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Wandering Wildwood Estate

Our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays group's good weather lucky charm was still working. Last Wednesday was another a great, fall morning for a Piedmont walk. Twenty six walkers and three K-9 best friends were at the Exedra to enjoy it.

While the walkers were on top of the weather, Dick was a little under the weather with a cold, and happily found Meghan Bennett at the Exedra to lead the morning's walk. There was no one better than Meghan to do it because she is a student of Piedmont history; and her "History of Piedmont"

website, along with Piedmont Historical Society President Gail Lombardi's research, provided the background story for the walk. The morning's destination was Wildwood Gardens, the site of Frank C. Havens early 20th Century's "Wildwood Estate." Before heading off, some Havens history was shared. Havens' middle name was Colton, and he 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 real estate developer in the East Bay, particularly in Oakland, Berkeley, and Piedmont. Through their "Realty Syndicate," Havens and Smith 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 the Havens' basics covered, it was time for Meghan to lead the group down Highland Avenue to Wildwood Avenue, then a short distance up it to the entrance of Wildwood Gardens. Two partially hidden columns marked the entrance to Havens' estate and now the neighborhood. Meghan shared more Havens history, and later provided the attached photo of the columns from

that time.

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 his "Wildwood" estate on this land. The Havens family moved to the Randall house at the corner of Highland and Hazel from there he could supervise the construction of Wildwood. Interestingly, the Randall house was also the former home of the Miss Ransom's School for Girls, which was founded in 1906. The building demolished around 1930. The walkers entered Wildwood Gardens and made their way through its streets.

They noticed a lot of beautiful brick storybook homes and saw one of the many deer that have taken up residence in the area. The group was looking for and found 101 Wildwood Gardens, which was Havens' mansion. There Meghan told its story and took a photo of the walkers in front of it.

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. Curiously, the mansion had an unfinished and unused tomb room. Havens was in debt when he died, and 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.

All the walkers wanted to know what the Wildwood house looked like inside. Meghan found another attached photo. They were also very curious about the tomb room and if it is still there. They thought might be next to the opium den.

The group make their way through the rest of Wildwood Gardens up to the seldom visited Wistaria Way loop, then on to Woodland Way, Lafayette, Crocker, Lincoln, Sheridan, and Highland Avenues back to their town center starting point. They now knew a lot more about Frank Colton Havens, and appreciated Meghan Bennett's research and tour.


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