By Melba Yee
The sun broke through the morning fog just as the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group departed from the Exedra for its walk on May 12th. (Possible correction and May 11th instead)
Since the group resumed its activities after the pandemic put them on hold for one year, the walkers have been visiting some of the area’s wonderful parks and recreational facilities. They have gone to Dracena Park, the Davie Tennis Stadium, and the Morcom Rose Garden. On May 12 it was decided that going to Piedmont’s Hampton Park with its Piedmont Sports Field, also as known as Hampton Field, would add to their park-seeing collection. Activity leader Dick Carter was out of town, so Harriette Louie and Melba Yee stepped in to lead the day’s walk.
The walkers went up Highland Avenue to Sheridan Avenue, then to Wildwood Avenue, and through the Hall Fenway to Crocker and Hampton Avenues. They took a short side trip to Crocker Park to enjoy its flowers and the sculpture Mother Bear Nursing Her Two Cubs by noted San Francisco-base sculptor Beniamino “Benny” Bufano. It was gifted to the city and installed in Crocker Park in 1979. It is described by the City as granite, but described by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as black marble. The walkers closely examined the sculpture and all agreed the material was indeed granite.
Three other copies of the Bear and Cubs sculpture, rendered in different materials, can be found outside the Oakland Museum, the Kaiser Hospital in Fremont, and near UC San Francisco.
Crocker Park was gifted to the city in 1916 by Mary and Wallace Alexander, owners of a large home that covered the entire block between Crocker and Sea View Avenues. In addition to being one of the city’s founding fathers, Wallace Alexander’s civic contributions to the city were significant and enduring: he founded the Piedmont Boy Scouts in 1910; helped the city buy Piedmont Springs Park from Frank Havens; led a group of residents to purchase 2 acres of land across from Piedmont Park. He hired Albert Farr to design the town’s commercial center, and later to design the Piedmont Community Church.
Despite his many contributions, most of the walkers had not heard of Wallace Alexander and the group wondered whether any honorary designations existed in town.
The sole surviving structure from the Alexander estate is a residence across the street from the park on Crocker Avenue. Nancy DeRoche informed the group that this structure was originally the carriage house, and that it is probably representative of the architectural style of the now-destroyed main house.
The group then left the park and went up Hampton past a set of huge eucalyptus trees where St. James Drive ends at Hampton. They continued up the street to Hampton Park.
Hampton Park has evolved greatly over the years. Drawing on information from Piedmont Historical Society’s research, the walkers learned that Hampton Park was part of 50 acres purchased in 1911 by Louis Titus, a Berkeley real estate developer. He intended to build a mansion on this large tract of land, but in 1912 the new city of Piedmont raised property taxes significantly, and Titus dropped his plans and left Piedmont. In 1914 James Tyson, a lumber and shipping businessman bought 30 acres of the land for his home. Tyson was also a strong supporter of Piedmont Boy Scouts, and in 1921 Tyson made a portion of the land available for the scouts to use as an outdoor camp.
During the Great Depression in 1938 the Tysons also make the land available to the Piedmont schools. A WPA project leveled the land and it was intended to be the site of a future “East Piedmont” school. However, it was never built. In the 50s and 60s the space was a dusty, sometimes muddy baseball field for younger players. Later, when grass was planted on the field, youth soccer matches were played, sometimes on a soggy field. An underground water flow was an on-going problem Hampton Park and the Piedmont Sports Field are much different today than what Piedmonters experienced 100, 50, and even 20 years ago. A building was constructed in 2000 to house children’s programs that is used by both the Piedmont Cooperative Playschool and the Recreation Department. Dramatic improvements were made to the field and park during 2017 with a $2 million public/private partnership that the Piedmont community generously supported. Drainage and artificial turf were installed that made the field much more serviceable during the year. In 2019 the baseball backstop was dedicated and named in honor of Oakland Police Officer John Raymond Hege. The 41-year-old Piedmont native was one of four officers fatally shot following a traffic stop in East Oakland on March 21, 2009.
The field is used today for organized baseball, soccer and children’s activities. The park also has two tennis courts, a backboard, a volleyball court, and six basketball hoops. There is a children’s play structure and sand area that are located near the tennis courts.
The group entered the park at the baseball field and walked to the back. They passed the tennis and basketball courts, and went around the back of the playschool building, and left on to La Salle Avenue. They continued down La Salle to Indian Road, and went up Crocker to Lincoln Avenue, down to Sheridan Avenue and back to Highland and their starting place at the Exedra. It had been slightly less than a three-mile, 2-hour walk with friends on a beautiful day to a Piedmont historical and recreational treasure.