Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Oakland: Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate – Delightful

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 Dunsmuir

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.

2960 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland, CA, 94605
Phone: 925-275-9490

Participating in ABC Wednesday. For more “D” themed posts, click here.


  1. What a great post for the D Day! Such an interesting, but sad story! Guess it proves that wealth doesn't always mean happiness! Beautiful photos! Hope you're enjoying your week, Gayle!


  2. What an elegant home for such a sad story. I never knew that the mansion was there.
    Great post for the letter D.

  3. Gayle, I remember this place was beautifully decorated at Christmas right? I wonder if the Dunsmuirs are related to the town of Dunsmuir north of us in Redding? Thanks for the history lesson.

  4. I have heard of this lovely house before, and of the tragedy that surrounded it. Lovely photo, but a sad story.

  5. A tragic story. The house is beautiful and it's wonderful that people are allowed to visit there.

  6. Beautiful estate building. Good to know about the history behind this.

  7. Vaguely heard of the house, but not the DEPRESSING story of DRINK and DIVORCE.

    Well DONE!

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  8. How sad yet such a beautiful house was created and no doubt enjoyed by all who lived there in the years following his death. Homes can be such a comfort can't they? I know our home is a great source of comfort and contentment - especially to me now that mum and dad have both died - their furniture is a real link to them and I feel comforted to know their pressence is still evident!

    A great post, thank you so much for being part of the ABC Fun!

    ABC Team

  9. Very beautiful house, but how sad that Alexander only lived there such a short time!

  10. Its a beautiful wedding cake of a house, must be stunning seeing it walking up the drive. A sad story of the Dunsmuirs, strange times.

  11. sad story.. drink leads to despair after all..

  12. What a sad tale. Shows that money doesn't bring happiness, doesn't it? Maybe he'd have been better off either leaving his friend's wife alone, or not making his decisions based on how much money he'd have.

    Lovely, lovely house, though!

  13. Such a gorgeous estate with such a tragic story. So much valuable time was wasted because of poor choices and mindsets. It's nice that others are able to now enjoy the mansion. Would be a stunning place for a wedding.

  14. My goodness what a sad sad story. At least they were true to their love, which is more than you can say of the parents for their child!! Apparently their love of money and power ran deeper. Wonderful entry for D and so worthy of the badge. I am sorry that I missed it the first time around.

  15. I have come upon this site having looked up location for house used in the James Bond film "A View to a Kill". The atmospheric scene where a slight earth-tremor rattles the chandelier, and frightenes the cages birds got me intrigued with it's location. A beautiful period property.

  16. Wonderful estate. I was intrigued by as It was the setting in the gothic thriller,burnt offerings. My father was in business in Dunsmuir for thirty years before his death. Is there a connection?