Getaways: Oakland’s Dunsmuir-Hellman House and Gardens dressed up for the holidays
Wreaths tied with red ribbon are on every window. More red ribbons punctuate uncounted yards of garlands as they swag their way across porch and balcony railings. Twenty fir trees, twinkling with thousands of tiny lights, are adorned with dolls and toys and glass ornaments.
Oakland’s Dunsmuir-Hellman House and Gardens has decked the halls for Victorian-era holidays, along with the carriage house, dairy barn, greenhouse and gazebo. In doing so, the clock has been turned back to 1899. Step into your time machine, for you are cordially invited to attend.
Dunsmuir is a 37-room Colonial Revival mansion that once was the centerpiece of a 315-acre estate burrowed into the East Bay hills and located “way out in the country.” Time has whittled the estate to 50 acres, with I-580 a next-door roar just a protective stand of eucalyptus trees away.
Nevertheless, Dunsmuir House and Gardens has remained an annual oasis of opulent holiday yesteryears for the past 36 years as a fundraiser for property, which is now owned by the City of Oakland. Despite ambiance and architecture stage-set for the holidays, the home’s history lacks merry Christmases.
The house was a wedding gift from British Columbia coal mining heir Alexander Dunsmuir to his intended bride, Josephine. After a two-decade on and off again liaison, they were to be married. Theirs cannot realistically be called a romance of the heart, based as it was on a tangled tale of betrayed friendship (Josephine married Alexander’s best friend), opportunism and greed. The marriage was delayed until family disapproval could no longer touch Alexander’s interest in the family business.
In 1898, the bridegroom-to-be acquired the East Bay site and hired a San Francisco architect to design a house suitable for the rich and privileged. Construction moved quickly, so quickly that the job was finished by the time the Dunsmuirs married secretly in December 1899.
Only 41 days later, Alexander died of causes attributed to acute alcoholism while on their honeymoon. Josephine returned alone to her new home in Oakland. She died in 1901.
In 1906, the house passed into happier hands. I. W. Hellman Jr., son of one of the original owners of the Wells Fargo Bank, purchased the estate as a summer getaway for his family. Dunsmuir bustled with a retinue of cooks and nannies, gardeners, chauffeurs, footmen and parlor maids under the direction of Mrs. Hellman. The estate included a golf course, formal croquet and tennis courts, swimming pool, glass conservatory, hot houses, a dairy, and cutting and vegetable gardens.
By the 1950s, great-grandchildren were joining Grandmother Hellman on the veranda. Dunsmuir was for summer play, however. The Hellman family spent Christmases in San Francisco.
On your holiday visit, you will be mingling with living history characters dressed in their party best, but dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes. In order to reach the house itself and visit the outbuildings, you must be prepared to wander the estate.
As an alternative to walking, a complimentary trolley and a horse-drawn carriage circle the grounds. They pass the swans in the pond, swaths of lawn, cactus garden, greenhouse, carriage house, the charmingly shingled chicken houses and the gazebo before drawing up near the mansion door.
At the fancifully decorated house, yesteryear begins on the wide veranda. The poinsettia-flanked front door swings open to a house at once grand and as warm as home. The aroma of mulled cider and freshly baked gingerbread wafts from the kitchen. A 20-foot tree rises up the stairwell toward the Tiffany glass dome.
With costumed docents on hand, guests can explored the decorated nooks and crannies on their own. Each room - the library, dining room, nursery, children’s playroom - includes details designed to bring the era to life. In the card and games room, the Edison Music tubes are a special draw, with visitors sharing the wonderment of how “that thing” can make music.
For every Victorian “upstairs” there was a “downstairs.” The tour descends the narrow staircase to the austere servant’s quarters, where the laundry room is festooned with a clothespin-decorated tree and lacy bloomers hung for drying.
Downstairs also offers the opportunity to complete your holiday shopping at the Mansion Gift shop, crammed with handcrafted treasures. Here, too, you can joy a snack or light lunch at the Winter Café. By reservation, a proper high tea also is served at the estate Gate House, its interior transformed into a Victorian tearoom swathed in garlands and fragrant with narcissus and pine.
Special entertainment is centered around the Children’s Pavilion. Expect bagpipers, Scottish dancers, carolers, even a dancing Christmas tree.
Dunsmuir-Hellman is located at 2960 Peralta Oaks Court in Oakland, open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 20. Admission is $20, $18 seniors, $12 children. Parking is $15. Reservations are required for Victorian Tea, and two special events: Brunch with Santa and a performance by the Oakland Ballet. More info: (510) 615-5555, Dunsmuir-Hellman.com/events.
Yvonne Horn is a Santa Rosa-based travel writer.