An Evening on the Edge of the Western World

A talk given at Piedmont’s “Wildwood,” an estate designed by Bernard Maybeck for Frank C. Havens, March 3, 2007

Early in the 20th century, there was an idea afoot in Western letters that the race had come to an end on Pacific shores. That is, that the white race that had begun in Mother Asia thousands of years previously had steadily fought and explored its way west until it had come to the shores of the Pacific Ocean where it now looked out across the wide waters to home. What would happen now? Some claimed — especially after the U.S. planted itself on the other side of the Pacific by taking the Philippine Islands — that there would be an enormous race war. Other visionaries believed that here a new civilization would arise, an amalgam of East and West. It’s that vision that we see in this astounding house. 

Frank Havens came from a proud old family rooted in Shelter Island on the eastern end of Long Island. He came west to make his own fortune, and made it in land speculation in the East Bay. He teamed with “Borax” Smith to buy up 13,000 acres of land and to build the Key Route trolley and ferry system that gave their land value — playing the same role in the north that Henry Huntington was playing down in Southern California building cities from scratch by providing settlers with efficient transportation, energy, and water. In the process, both men became enormously rich — so much so that both went back east and established summer estates on Shelter Island. The two also built estates in the East Bay less than a mile apart — Smith in Oakland overlooking Lake Merritt, Havens further up the hill in Piedmont. Smith had come a long way from Death Valley and twenty mule train borax that built his first fortune.

Both hired Bernard Maybeck who’d grown up in Greenwich Village and been trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but who always remained the son of an immigrant German furniture designer with a profound sympathy for wood. Maybeck designed the interiors for Smith’s Arbor Villa that, from photographs, bear a resemblance to Wildwood. He seems to have been an early and easy convert to William Morris’s ideas of total design. Maybeck was himself something of a mystic — he sent his children to and taught at a school whose curriculum revolved around the 4th dimension. He himself had a profound respect for nature and for designing structures to harmonize with their landscapes.

Probably through his association with Smith, Havens chose Maybeck to design his house in 1908. Because of later alterations made by Lila Havens, it’s a bit hard to see Maybeck’s initial conception, but there’s enough to see that it’s an extraordinary creation, a melding of baronial Craftsman and Japanese temple descending a steep hillslope by a multitude of levels and ever-surprising public spaces, the deliciously dark wood interiors opening onto the light-filled canyon.

This is clearly a house designed for entertaining, and that’s what the Havens’s did. Remember that Piedmont, in the 19th-early 20th century, was an odd mixture of bohemian artists living as neighbors with the very wealthy when that was still possible. This house was central to that because Frank Havens was the uncle of poet George Sterling — the “King of Bohemia” — and supported him for many years, and his wife Lila was the sister of Sterling’s wife Carrie. The house became a favorite venue for parties where neighbors such as the Sterlings, Jack and Charmian London, and Xavier Martinez, and Frank Havens would whoop it up with his millionaire friends. It was a center for the bohemians with both a small and a large “B”, as in Bohemian Club. Martinez’s wife said that Havens was a man outside of his class.

I was just in New York where I saw the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum on Louis Comfort Tiffany’s extraordinary houses and especially his country estate Laurelton Hall on Long Island. Tiffany was building and adding to Laurelton Hall as Havens and Maybeck were building Wildwood, and I suspect that Havens must have seen it. It was built on eight levels and was a self-contained work of art meant to delight all of the senses at once, a place of total design and supernal beauty. Tiffany was fascinated by the art and design of all cultures, including Asian and American Indian, and Laurelton Hall was filled with museum quality examples, as is this house.

Apparently this house was substantially altered when Lila Havens became a Theosophist and became fascinated with Asian art. But she could have fallen under the spell of Rabindranath Tagore when he visited San Francisco in 1916 to give his speech “The Cult of Nationalism” which warned against the materialism and militarism of the Western nations and argued for a return to the spirituality of the East.

The design of this house express that ideal. Although Tagore arrived a year after the 1915 world’s fair in San Francisco, its bombastic architecture expressed what he warned about: a fantasy Rome next to the Golden Gate representing the Western conquest of the Pacific. By the time of the next world’s fair — 1939 — on Treasure Island, we seem to have learned something from the years of the New Deal, for that fair was all about Pan-Pacific unity, i.e. creating a community around and in the Pacific that had been Tagore’s dream. I suspect that that may have been the dream of the Havens’s as well.


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