Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dunsmuir House, 2960 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland, CA

Dunsmuir House was built by Alexander Dunsmuir, who came to the Bay Area in 1878. The son of Robert Dunsmuir, a wealthy coal baron from Victoria, British Columbia, Alexander oversaw the family business in San Francisco.

After Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889--never having lived in the castle on his 28-acre property overlooking Victoria--his sons James and Alex were stunned to learn they had inherited nothing. They had worked for their father for two decades on the promise that one day the business would be theirs. It took seven years of wrangling with their mother before they could gain separate control of the family's California operations; then another three years before they could purchase the Wellington colliery. With that purchase, Alex Dunsmuir was finally ready to defy his mother's wishes and marry his live-in companion for 20 years, Josephine Wallace. He died on their honeymoon in New York in 1900. More dissension arose. With Alex Dunsmuir's brother James in control of his estate, at a time when James Dunsmuir was also Premier of British Columbia, Alex Dunsmuir's mother and Edna Hopper, daughter of John Wallace, became legalistic allies when they filed a lawsuit to gain shares of the Alex Dunsmuir estate. The rift between James Dunsmuir and his mother lasted until he relented and made an unexpected appearance at her burial in 1908, at which time he broke down and wept.

When Alexander purchased the large estate in the rolling East Bay foothills, the land featured fruit orchards, farms and vestiges of the Spanish rancho days. The elegant mansion was built as a wedding gift for his beloved Josephine, a divorced woman, in December 1899. A central character in the family saga is the dowager widow Joan Dunsmuir "whose wrath and disapproval her son so feared" that Alex Dunsmuir only found the courage to marry Josephine Wallace 40 days prior to his own death. Tragically, Alexander became ill and died while in New York on their honeymoon.
Seems suspicious to me!
Is this booze?
One of the earliest and most successful brandings of a line of cosmetics would use the name and image of actress Edna Wallace Hopper.

Edna Wallace was born in San Francisco, California to Waller and Josephine Wallace. She was likely born on January 17, 1872, but throughout her life she steadfastly refused to reveal her age. She said that no one could verify it because her birth records had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Acting was in her blood, well, sort of – her father was head night usher at the California Theater. Even if her father didn’t act in the theater there was sufficient drama at home to make an impression on young Edna.
Edna’s dad was also employed as a barkeep, and it was in that capacity that he met Alexander Dunsmuir in about 1879. Dunsmuir was the son of a wealth Scots coal baron in Victoria, B.C. He’d been sent to run the family’s business office in San Francisco, but he much preferred a glass of whiskey. And who can blame him?
Waller eventually moved his wealthy drinking buddy into the family home as a boarder. That wasn’t a very smart move. On one side of the coin was hard working Waller, on the other side was the enormously wealthy Alex. Could anyone have been shocked by the outcome when Edna’s mother fell in love with Alex, and the Wallace’s divorced? Waller was left with Edna and her brother, but after a while Josephine missed her kids. When Waller was offered a settlement in exchange for custody of the kids, he accepted.
Alex and Josephine may have been in love, but Alex’s mother had a vice-like grip on the purse strings and she wasn’t about to accept “that woman” as her daughter-in-law. She was so adamant about her disapproval that she even threatened to disinherit Alex.
Rather than annoy Alex’s mother by forcing the issue, the lovers quietly set up housekeeping (pretty risqué for the time) and waited for the inevitable – the woman couldn’t live forever, right? In 1898 Alex and his brother James finally gained control of the family business.
Alex took $350k (approximately $9 million in current dollars) of his share of the family fortune and built Josephine a fine home near San Leandro, California. He deeded the house to Josephine.
With no further family hurdles to overcome, Alex and Josephine were married. On their much-delayed wedding day Alex made out a will leaving everything but the San Leandro home to his brother James. The couple was married on December 21, 1899 at a hotel in San Pablo, California and honeymooned in New York City – where just one month later, while still on their honeymoon, Alex died. His years of hard drinking had taken their toll. Josephine returned alone to her new home where she resided until her death in 1901.

In 1904 Edna filed suit hoping to crack the will and walk away with about $1M. Even with the evidence of Alex’s drinking, the judge determined that he’d been of sound mind when he willed everything (but the house) to his brother James.
hopper floradora girls
Floradora Girls

By the time of her mother’s death Edna had already starred in her most famous role, Lady Holyrood in the popular London stage play FLORADORA. Though not playing one of the renowned Florodora Sextettes, she shared in some of the wild adulation of male admirers who mobbed the backstage door after every performance.

Edna took fewer acting roles in the 1910s, but her career took off in a surprising new direction in the 1920s. She was one of the earliest stage actors to have a facelift – she even had the operation filmed! She would make personal appearance tours over the next eight years showing the film and giving beauty tips.
hopper dont envy me_nov 1923
Edna’s beauty advice appeared often during the 1920s in newspapers like the Los Angeles Times.
Edna’s tours and timeless good looks captured the attention Claude C. Hopkins, and advertising man who worked for American Home Products. The cosmetics line was a success and was still be advertised in the 1940s, although by that time only Edna’s name was being used.
Hopper separated from her second husband and he died in the 1930s. She went on to become the only woman of the thirty-six member board of L. F. Rothschild & Co. She traveled daily by subway to her office to handle investments until shortly before her death in New York City from complications of pneumonia on December 14, 1959. The news reports of her death gave her age as anywhere from the mid-80s to 95.

In 1906, the estate was purchased by I.W. Hellman Jr. who worked for Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, as a summer home for his family. They dubbed their estate Oakvale Park. By 1913 the mansion was remodeled to accommodate the growing Hellman family and their acquisition from European travels.

 The Hellmans enjoyed the estate together for fourteen years until Mr. Hellman died in 1920. Mrs. Hellman kept the estate, where her children and grandchildren came for long summer days, until the late 1950's. During the Hellman era the landscaping at the northern end of the estate was developed, and the swimming pool and Dinkelspiel House were added to the estate.

The estate was purchased by the City of Oakland in the early 1960s with the intent of using the grounds and mansion as a conference center. A non-profit organization was formed in 1971 to preserve and restore the estate for the public benefit. For many years, the non-profit group and the City jointly operated the estate until 2010 where the City of Oakland became the sole proprietor.

The Dunsmuir Hellman mansion has been designated a National Historic Site by the United States Department of the Interior and both the mansion and the Carriage House have been designated Historic Landmarks by the City of Oakland.


The Dunsmuir mansion, designed by San Francisco architect, J. Eugene Freeman, is an example of Neoclassical-Revival architecture popular in the late 1800's. The 37-room mansion features a Tiffany-style dome, wood paneled public rooms, 10 fireplaces and inlaid parquet floors within its 16,224 square feet. Servants quarters in the house are designed to accommodate 12 live-in staff.

Golden Gate Park's landscape architect, John McLaren, is said to have assisted the Hellmans in designing the Dunsmuir gardens. A wide variety of trees, including Camperdown Elms, Bunya-Bunya and Hornbeam, still grace the estate's gardens and expansive meadows. In addition, the Hellman estate contained a golf course, formal croquet court, tennis court, swimming pool with Mission-style bathhouse, glass conservatory with grotto, an elaborate aviary, formal garden maze, and Japanese garden. (

Jerry performed here on
8/18/85 John Kahn (acoustic)

From Coalmine to Castle: the Story of the Dunsmuirs of Vancouver Island (New York: Pageant Press, 1955)

Alex Dunsmuir's dilemma (Victoria: Sunnylane, 1964)

My Borrowed Life (Sydney: Gray's Publishing, 1962)

Courage to Change the Things We Can (New York: Pageant Press, 1960)


  1. Dude, where have you been hiding your blog? It's unbelievable, and I would know (

    I actually attended the Garcia/Kahn show at Dunsmuir, lo these many years ago. It wasn't that great a show, musically, but the setting was so perfect it hardly mattered. I lived in Oakland at the time, and I had no idea the place even existed. Would that I had known the incredible back story at the time.

    keep up the great work! I'm really looking forward to your next 100 posts.


  2. Thanks for this wonderful read! I live just a few blocks from the Dunsmuir's Victoria residence, Craigdarroch Castle. So fascinating to learn about Dunsmuir House in Oakland and hope to visit it sometime. Hatley Castle is another Dunsmuir creation in Colwood, near Victoria. Legacies left for us to enjoy however unhappy the past was for those associated, esp. those who worked the Dunsmuir mines. I walk past the Dunsmuir grave monument regularly down the street at Ross Bay Cemetery. Hope you can visit all these when you're able. Thanks again :)