Sam McManis

Discoveries: A first lady’s passionate collecting highlights Pardee Home Museum

Tourgoers gather in Oakland outside the former home of long-ago California first lady Helen Penniman Pardee.
Tourgoers gather in Oakland outside the former home of long-ago California first lady Helen Penniman Pardee.

Our great state has been blessed with more than its share of memorable first ladies, fascinating figures who wielded power and influence far beyond their ceremonial duties and possessed personalities as strong as their gubernatorial spouses, if not stronger.

Your favorite might be Nancy Reagan, America’s Iron Lady, or Maria Shriver, the journalist who eventually kicked the Terminator to the curb. Or maybe you prefer Mary Pacheco, the late 19th-century dramatist who lost most of her hubby’s money in ill-conceived theatrical ventures. Or Jane Waterman, a Canadian who rocked the cornrows hairstyle almost a century before Bo Derek. Or how about amateur numerologist Inez Budd, who superstitiously made cash bequests in her will in multiples of 13?

Me?

I’m partial to Helen Penniman Pardee, California’s first lady from 1903 to 1907. Once you visit the Pardee Home Museum – a lovingly preserved Italianate villa in what is now downtown Oakland, where she and Gov. George Pardee resided after vacating Sacramento’s Governor’s Mansion – you’ll know why.

“They called her a collector,” said historian and guide Dennis Evanosky, his tone clearly meant to add wry quote marks around that word. “These days, we might call her a hoarder.”

Indeed, there often is a fragile balance between harmless hobby and budding pathology, and perhaps Helen tipped more toward the hoarding end of the spectrum.

Check out this inventory of ephemera, keepsakes, gewgaws and just plain weird stuff you’ll see in only a single cabinet in an upstairs room of the manse, conveniently annotated in a hand-written, all-caps list titled “160 Curiosities From Around the World – 6 Objects Unknown.” Bear in mind, these are just the “highlights” of the cabinet, by no means an exhaustive list:

“Shelf 1: Commemorative medals from political conventions, Pardee Dam, Worlds Fair 1892-1915, ferry and streetcar tokens, Scottish beggars permit.

“Shelf 2: Animal and plant specimens, human hair, whale eye, unidentified objects in vials.

“Shelf 3: Tarantula and mud spider nests, alligator lizard, horseshoe stone crabs, hummingbird nest, sponges.

“Shelf 4: Human skulls (identities unknown), 1 stolen human skull fragment from Guatemalan crypt, panther skull, cat skulls, mummified flicker bird, flying fish fins, eagle and ostrich claws.

“Shelf 5: 12 starfish, seahorses, fossilized sand dollars, blowfish, sea urchin, shark pelvis, gavel from Lookout Mountain battlefield.”

Lest you think the collecting was confined to a few cabinets and bulging alcoves, and before we try to tackle the thorny ethical questions of some of these items’ provenance, let’s take a quick look-see around other rooms and document the extent of Helen’s hoarding.

In one downstairs “social room,” there are at least 50 candlesticks lining the shelves and table tops. Sure, the house didn’t have electricity in the early days but, c’mon, there are enough candlesticks to illuminate erstwhile Candlestick Park.

“You ain’t seen nothin’,” Evanosky said, smiling. “You should see what’s stored away.”

In the hallway, just beyond the rare and valuable 18-by-22-inch photographic plates of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins (a gift to the family), are two cabinets with ivory walrus tusks stacked like so much cordwood, many etched with American Indian petroglyph-like designs; sea lion teeth; and what looks either like rudimentary kitchen utensils or something a mommy and daddy, who love each other very much, might use behind closed doors.

“These are part of the collection George had from a friend, a midshipman stationed in Alaska,” Evanosky explained. “People were always sending things along to add to Helen’s collection, because they knew she’d be interested in it. People were always giving them things. Like this table over here.”

Evanosky pointed to a handsome, parquetlike, oaken end table. At first you cannot discern its pattern, because candlesticks cover nearly every square inch, but it is intricately designed, clearly handmade.

“This was made for George (during his governor’s term) by prisoners in San Quentin, using nothing sharp,” Evanosky said. “It’s inlaid wood. They made these for sale. When George became governor, he reformed the prison system and made life a little easier for the prisoners. As a thank-you present, they gave this to him, and he brought it here from the Governor’s Mansion. We had Jerry Brown in here once when he was mayor (of Oakland), and I asked Jerry, ‘Do they let you take things home now?’ and he said, ‘No way.’ 

Helen, the story goes, did more than just receive gifts. She, in at least one case, may have, uh, appropriated mementos, a la Winona Ryder. Evanosky led the tour group to 2-foot-high, brass Buddhist statues sitting on opposing shelves.

“Those were taken from the rubble of the 1906 earthquake,” he said.

You mean, someone gave Helen the statues as a commemoration of the devastation of Chinatown in the quake?

“No,” he said, “There were accusations that she stole these from Chinatown.”

So, Helen was a looter?

“Part of the family story is that she’d taken them out of the rubble herself or they would’ve been lost,” he continued. “They weren’t that valuable. But later on – way later on, like the 1950s – somebody found out and they had kind of a controversial cultural problem. People wanted them back.”

Much of the bric-a-brac from Helen’s cache few would really covet.

Anyone care for the two granite-cast fists of turn-of-the-century bare-knuckled boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett? (Might make good paperweights.)

How about the beaver-skin hat belonging to Enoch Pardee, George’s father and the man who built the family fortune? (Quite Lincoln-esque.)

Or perhaps you might want some arthropods, like scorpions and centipedes, mounted in glass-covered cases, or the exoskeleton of a Heike crab from Japan?

Actually, Evanosky said, the Oakland Museum of California once was offered the entire contents of the home, but it accepted only Helen’s American Indian baskets.

Surrounded by all this swag, I wondered aloud whether Helen ever bought anything herself.

Yes, as it turns out.

In the dining room, there are handsome chairs, each with a “B” carved into the back. Why not a “P,” you ask?

“She bought the whole dining room set (for $250) from the sale of the estate of a German (the counsel general in San Francisco) during World War I who was convicted (of espionage) – a man by the name of Franz von Bopp,” Evanosky said. “She never bothered to change the ‘B’ on the chairs.”

Pardee Home Museum

Where: 672 11th St., Oakland

Hours: Tours on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m., and the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m.

Cost: $10

More info: 510-444-2187; www.pardeehome.org

Trophy houses

The Bay Area is known as a haven of “new money,” with high-tech billionaires building lavish manses. But there’s a long history of rich people building trophy houses. “Discoveries” has visited three historic dwellings.

Oct. 25: Filoli in Woodside

Today: Pardee Home in Oakland

Nov. 8: Winchester Mystery House in San Jose

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