Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate (Courtesy Oakland Con/Vis Bureau)
Many people are surprised to learn that a distinguished historic home is tucked away in the Oakland hills, east of San Francisco. The Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate was built in 1899 as a wedding gift from Alexander Dunsmuir to his bride, Josephine Wallace Dunsmuir. The lush grounds that surround the mansion are perfectly groomed and the house’s interior is filled with architectural details, but it’s the story of the home’s former residents that is most fascinating.
Alexander was the son of Robert Dunsmuir, a wealthy Canadian coal baron. The younger of two sons, Alexander was sent to run the family business office in San Francisco in 1878. It was there that he met Waller Wallace, a bartender in a theater. They’d often share drinks together and quickly became fast friends. Alexander eventually met Waller’s wife, Josephine, and the two instantly fell in love with each other, resulting in a passionate affair and Wallace’s subsequent divorce.
Alexander and Josephine wanted to marry, but Alexander’s parents threatened to disinherit him from the Dunsmuir fortune if he were to marry a divorcee. So the two lived together out of wedlock, which was very scandalous at the time. They kept to themselves and out of the public eye, shunned by other San Francisco’s socialites. Stress weighed heavy on Alexander and he took to drinking, which would prove to be fatal in later years.
Robert Dunsmuir, died in 1889 and ten years later, Alexander’s mother, Joan Dunsmuir, finally gave up control of the family fortune. No longer in fear of being disinherited, Alexander proposed to Josephine and construction began in 1899 on the Dunsmuir Estate. The two wed in December of that year, just days after the beautiful mansion was completed. Sadly, less than two months later, Alexander died of alcohol-related illness while the couple was honeymooning in New York. Josephine, distraught, returned to the Bay Area and lived at Dunsmuir until she died of cancer two years later in 1901.
Gatsby Summer Afternoon at Dunsmuir Estate (Courtesy Art Deco Society of CA)
The Dunsmuir House was designed by J. Eugene Freeman and is one of the best examples of Neoclassical-Revival architecture in the Bay Area. The 16,224 square foot mansion has 37 rooms, 10 fireplaces, inlaid parquet floors and servant quarters designed to accommodate 12 live-in staff. Its panoramic gardens are the setting for concerts and celebrations throughout the year, including the upcoming 26th Annual Gatsby Summer Afternoon on Sunday, September 12, 2010 when guests relive the 1920s and 30s era of elegance, fox trot and Charleston.
The 50-acre grounds of Dunsmuir House are open to the public most of the year free of charge. Guided tours of the estate are given April through September (except July) for a fee. For a complete listing of schedules and prices, visit the Dunsmuir House website.
More Information: Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate
2960 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland, CA, 94605
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