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Marking the History of Piedmont Park

Our Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group got a little break from the heat that the area experienced this week. On Tuesday the high was 98, but the temperature was forecasted to be a little cooler on Wednesday. However, it was still going to be on the warm side, and we thought it would be best to take a shorter walk this week, and go through Piedmont Park. There would be shade in the park and it would be cooler. We could also use the Piedmont Park History Trail markers as guides for the walk and read the histories they share, so that was the plan for the morning.

As we assembled at the Exedra the temperature was a moderate 74 degrees, and there was a good turnout with 29 walkers and one K-9 best friend on hand.

The first destination was the Piedmont Park History Trail marker summary that is in front of the Piedmont Veterans Memorial Building. We crossed Magnolia Avenue and made the short walk up to the marker. There we learned that when the City approached its 100 anniversary in 2007 a public/private partnership was developed to preserve the history of the Piedmont Park in a two-part project. First, the historic sulfur springs grotto which had fallen into disrepair was fixed. The remnants of a grotto built by land developer Frank C. Havens in the 1890s were saved and a permanent plaza seating area which joins the grotto and a nearby waterfall and fern garden was created.

The second phase was the creation of the self-guided walking tour through the park. Illustrated signs tell about the park’s history with old photos, postcards, documents, and quotations. There are nine markers and much more to be seen on the walk.

The park’s history goes all the way back to 1867 when pink minerals oozing from the creek in Bushy Dell Canyon started to attract visitors. It was believed the minerals had therapeutic benefits. In 1870, Walter Blair, the first European settler in the area, bought over 800 acres of land in these foothills of the East Bay. Blair was an entrepreneur. He grew grain on his land, had a dairy farm, opened a quarry, created the Blair Park amusement/recreation park, and built a trolley line. In 1872 he also built the Piedmont Springs Hotel, where the spring was located. It had 20 bedrooms and five dining rooms. Wealthy San Franciscans retired to the hotel during trips to "the country.”

The first tour marker was just up Vista Avenue, but before walking to it we went up the steps of the Veterans Hall, which was built in 1953, to a plaque memorializing Piedmonters who were killed in World War I and II, as well as Korea and Viet Nam. The group noted the large number of 50 Piedmonters who died in World War II.

We continued on past the City Hall to the small, shaded, and somewhat secluded courtyard at its right front. We went into it and read the Last Original Park Bench marker. It said that in 1877 a prospectus for home sites in Piedmont Park showed a rustic wood bench near the Piedmont Springs grotto. This bench began a tradition which was continued when Havens renovated the park in the 1890s. He installed benches and other elements made of natural materials. Unfortunately, they were not durable. By the 1920s they were replaced with cement benches, which also deteriorated over time. The last bench was removed in 2001. The Piedmont Beautification Foundation funded the creation of the bench that was placed at the City Hall

in 2005. The tradition of benches in Piedmont continues to this day with many in public places around the city.

We exited the courtyard and went down Vista to its corner with Bonita Avenue where we passed the Wetmore House, which was built in 1880 and is on the National Registry of Historic Places. We turned up Magnolia Avenue with the second marker just up the street at the western edge of the Exedra. This one told how Walter Blair built the Piedmont Springs Hotel on this site in 1872,

and that it burned to the ground in 1892. There was also an interesting side note that said in 1924, on the hotel’s site, the City of Piedmont built an exedra, or gathering place.

Next, we went behind the Exedra to the upper edge of the park where a marker told the story of Frank C. Havens in 1898 opening his Piedmont Springs Park, which included a Clubhouse and Café. We continued on past the Community Hall to The Japanese Tea House. The marker said that this is not the original tea house that Havens built in 1907 as a park attraction. In the 1920s, when the City acquired the park, the original tea house was torn down. In 1976 when the Leander Redmon estate on Magnolia Avenue was razed to build the new Piedmont Middle School, the estates’ tea house was moved to the Piedmont Park, where it is today.

Our next stop was outside the park tennis courts. Here a marker told of Havens’ world class art museum that he build in 1907. It displayed over 375 painting in four separate galleries. Upon Havens’ death in 1918 the gallery was closed and the paintings were sold, many to the new de Young Museum in San Francisco. The gallery was used as classrooms for the first Piedmont High students in 1921, but later torn down, and replaced with the current tennis courts.

Then it was time for us to go behind the Community Hall into the heart of the park. We took the lower path and followed the shallow Bushy Dell Creek to The Cascade marker. It told how Havens had created “a lush tropical paradise” with tropical plants and an artificial waterfall, which he named “The Cascade.” After big winter storms the cascade can be reborn, but that was not its state on this warm September morning during a drought. However, the steep steps did provide terraces for us to pose for the attached group photo.

The next stop was the marker for the Sulphur Springs Grotto, which along with other stories, told how Mark Twain on a lecture tour around 1869 had stood on this very spot and sampled the mineral waters. There is a photo of Twain on the marker to prove it. We continued on past huge eucalyptus trees, which have been watered for decades by the creek. Next up was the Eucalyptus

Amphitheater marker. An open air theater was built there in 1908 for Shakespearian and other performances. Finally, after climbing out of the park to the steps on Wildwood Avenue that lead down to Witter Field, there was the marker that tells how Havens constructed a living hedge maze, as another park attraction, in the natural bowl there. The maze was demolished when the School Board purchased part of the park in 1920 for its new high school.

That was it. We had seen and read all nine markers. All that was left was for us to make our return to the Community Hall through the park’s upper path back. It was going uphill on the way back, and the temperature was breaking into the 90s, but the park provided shade and make it an enjoyable conclusion to a mile and a half walk, filled with Piedmont history on a hot day.


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