There are two causes to celebrate on this Friday morning. Just about one year ago on October 19th, 2015, I wrote my first post as Oakland Momma. I introduced myself, and shared my early morning trip into the fog of Mountain View Cemetery. Since then, my blog has grown, changed, taught both myself and others, and it has shown me that of all things I can write about, what I love most is to share stories about Oakland. The second cause to celebrate; in three days I turn forty. While for some it may be a number that has come and gone, and for others it seems to be in the distant future, for me it is the present. While it seems like a big number, a number I sometimes see looking back at me in the mirror, I am eager to take a giant step forward into the next decade and can’t help but wonder what it will bring. Time truly does goes by fast. On the one hand, daily life can be exhausting and days can creep by; yet on the other, when it comes time to put the Christmas tree up again each year I am blown away by its speed.
As I thought about the appropriate way to celebrate these two milestones the decision came easily; a necklace. It’s the necklace that graces the top of this page in lovely artwork created for me by a friend; the necklace that curls around the jewel of our city. Just as forty years of life and 367 days of blogging have brought ups and down, the necklace of lights has also been put up, to then come down, to only be put up once again. It not only graces our shores, but it has traveled across the Pacific to grace the streets of a Chinese village that once sat without light. It’s a story of a city fighting for a piece of its history to shine once again, and I am happy to share it here.
One of the things I have come to love about my exploration into Oakland’s history over the past year is the passionate and eloquent way our predecessors talked about the projects they fought so hard to implement. I saw it in the words written by Gertrude Mott as she worked tirelessly to bring the Woodminster Cascade to life. It was evident in the descriptive way the Cleveland Cascade came to life in one’s mind as Howard Gilkey spoke of his beloved water feature that once descended to Lake Merritt’s shores. In 1922, it was a man named William Baccus, the commissioner of revenue and finance, who first lit the shores of Lake Merritt in such a magical way that it quickly became evident that a permanent solution was in order. As part of a Shriner Convention during that year, lights were strung around the lake and a large fountain was placed in its center. To showcase the fountain, a large searchlight was placed on top of what was then the Oakland Civic Auditorium, now known as the Kaiser Convention Center. After the convention Baccus enlisted the help of other city planners, including Edgar Sanborn, then Vice President of the Board of Park Directors, to come up with a permanent solution. Original plans were lofty, described by Sanborn in the eloquent way I have come to appreciate:
“One of these (experiments) will be a scheme for indirect lighting in which the foliage masses along the borders of the lake will be made to take on the alluring tints of fantastic light from concealed projectors, an effect which, combined with the enhancement of reflection in the depths of the waters of the lake, promises to produce all the illusion of fairyland.”
Keep in mind, Children’s Fairyland didn’t exist yet; the fairyland in Sanborn’s mind was clearly one of magic. As fundraising got underway the original plan for 206 lamppost was decreased to 126. Each one came with a price tag of $120 which was pledged by local businesses and citizens; a plaque was placed on each post in their name. A design contest was held and overseen by Howard Gilkey, who stated to the Tribune in 1922 that designs must “…not only be harmonious with the scenery of the lake but will refrain from conflicting with the striking reflections and shadows of Lake Merritt itself.” Electrical engineer Romaine Myers was contracted to design the necklace lighting itself which would be strung between the final Florentine-inspired posts. On August 27, 1925 the lake was lit with a halo that would light up Oakland’s evenings for sixteen years.
Lake Merritt and Necklace of Lights circa 1940
Lake Merritt during a fireworks show circa 1936
In 1941 the necklace of lights was turned off due to the blackout requirements of World War II. The lighting string itself was taken down, and many of the lamppost standards were put into storage; only 35 of the lampposts were left standing. A curious twist in the history of the necklace of lights then took place. In 1946, local resident Dr. Velva Brown decided to get creative with some of the components. Brown was a missionary for the American Baptist Church in South China. She was assigned to a hospital in a remote village called Kakchieh, situated on an island in Swatow Harbor. The hospital had no electricity, so during a trip back home to Oakland, Brown negotiated a price with the owner of a West Oakland junk dealer who had come to procure the components. In early 1947, large crates arrived on the shores of Kakchieh which contained the original necklace’s wiring and lights, as well as a very large generator. The quantity wound up not only bringing light to the hospital, but the entire village. John Skoglund, a teacher stationed in Swatow at the time, told the Tribune in 1987 that as of the mid-1980’s, they were still lighting the village up.
Shores of Lake Merritt circa 1955
There were efforts to revitalize the necklace in the 1950’s, but none came to fruition due to lack of funds. It wasn’t until a meeting of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club (LMBC) in early 1982 that interest piqued again. It was the daughter of local icon William F. Knowland, Emelyn K. Jewett, who planted the seed with its members that she would love to see a restoration of the necklace take place. An established group that is the original sponsor of Children’s Fairyland, LMBC decided to tackle the project head on. At the time the club was still men-only, so with Jewett as their champion, LMBC members such as former vice mayor Felix Chialvo and local businessman Al Kelley chaired a drive with the goal of raising $1.25 million. When Jewett fell ill, local businesswoman and civic leader Joan Gibbs took over in the self-described role of “den mother”. The night before the All Star Game, on July 13, 1987, the necklace was turned back on thanks to donations that not only met the fundraising goal, but exceeded it by over $400,000. Later that year, LMBC inducted its first female members.
When the necklace was relit in 1987, it was held up by 163 lampposts, exceeding the original count by 37. Of these, 119 are the original lampposts. In 2014, 13 more were added as part of the 12th Street Bridge project.
I was pleased to meet club member Deanna Osterberg at a meeting of the LMBC in September and she was kind enough to sit down and chat with me earlier this month. A former president of LMBC, Osterberg is in the process of auditing the plaques found on each pole. Many of the original plaques from the 1920’s are still in place, yet some have gone missing. Larger donors from the restoration in the 1980’s also have received recognition in the form of a plaque on many of them. Osterberg told me that she has received inquires from family members of honorees from both the original installation as well as the restoration who are curious to know where their loved ones names are located. She began to document their locations and is working on solutions for the ones which have gone missing. The search may even involve a trip to the city’s boneyard to see if any exist on poles that have been taken down and replaced due to damage.
The lighting currently in place is low energy by 1980’s standards, however the city is looking to replace the bulbs with an LED alternative that would drop energy use even more. An LED strand is currently being tested along the edge of the lake by the corner of Grand Ave and Harrison. Another concern is of course bird droppings. The curve of the lamppost is the perfect perch for our local seagulls and pigeons. The necklace strand lends itself to even bigger fowl gatherings. While efforts are made to clean the bases of the lampposts, Osterberg has been brainstorming a more permanent solution to keep our flying residents away.
A walk around the lake is one of the things I love most about Oakland. As I peek into different parts of its history I find new things to admire and appreciate each time I wander its shores. I am inspired by things I see, curious about what story might be behind some of them. The story of the Necklace of Lights is one of my favorites because the passion behind the original project was rekindled decades later by some of our city’s dedicated residents and advocates. I cross my fingers that other pieces of Oakland history will receive the same dose of local love; whether it be a spit and polish job or a construction undertaking, there are so many landmarks in our city with inspiring history…I can’t wait to dig up more of them.
Here’s to the big 4-0 and year two of Oakland Momma!
All historic black and white images are courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.
All other images by Adrienne Schell, do not use without permission.