A day in Oakland: history, ice cream and a quiet 'Mountain View'

A day in Oakland: history, ice cream and a quiet 'Mountain View'


Treat yourself to a history-filled day in Oakland: visit the Victorian home of California’s “Earthquake Governor,” stroll in the park-like cemetery with fascinating monuments and views of the Bay, and indulge in old-fashioned treats from the 125-year-old creamery featured in Pixar film “Up.”

Pardee Home Museum

Wedged between a busy highway and imposing downtown high-rises, the Pardee Home Museum is a remainder from Oakland’s earliest times. Its first owner, Enoch Pardee, initially visited the area to hunt quail and rabbits before he decided to build a house in 1868, which was on the city’s outskirts then.

The most interesting thing about the Pardee Home Museum is that the house was built and inhabited by three generations of the same family, leaving it remarkably preserved.

Plus, the Pardees were not just any family: Enoch served as mayor of Oakland, state assemblyman, and state senator; his son, George Pardee, also served as mayor of Oakland and is perhaps better known for his important role as California governor during the 1906 earthquake.

Because the house was in one family’s ownership, all the furnishings are original, just as the family left them 40 years ago. There are 19th century family portraits and George’s wife Helen’s vast collections of candlesticks and scrimshaw, a perfectly functioning music box and a square Steinway piano. A boxy TV is one of few additions that George’s daughters made, otherwise leaving their parents’ and grandparents’ furnishings untouched.

The house tour, offered weekly by volunteer docents, is intimate and homey, just like tours that Helen Pardee gave to her guests. It may even be followed by a private tea party in Pardee’s elegant dining room, available for groups of six or more.

The Pardee Home Museum gives local history buffs a chance to see how California’s important political families lived, touring the same rooms where Enoch and George Pardee discussed many issues still relevant today. From public health to education, environmental conservation, and water supply like the Pardee Reservoir, which still supplies drinking water to the East Bay, they each left a significant mark in California history.

Mountain View Cemetery

A 15-minute drive from the Pardee Home Museum in the Piedmont/Oakland hills lies Mountain View Cemetery. The name should not confuse you: the cemetery has nothing to do with the Silicon Valley city—in fact, “mountain” refers to a biblical mountain rather than a specific geographical site. “Mountain View” was a popular name for cemeteries in the 19th century.

Because San Francisco banned any new burials within the city limits from 1901, many San Franciscans, as well as Bay Area residents, chose Mountain View Cemetery as their final resting place.

The Pardees are all buried here, as are other governors, senators, mayors, and sheriffs. Among its most famous denizens are Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan and author Frank Norris. San Francisco chocolate king Ghirardelli and one of the “Big Four” railroad barons Charles Crocker are interred in fancy mausoleums on the “Millionaires’ Row,” signaling their wealth long after their deaths.

You can track California history through the many monuments at Mountain View Cemetery. Whole books and websites have been written, delving into the compelling, tragic or sometimes funny stories behind the countless obelisks and gravestones.

Laugh at the extravagance behind the statue of Temperance flanking a 70-foot granite obelisk of a San Francisco dentist. Mourn the tragic story of Elizabeth Short, aka Black Dahlia, an unremarkable movie hopeful made famous after her death, or rather, her gruesome and widely publicized murder. Compare pompous mausoleums of forgotten millionaires to the utterly modest headstone of Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California whose legacy includes more than 700 buildings.

The cemetery organizes regular docent-led tours on topics ranging from Gold Rush to Civil War heroes, and Black and Women’s History.

In addition to historical exploration, another reason to visit Mountain View Cemetery is its remarkable landscape design. It may sound surprising that the cemetery looks open and inviting, more like an expansive tranquil park popular with joggers, hikers, dog walkers and even picnickers. For this, we have to thank the clever 1863 design by Frederick Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park in New York and many other significant projects.

Olmsted loved a “picturesque, natural style” — in his own words — and was known to enhance natural features to produce a specific effect. Out of dusty barren Piedmont hills arose the lush, expansive park-like site with gentle green hills dotted with oaks, cypresses and cedars, a tree-lined grand allée, and an intricate network of paths that curve up and down past granite obelisks and tombstones.

While life is bustling beneath Piedmont and the Oakland hills, the 226-acre cemetery offers relaxation, serenity and perhaps a bit of philosophical contemplation that death is part of life and man is part of nature. Mountain View Cemetery feels like a place that welcomes everyone. It treats the dead with dignity and respect; and it soothes, teaches, and inspires the living.

Fentons Creamery

It could not be more appropriate to conclude the history-filled day with a treat at Fentons, California’s oldest continuously running creamery founded in 1894. It is just a short walk from the cemetery down Piedmont Avenue.

Expect a change of pace from the serenity of Mountain View Cemetery. Two large rooms are filled with excited kids coloring Fentons’ paper hats and devouring ice cream creations, and appreciative parents whose excitement is only slightly contained.

The ice cream at Fentons is made freshly on site and is delicious. The portions are quite a bit larger than in the concluding scene of Pixar film “Up’’: massive sundaes dripping with toppings and whipped cream can easily substitute a full meal for two adults. Toasted Almond, Rocky Road, or Swiss Milk Chocolate flavors were supposedly created by the founder’s grandson Melvin (claims that Fentons invented these ice cream flavors are rather rocky).

Should you crave more than an ice cream, Piedmont Avenue has at least two dozen eateries rated four or more stars on Yelp. The choices vary from tiny Ninna’s serving tasty Thai curries and stir-fries to sophisticated two-Michelin-starred Commis, with Greek, Vietnamese, Italian, and Japanese restaurants in between.

The Pardee Home Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a California state landmark. Regular 90-minute tours are offered every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and on the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. Tea parties can be booked in advance for groups of 6 or more.

Mountain View Cemetery offers free docent-led tours at 10 a.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. No reservation is needed.The grounds are open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Fentons Creamery is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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