A record 28 walkers showed up last Wednesday for the weekly outing of the Piedmont Recreation department-sponsored Walking on Wednesdays group.
Drawing from Gail Lombardi’s Piedmont Historical Society articles, the walkers learned more about early Piedmont developer Frank C. Havens. Havens created and opened the Piedmont Park with its mineral springs attraction in 1898 to promote his land sales. Havens also built a new Piedmont Springs Clubhouse in 1898 at the top of the park across from today’s Wells Fargo bank. The clubhouse overlooked a wooden ravine. Additionally, Havens built a landscaped Maze in 1904 in the current location of Witter Field. A Japanese Tea House was installed in 1907 at its current location in Piedmont Park, and an art gallery at the site of the Park Tennis Courts. He also added a bandstand for Sunday concerts, with rustic park benches, and exotic plants.
Havens was a major developer, but around 1915 he experienced financial difficulties. The Oakland Tribune reported that lawsuits totaling $90,000 were filed against him. Havens auctioned his art collection, and by 1916 he was planning on developing the park into residential home sites to raise money. A mortgage on his Piedmont Park of $172,000 had not been paid and the park was to be sold at a foreclosure action in 1917.
The Piedmont School Board wanted 13 acres of the park land for a new high school, but Havens would not sell less than its total 27 acres. The land was still avail- able in 1921 when Piedmont philanthropist Wallace Alexander and others offered to buy 14 acres for a city park, if the City would reimburse them. The School District could also buy the 13 acres it wanted. One year later in 1921 the voters passed a bond issue, and the City reimbursed Alexander and his partners.
Prior to this Havens built a large home for himself. His estate, which he called “Wild- wood,” was on land that today is the Wildwood Gardens neighborhood. His mansion is the current residence at 101 Wildwood Gardens.
Havens initially lived in a house at 801 Magnolia which was built by the Wetmore family for their daughter. The house was later converted to the Christian Science Church and Reading Room, and now is the Piedmont Center for the Arts. The location was convenient for Havens while developing Piedmont Park.
He later moved to the Randall house at the corner of Highland and Hazel, which was closer to the construction of his Wildwood estate. The Randall house was originally Miss Ransom’s School for Girls and was demolished around 1930.
In 1908 Havens hired Bernard Maybeck to design his grand mansion. It was five stories tall and was stepped down the canyon. It took two years to build and more years to finish the interior. Havens’ wife Lila was a student of Eastern religions, and Eastern motifs were made part of the house. Legend says she picked a fight with Maybeck, and he quit. Others say Havens fired him because the chimney smoked. Ultimately, Lila Havens is credited with the design.
There were 28 rooms with large reception halls, tea rooms, hidden closets, and secret passages. The original sandstone pillars that marked the entrance to the estate are still present at the entrance to Wildwood Gardens off Wildwood Avenue. The land, including Havens’ “Arizona Garden”, became the Wildwood Gardens neighborhood when his estate was subdivided after his death in 1918. The grounds were sold as the “Wildwood Gardens Tract.” Lila Havens continued to live in the mansion until her death in 1939.
Havens’ history had the walkers ready to see what he created, so they stopped to read the historical makers that tell stories of the Piedmont Springs Clubhouse and the Tea House. The walkers emerged from the park and walked down Highland Avenue to the corner of Hazel Lane where the Havens lived before occupying their Wildwood estate. The group continued on and turned up Wildwood Avenue to the entrance of Wildwood Gardens where they noted the original sandstone pillars to mark the entrance to his estate. The walkers were also impressed by a giant redwood tree, well over 100 years old.
The group continued on and walked all the streets in Wildwood Gardens and enjoyed their beautiful, unique homes. The walk concluded back at the Exedra, but the day was not over. Harriette Louie, Melba Yee, and Brenda Ferrero had picked up sandwiches from a restaurant on Piedmont Avenue, and 14 members of the group stayed to eat and enjoy some bonus time together at the Tea House.