My love for historic homes began with a white, stately mansion in the hills of Oakland, California. I remember walking up the long and winding driveway to the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate with my family, catching that first glimpse of the majestic house through the trees. It always took my breath away.
Whether there for the annual holiday festival or a summer car show, the grounds always felt a bit magical – an escape from the city just outside the gates. The house itself is well preserved, as if the children who once ran through the halls could reemerge at any second. I used to imagine the lives of the people who once lived there – grand soirees, relaxing afternoons on the veranda, opulent dinner parties. I wondered about the servants – were they happy in such a large mansion? If only those walls could talk.
It was the first place where I really listened to the stories of the past. And it’s where my passion for historic preservation was rooted.
The mansion itself was built in 1899 by a wealthy coal baron, Alexander Dunsmuir, for his bride-to-be. Tragically, he died on their honeymoon and his wife only lived in the home for a few years before her own demise. The Hellman family purchased the property in 1906 and used it as a summer home until the mid 1950s. The vast grounds even served as a place of respite for those affected by the great earthquake of 1906.
Historic estates like this serve to remind us of the roots of a place and the path of those who came before us. The vast San Francisco Bay Area grew up around this hidden jewel and it’s remained a vital reference to the region’s beginnings. It’s been a cornerstone of the community for more than a century and continues to bring people together, thanks to the work of those who keep the legacy alive.
The City of Oakland currently operates the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate. When I graduated from college, the estate operated as a nonprofit organization, where I volunteered on a marketing committee, creating a new website and updated materials. It was my first official foray into nonprofit marketing, and provided a great foundation (including many lessons learned).
Now, nearly 30+ years after first visiting the Dunsmuir Estate, and 20 years after kicking off my nonprofit marketing career there, I continue to support historic preservation any way I can. I volunteer as a docent at the Pittock Mansion and provide marketing assistance for the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland, Oregon. And, this blog allows me to document the historic homes that I come across during my travels.
I’m grateful for places like the Dunsmuir-Hellman Historic Estate, which introduce history to new audiences and preserve the stories of those who came before us. Their voices provide important context for our own lives. Let’s keep listening.