Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Frank C. Havens

Frank C. Havens was a San Francisco area lawyer and realty magnate during the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the twentieth.  Originally from Shelter Island, New York, he settled in the Bay Area and made his fortune here.

Frank C. Havens is more than likely one of the most influential people from the Bay Area that you've never heard of.  Heavily involved in realty and property development in the East Bay, Havens, along with his business partner Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, was deeply influential in determining the shape of both Oakland and Berkeley at the beginning of the twentieth century.  His stated goal was to own every piece of undeveloped land between northern Alameda County and Gilroy, and he came darn to close to realizing it.

Havens is perhaps best known for his involvement with "Borax" Smith and their shared property development company, the Realty Syndicate.  Under their leadership the Realty Syndicate was responsible for the subdivision and development of over 13,000 acres of East Bay real estate.  Their stewardship of the Realty Syndicate, and the sale of the property that they were developing, went hand in hand with the development of the Key System, a local urban rail network that was intended to develop hand in hand with the new subdivisions of Oakland and Berkeley.  The Realty Syndicate was also involved in creating and developing rail line attractions for weekend excursions, such as the Key Route Inn, Idora Park, and the Claremont Hotel.  In what is most likely an apocryphal story, Havens is claimed to have built the Claremont Hotel after winning the property from "Borax" Smith in a game of dominoes.  Havens also controlled the People's Water Company, a land development corporation that, at its peak, controlled almost all of the undeveloped watershed in the East Bay.

Both Havens and "Borax" Smith were long-term residents of Piedmont and were among its most important boosters when the city's status as an independent township was being discussed.  Havens built the four story Havens Mansion at 101 Wildwood Gardens in what would become the city of Piedmont proper.  The home was designed by famed architect Bernard Maybeck, also known for the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley and the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.  The interior of the home was furnished by Tiffany.  Havens was a well known lover of Eastern philosophy and his home included private meditation chambers, complete with an opium smoking bed.  Frank C. Havens Elementary School in Piedmont is named in his honor and in recognition of his role as one of the founding fathers of the city.

In an odd side note, Havens is also one of the more responsible parties in the widespread cultivation of Eucalyptus trees in the East Bay hills.  Eucalyptus are not a native species and Havens, along with a number of like-minded entrepreneurs, imported millions of eucalyptus seedlings and seeds from Australia.  The goal was the rapid and profitable development of a hardwood forest in the hills above Oakland and Berkeley, but it was not until some years down the road that the developers realized that the things that they intended to use the wood for, namely construction, railway sleepers, and hardwood lumber for crafts, furniture, and instruments, were the very things that the trees were least suitable for.  Havens' Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company planted somewhere between one and three million eucalyptus seedlings in the East Bay Hills, a legacy that is still with us today.

Havens passed away in 1917 and is buried in the Chapel of the Chimes, a local Oakland landmark that is based of a design by architect Julia Morgan.


  1. Great post! I've heard the name as Borax Smith's partner, but nice to know more about him.

  2. "Borax" Smith was never a resident of Piedmont. His magnificent estate, Arbor Villa, was in Oakland near the intersection of Park Boulevard and 9th Avenue.