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Nancy DeRoche Blair Scenic Walk

During their previous Wednesday walk, the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group took their second Will Adam’s tour of Albert Farr-designed Piedmont homes, and finished at the home of Dave and Nancy DeRoche, where Farr once lived. The DeRoches had welcomed the walkers for a visit and refreshments. Nancy also offered to take the group on a later tour of their upper Oakland Avenue neighborhood, which continues up to Blair and Scenic Avenues. The group happily accepted Nancy’s offer for their next walk, but they didn’t know what an additional treat it would be.

The weather was more than cooperating. It was a beautiful, warm Piedmont morning for Nancy’s tour. There was a strong turnout of 35 walkers, but only one K-9, at the Exedra. The DeRoche’s “Chili dog” had to stay home because Nancy was going to be busy on this walk.

Nancy continued, explaining that the area above Oakland Avenue was a bit of bohemian neighborhood in the early 20th Century. Writers and painters like Jack London and Xavier Martinez lived there in some unique homes. However, before them Frank C. Havens and his nephew, George Sterling, were also important residents in the area.

Nancy led the walkers across Highland Avenue and up to Oakland Avenue. The group turned up Oakland and stopped there, where Nancy told them about the house on the corner. This house might have been an early office for Havens, who was a local real estate developer in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He partnered with Francis “Borax” Smith, a businessman who made his fortune in borax mining but also invested in real estate. He and Havens created the Realty Syndicate in 1895, which developed many of Oakland and Piedmont’s neighborhoods. The house at Highland and Oakland has a wonderful 1900s look with gables of different sizes and a witch cap roof in the front. Interestingly, both Havens and Sterling married their secretaries. George Sterling and his wife lived two houses up from this corner.

The group continued on and made a left turn on the one-block Hardwick Avenue. This took them to the steep Blair Avenue. As the walkers were making their climb of Blair, Nancy stopped them and pointed out the top of a home back off the street, hidden by other homes. She said it is the Sutro Mansion, where the garden tour would be. The group walked on and shortly came to a lot with stairs leading up to a white, circular railing. The Sutro Mansion with its five gardens is behind it further up the hill, but is barely visible.

Nancy told the group that the mansion is not the first house built on this hilltop site. Initially, a much smaller, craftsman-style home was built there in 1876-77 by Joseph Worcester. This house has a special claim to fame. It was there that Jack London lived and wrote his classic, The Call of the Wild in 1902-03. However, after London moved in about 1910, the house was moved two lots up the street so that the mansion could be built there in 1910, and have the expansive views of the Bay that the lot provides.

The group walked up to see the smaller house. It has a lovely, cedar shake shingle exterior, and was enlarged after it was moved by adding a new first floor. The walkers wanted to be a small part of the house’s history and took the attached group photo in front of it.

London was a prominent part of the artists’ colony that occupied this part of Piedmont in the early 1900s. He was a free-spirited, high-spirited man who sailed to the Orient, drank freely, and had at least three important women in his life. The success of The Call of the Wild provided him with considerable wealth, and he built a separate home for first wife, Bessie, and two daughters, Joan and Becky, further up the hill on Scenic Avenue. He was building his own grand home in Glen Ellen, but it burned to the ground shortly before it was completed. Sadly, London died from the continuing effects of a tropical disease that he contract during his travels, and his alcohol drinking, at the age of 40 about a year later in Glen Ellen.

The walkers continued up Blair and took a left at Scenic. They went past London’s wife’s home and stopped to enjoy an expansive view of San Francisco and the Bay at a turn in the bend of the street. Attached is a photo of Nancy talking with the group there. The group made their way around most of the length of the Scenic loop. They got ahead of a garbage truck that was on the same tour, and came to the still rustic home of another famous member of the Piedmont bohemian community, painter Xavier Martinez. This home/studio of Xavier Martinez was inhabited by his daughter/artist, Kai Martinez, until her death in 1989.

The group made their way down this narrow part of Scenic, and decided to have another adventure on their way home. This was descending the hill via Piedmont’s longest pedestrian pathway and set of stairs, the 281 foot Blair and Scenic Path. Its steep stairs go as far as the eye can see, and thankfully there is a handrail the entire way. All of the walkers safely got back to Blair, and then down to Pacific and Mountain Avenues to the Community Hall parking lot. The group gave Nancy a big round of applause at the walk’s end. She had provided a wonderful tour of her historic neighborhood that the walkers greatly enjoyed and appreciated.


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