Saturday, October 31, 2009

Olmsted's Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland CA

Four years after the California Cemetery Act was passed in 1859, the original trustees of Mountain View Cemetery met and organized a non-profit association. The trustees sought out Frederic Law Olmsted who was known for his work in New York’s Central Park and who was in California at the time. (Olmsted came to California to manage the 44,000 acre Mariposa Gold Mine.)

The cemetery was consecrated May 25, 1865 and quickly became the premier place to be buried, attracting the elite of California - including such notables as: Charles Crocker one of the Big 4 who built the transcontinental railroad and later founded Crocker Bank; Henry Durant, founder of what became the University of California; Ina Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate; James Folger who created Folgers Coffee Company; Domingo Ghirardelli, the chocolate king; three generations of the Pardee family that included two Mayors of Oakland and one California Governor; famed architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, the first woman to graduate from the Ecole de Beaux Arts; Col. John Coffee “Jack” Hays, the most famous Texas Ranger; landscape painter, Thomas Hill; author Frank Norris; sculptor, Douglas Tilden; industrialist, Henry J. Kaiser whose shipyards played a key role in the Allied forces victory in WWII and whose medical foundation provides quality health care to this day; Warren and Steven Bechtel, who founded and built the largest engineering firm in the world; Elizabeth Short, aka “The Black Dahlia”; and numerous other state governors and legislators.

Mountain View cemetery occupies 226 acres of land in the Oakland hills. Olmsted planned curving paths and roads that climb up the slopes at either side of a formal allee. The main allee starts at the level entry and extends one half mile up along a gentle slope. As described in a narrative Olmsted wrote, he envisioned a place for all persons to be buried, "a place of our common grief, our common hopes and our common faith; a place wherein we may see and feel our sympathy one with another ... where all elements of society would be provided for ... so that the community of the dead would be an object lesson for the community of the living".

Olmsted intended native grasses, lots of shrubs and five species of trees - Italian Cypress, Cedar of Lebanon, Stone Pine, Monterey Cypress, and Evergreen Oak (Quercus agrifolia). Today 80+ species of trees are found throughout the cemetery. The upper terraces offer spectacular views of the bay and the City of San Francisco. It is here that the elite of California chose as their final resting place, which became known as Millionaire's Row.

See the sidebar on this blog for information about free, docent-led walking tours.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Sun House – A HALS Adventure

On October 16, 2009 I visited the Sun House in Ukiah which is in Mendocino County off Highway 101. Ukiah is the county seat and has a nicely-scaled historic downtown. We drove from the coast over Mountain View Road enjoying the fall color – vibrant red poison oak and intensely yellow Big Leaf Maples – through Boonville to Highway 253. When we arrived in Ukiah it was well past lunchtime so I inquired of the first person we passed, “where should we have lunch?” Without hesitation she suggested Schat’s Bakery which was just around the corner at 113 W. Perkins Avenue – across from the courthouse.

What luck – they not only offered an assortment of appealing pastries which we bought two of, but great sandwiches. I ordered a half sandwich and ceasar salad and the sandwich was so large I could not eat it all – much more food than one usually gets with a whole sandwich and it was delicious. Sated we headed off to the Sun House and Grace Hudson Museum that I’d learned about from the Northern California HALS database of potential HALS sites.

The Sun House, so named because John and Grace Hudson incorporated a Hopi Indian sun sign over the front door of their new home.

Grace Hudson was an uncommonly successful and recognized artist of her time. She gained national recognition for her paintings and received an honor award at the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was a prolific artist working primarily in oils creating over 600 paintings of local Pomo Indians.

My purpose was to study the landscape associated with the house. What I found was that much of the original garden that had been designed and installed by the Hudsons was still present.

The Sun House is located on a 4 acre parcel. In addition to the single-family craftsman-style home the property includes the original garage, Hudson-Carpenter Park, the Grace Hudson Museum and a shaded parking lot. A timber fence defines the front property line along Main Street. Brick columns mark a simple wooden gate with a hand-hewn iron latch and a straight, brick path aligns with the heavy timber front door. To the left of the front door there is a 25 foot totem acquired by John Hudson from Northwest Native Americans. To the right of the front door is a stone bench and further right is a mature Pistache Tree – one of six originally planted by the Hudsons.

The front garden is mostly lawn with a bronze sundial mounted on a brick pedestal and a curved brick path leading to the ornament. A mosaic and metal birdbath depicted in historic photos was not visible at the time of my visit having been temporarily removed for repairs. The front garden currently has fewer shrubs than depicted in historic photos that also show vines covering much of the front of the house.

The south property line is defined by a drive that accesses the parking lot that serves the Grace Hudson Museum. Between this drive and the Sun House is a garden that includes features installed shortly after the house was built including a rectangular brick patio surrounded by four rough-hewn stone benches and a raised brick planter that originally was an 8 foot square fish pond.

The south garden is lushly planted under the shade of mature Sycamore and Poplar trees. The understory plants appear to be relatively new additions. Towards the rear of the property there are two other garden structures designed and built by the Hudsons. A heavy-timbered trellis consisting of six 8x8 redwood posts support 6x6 beams that are topped by eight 4x6 crossbeams. A knarled Wisteria remains on this now deteriorated structure. The area under the trellis is paved with brick and there is another stone bench and a stone millstone.

The second structure on the southeast side of the house is a wishing well. A spring was known to be here as early as 1817, long before the Hudson’s purchased the property. Grace Hudson had a rusticated stone wishing well with a filigreed ornamented bucket holder built as a present for her husband.

A driveway runs perpendicular to Main Street on the north side of the property and passes under a heavy-timbered and simply-designed porte corchere to a small, one-car garage. Integrated into the timbers of the porte corchere is one of three bells collected by the Hudsons. The largest had been the Ukiah Fire Bell; the smallest was the bell from Redwood School and the third came from the Methodist Church.

Several mature camellia trees are planted along the foundation on the north side of the house and appear to be original. The park to the north of the house includes several mature trees that also appear to be original including a very large oak. Several large Redwoods were added later. Authors Lanson and Tetzlaff in their book “Grace Hudson Artist of the Pomo Indians – A Biography” include a reference to a rose garden as “an early addition” to the grounds but no rose garden remains as of 2009.

The House is a craftsman-style redwood structure designed by the Hudsons and their architect George L. Wilcox. Construction started in 1911 and took six months complete. The house is California Historical Landmark No. 926 and the property is on the National Register of Historic Places. The City of Ukiah acquired the property in 1975 after the deaths of Mark and Melissa Carpenter. Mark Carpenter was Grace Hudson’s nephew.

If you visit the Sun House be sure to allow time to see the garden, the interior of the house and the museum including the permanent and changing exhibits – oh, and be sure to eat at Schats.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fort Ross State Historic Park

So, I have started a blog. I didn’t really mean to, but yesterday I attended a talk at the California Genealogical Society just to learn about blogs. The speaker was Thomas MacEntee who writes GeneaBloggers – a site for genealogists. Part 2 of his talk demonstrated how to create a blog using Blogger, a free application. Thomas made it look so easy and so fun that I could not resist. I visited his site, found the link to Blogger, clicked on it and then froze when it asked, “What is the name of your Blog?” Did I really want to do this? It’s a big commitment. I used to hate to write – what’s gotten into me?

I typed in a name, and then it asked me to assign a URL. Oh my gawd, they are serious – am I? Well, if you are reading this you know the answer. It took only a few minutes and really was fun. I wrote my first post last night and ever since my mind has been whirling with ideas of what more to write about. I thought I should start at the beginning and explain the basics: What is HALS? Why was it created? What is its purpose? But all that sounds too dull and what I really want to tell you about is some of the fascinating historic landscapes I’ve visited in the past few months. So I decided to start with Fort Ross.

I took the photo of Fort Ross that appears on my blog banner in spring of 2009 while my partner, two dogs and I were on a weeklong vacation in Northern California. This state historic park recently made headlines when Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak visited on August 27, 2009 in response to Governor Schwarzenegger’s threat to close many of our state parks. Kislyak urged the governor to consider how important the site was to the people of Russia. According to a September 18th article in the Independent Coast Observer by Lisa Walters, “Ambassador Kislyak said he would lobby Russian business interests that might be willing to help with the needed funds.”

Fort Ross History
Fort Ross is a 3386-acre park that preserves North America’s southernmost Russian settlement originally founded in 1812 by the Russian-American Company. Today the site includes the restored Rotchev House and 5 other reconstructed buildings including the Northwest and Southeast Blockhouses, the Kuskov House, a chapel and Officers Quarters. The original fort is enclosed by a stockade built of Redwood with wood spikes on top.

The park property includes the Call Ranch House, remnants of a Russian Orchard and cemetery, a visitor center with interpretive displays, picnic and parking. Archaeological excavations have been undertaken to insure that the placement, orientation and size of features is historically accurate. The fort is set on a point of land between Fort Ross Cove and Sandy Cove on California’s northern coastline. It has a broad view of the Pacific Ocean and of forested hills to the northeast. Because the Call family valued the site the property today it is almost the same as it had been when the Russians left it in 1841.

Prior to the Russian settlement Native Americans used this site known as Metini for centuries. The Kashaya Pomo people seasonally moved their village from the ridges where they lived in winter, to their summer home along the seashore where they hunted, gathered food and harvested seafood.

Russians began exploring in North America as early as 1742. In 1784 they built the first permanent Russian settlement on Kodiak Island, Alaska. This organization became the Russian-American Company in 1799. In 1809 the Russian-American Company sent Ivan Kuskov to locate a California site to serve as a trading base. Kuskov chose Metini which had plentiful water, good soil, forage and pasture and a supply of redwoods. The site was relatively inaccessible which gave the settlers a defensive advantage. The settlement was never threatened by outside attack. Kuskov returned in 1812 to build houses and a stockade. The colony was dedicated on August 13, 1812 as “Fortress Ross” to honor its connection with Imperial Russia – or “Rossiia”. Kuskov was an avid gardener, growing cabbage and beets for pickling. He produced enough to ship the excess to Sitka, Alaska. At its peak the Fort Ross settlement included 300 men, women and children and thousands of livestock.

Outside the stockade a village grew to the southwest that had 50 buildings, Native Americans continued to live nearby and worked at the fort. Ross was a successfully functioning multicultural settlement for at least 30 years; residents included Russians, Native Alaskans, Californians and Creoles. Activities included agriculture, ranching, hunting sea mammals, blacksmithing, tanning, brick making, logging and shipbuilding. The decline of the marine mammal population contributed to the departure of the Russians.

One of the first horticultural efforts was the Russian experiments with fruit trees. Peach trees were brought from San Francisco and planted in 1814. Grapes from Peru were planted in 1817. A Russian orchard located on the hillside included apples, peaches, grapes, quince, cherries and several types of pear. An 1841 inventory listed 216 fruit trees. This orchard is still maintained. Agriculture at the site peaked in the 1830s but was never very successful do to the severe climate and gophers.

In 1841 the property was sold to John Sutter who was based in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter had Otto Benitz manage the Ross property (1841-67). Benitz sold to James Dixon and Lord Fairfax who ran a lumber company (1867- 1873) when Fort Ross was sold to George W. Call (1873 – 1979).

In 1903 the California Historical Landmarks Committee acquired the Fort Ross property within the stockade from the Call family. The state acquired the property in 1906 and has implemented the restoration and reconstruction work.

The Rotchev House is a designated National Historic Landmark
The Chapel has been recorded by HABS (Historic American Building Survey)
The entire property is State Historic Landmark No. 5

Sources for this article include the following:
Fort Ross State Historic Park brochure, California State Parks,

"Fort Ross" published by Fort Ross Interpretive Associates, General Editors: Lyn Kalani, Lynn Rudy and John Sperry. E-mail:, 1998

Historic Spots in California, by Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch and Ethel Grace Rensch, third edition revised by William N. Abeloe, 1966.

Next time you drive up Highway 1 make a point of stopping at Fort Ross. It is a unique part of our state park system with an excellent visitor center.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Historic American Landscapes Survey - What Is It?

The Historic American Landscapes Survey is a new federal program created in 2000 to document historic landscapes. It is modeled on HABS which stands for Historic American Building Survey. HABS was created in 1933 during the depression and was one of President Roosevelt's many programs created to put Americans back to work. Unemployed architects were tasked with creating records of important historic buildings as a means of "preserving" them for future generations.

In 1969 HAER was created. HAER is an acronym for Historic American Engineering Record and it used to document engineered structures like the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The Bay Bridge was damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake and a new bridge is being built to replace the span between Oakland and Treasure Island. HAER documents will provide a permanent record of the original bridge.

One of the largest HALS projects currently underway in the United States is the documentation for Doyle Drive. Doyle Drive traverses the Presidio in San Francisco and connects the Marina District with the toll booth. This highway, constructed in 1937, is ranked 2 on a scale of 1 - 100 which means that it is seismically one of the least safe highways in the United States. Plans are underway to replace Doyle Drive. Part of this replacement project is to record the existing historic features.

The Presidio is within a National Park and as such it deserves a high level of documentation. Currently HABS, HAER and HALS documention is underway. My firm, PGAdesign Landscape Architects, is working with Jones & Stokes to complete the drawings portion of the HALS documentation. I'll tell you more about this facinating project in future postings