechtel Building and the Regillus Apartments. The Portola Hills property in Woodside was sold off piece by piece by his heirs after Schilling’s death in 1934; much of the land has returned to a natural state, the house itself was torn down in 1956. However, a portion of the Oakland garden site was kept intact and continued to be maintained by owners through the years. Fast forward to 2005, and a disappointing series of events ensued that have put a big question mark over its future.
The gardens owner in 2005, Roy Guinnane, was faced with a tax write-off deadline at the end of the year so he contacted the City of Oakland to inquire about interest in receiving the gardens as a donation. After site visits and assessments were done, the Office of Parks & Recreation determined that the sum of money needed to repair the garden site to the level needed for rental use (ie. ADA access and bathrooms), along with annual maintenance costs, was too large. The city asked Guinnane to cover the initial repair costs, a reported $750,000. Guinnane tried to negotiate with the city, offering part of the money as an endowment over 5 years. Ultimately, the city passed on the donation, without contacting City Council to make members aware of the offer. As a result, the land eventually traded hands and went to a developer who wants to tear the gardens out in order to build a 42-story high-rise condominium complex. Sigh…
While the construction of the high-rise was proposed back in 2006, the last mention of it that I have seen online was in 2009. Since then, not much has been said in the media so its hard to know the garden’s fate. As part of my research I contacted the Oakland Heritage Alliance and connected with longtime board member Alison Finlay. She informed me that OHA is just waiting for talk of the building to resurface given the development climate in Oakland these days. She told me that the gardens are supposedly being maintained, but since they aren’t open to the public, it’s hard to know. She was given the opportunity to peer down on them several years ago from the window of an apartment in the Regullis building, but since then the most anyone can do is peek through the fence, which is what I did last week.
While I didn’t see much, what I could see looked a bit downtrodden. August Shilling’s original ornate iron gates are still in place, albeit covered in wood slats to protect them. The little I could see showed overgrowth, a deteriorating greenhouse and potting shed, and very little in bloom. I could not see the now rare and valuable faux bois arbors I was so curious about, but I have a feeling they stood on the other side of a fence that was spilling vines onto the sidewalk.
Its impossible to know what the future will hold. The battle between historic preservation and the modern development needs to support a city gaining residents at such a rapid rate will likely put the gardens on the losing side. In an era where history is becoming more and more valued and honored, I would like to think they could win, and even be revitalized as a local treasure that our community can enjoy, much in the way August Schilling did for Oakland residents over 100 years ago. Schilling was a man who valued his employees, known for his fair and honest treatment. On the doors of the factory he built which later came crumbling down in the 1906 earthquake, he had two mottos inscribed, one of which read “Nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm.” Clearly his garden’s greatness were an example of this, yet I think it is going to take a lot more than enthusiasm to prevent their ultimate demise. I can hope.
For more information about the Schilling Gardens, their history, and the development proposed please see the additional links in the sources noted below.
The Schilling Gardens are not open to the public. If you would like to visit the exterior of the gardens you can peek in on two sides. The ornate iron gates are located on 19th Street, right near the corner of Snow Park. You can then look through the fence line that borders Snow Park. Since an address does not exist, I would recommend using The Bechtel Building at 244 Lakeside Drive or The Regillus Apartments at 200 Lakeside Drive as your final point on a map app.
The Spice Boys Schilling & Volkmann By George Rathmell, The Nob Hill Gazette September 2001
A Wasted Opportunity By Wendy Patterson, East Bay Express December 5, 2007
Schilling Gardens, Oakland Wiki
The Way It Was By Marion Softky, Menlo Park Almanac, September 1994
My Word: John Klein — Do not give Oakland’s Schilling Garden away By John Klein, East Bay Times February 16, 2009
And an article offering opinion from the other side. Although I don’t give it merit since the author can’t even get Schilling’s name correct :o)
A Fight Over the Secret Garden – Transbay Blog, by Eric – posted November 28, 2007
Schilling McCormick Spice Tins, 1950’s – Allen via flickr
Blue and white Schilling booklet, 1939 – alsis35 (now at ipernity) via flickr
1953 Food Ad, McCormick-Schilling Fine Spices, “Magic Spoonful” Spices – Classic Film via flickr
All color postcard images of the original Schilling Gardens sourced via Local Wiki here and here
Both black and white images of original photographs of the Schilling Estate and Gardens are Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
All other current images of the gardens and gates are by Adrienne Schell