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Walking Wildwood Gardens

Members of our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays group got a little surprise last Wednesday morning when we left for our weekly walk. Sideways were wet from early morning precipitation and there were more clouds than many of us expected. But it was hard to believe our string of great weather Wednesdays was going to end this day, and it didn't. It was an excellent morning for a walk, and there was a solid turnout of 27 walkers at the Exedra.

We had toured Christina's beautiful garden the week before, and we thought it would be fun to see more nice front yards with a walk through Wildwood Gardens. Additionally, we hadn't been this year to my short Florada Avenue on the southeast edge of the city. At the end of Florada just over

the Oakland city line, is also a wonderful front yard, cactus garden. So, walking through Wildwood Gardens on the way to Florada was our plan for the morning.

However, a walk through Wildwood Gardens would be incomplete without some history on Frank Colton Havens, the man responsible for it. Drawing on research from the Piedmont Historical Society and Meghan Bennett's History of Piedmont website, it was shared that Havens was born into one of the founding families of Shelter Island, New York. After a year as a young man in the China shipping trade, he came to San Francisco in 1866 and worked in banking. In about 1880 he founded a stock brokerage, and subsequently several insurance and investment firms, before creating the Oakland-based "Realty Syndicate" in 1895 with F. M. "Borax" Smith.

Havens became a major developer of real estate in the East Bay, particularly in Oakland, Berkeley, and Piedmont. He and Smith, through their "Realty Syndicate," built the Claremont Hotel and the Syndicate was originally the parent company of the Key System transit company. It also accumulated at least 13,000 aces of valuable hilltop land that stretched from near Mills College to the boundary of North Berkeley.

With these basics about Havens understood, we head off down Highland Avenue to its corner with Hazel Lane, where more history was shared. Havens was twice married. He wedded Sadie Bell of Virginia City, Nevada, who passed away when she was about thirty-three. For his second wife Havens married Lila Mandana Rand. The Havens family lived in a bungalow at 801 Magnolia, which was the home of Blanche Wetmore Sherman. It was next to the still standing, historic Wetmore House at Bonita and Vista Avenues. This location was convenient for Havens, as it was across from Piedmont Park which he was developing.

Havens owned all the land from Crocker Avenue down to Oakmont Avenue and Oak Road, and wanted to build an estate that he would call "Wildwood." At some point, Havens and his family left the Sherman bungalow and moved to the Randall house at the corner of Highland and Hazel, where we were then standing. It was close enough for Havens to supervise the construction of

his Wildwood estate. Interestingly, the Randall house was also the former home of the Miss Ransom's School for Girls, which was founded in 1906 and the building demolished around 1930.

We continued down to Wildwood Avenue, and admired the new asphalt surface that has just been applied to the road. We turned up Wildwood to Wildwood Gardens, and noted the two, partially hidden pillars that marked the entrance to Havens' estate, and then went into Wildwood Gardens. Its streets wind around and have a loop. We were looking for 101 Wildwood Gardens, which was the Havens' mansion. We soon found it and its history was also told.

In 1906 Havens hired Bernard Maybeck to design his home with the interior done by Louis Comfort Tiffany. It was designed as an oriental home of teakwood and fine carvings from India, China and Japan. It took two years to build. Lila Havens was a student of eastern religions, and the Eastern motifs can be seen in the house. Legends say 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 house's design. Havens was also a follower of Eastern philosophy and meditation and the mansion had an opium smoking bed.

Havens died suddenly on February 9, 1918 at his home from ptomaine (food) poisoning. His ashes are interred at the Chapel of the Chimes adjacent to the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Curiously, the mansion had an unfinished and unused tomb room. But Havens was in debt when he died, and his wife Lila had to sell off his land to pay what was owed. His estate's grounds were sold as the Wildwood Gardens Tract, and the current neighborhood with all its lovely homes is the result. We took a group photo in front of Havens' home, which it was told last sold in 1994 for $1.7


With this history shared it was time for us to complete our walk of the rest of the Wildwood Gardens streets with their unique homes, one of which is of a storybook design with a waving roof and large oak tree near its front door. We continued up to Woodland Way and La Salle Avenue on our way to Florada. All the history telling had taken time, and a few walkers had to return at La Salle to the city center. But after enjoying the view of Oakland and San Francisco at La Salle, the rest of us continued on to Florada. We made our way down it, around a sharp curve in the road, and then crossed an imaginary line into the City of Oakland on what was now Portal Avenue. Just down a steep decline was our cactus garden final destination. It is impressive with many different types of dessert plants and one particularly tall Cardon cactus. The homeowner in a prior visit had said this wonderful garden was 12 years in the making. His work was evident and we was felt worth all his efforts.

It was now time for us to start our return, as it was getting close to our noon target time for getting back to the city center. Our arrival was about 20 minutes later than usual. However, over the slightly more than three mile walk, we had learned more about Frank Colton Havens, seen the beautiful home he created, walked the wonderful neighborhood that resulted from his estate, seen a different street and great cactus garden, and much more. It was another good Wednesday walk with friends.


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