The Gilded Age: Historic Homes and Groves

Early in its history, Burlingame was a playground for the wealthy, a summer resort accessible to the city by train, yet rich in country pleasures and fine weather. Some of the great fortunes of Gilded Age California were housed in what is today Burlingame and Hillsborough. The owners of these grand states contributed to many of the great plantings still in evidence today.

Aerial view of the wooded Mills Estate around 1954. Eucalyptus-lined Skyline Drive is seen at the bottom of the photo. Photograph courtesy of the Millbrae Historical Society. Click to enlarge.

Mills Estate

Straddling the border of today’s Burlingame and Millbrae was the estate of Darius Ogden Mills. Mills was a banker who invested in mining, railroads, and other booming industries in the 19th-century Golden State. He was one of California’s wealthiest citizens.

Originally part of Rancho Buri Buri, owned by the Sanchez family, the 1,500-acre property was transformed by Mills into a country estate with a mansion, known as “Happy House,” a forest with trees and shrubs from every part of the world, a lily pond, and three lakes. Gardening was one of his hobbies, and Mills kept a large glass conservatory for plants.

Laughlan McLean, who planted many of Burlingame’s first trees and was superintendent of the Mills lanscaping, recalled the barren character of the landscape when he arrived to this area in the 1870s from his native Scotland [*1]: “I could stand at Colma and see clear to Palo Alto. . . . And man, how that wind did blow!” McLean joined John McLaren in planting trees along path borders to serve as a windbreak.

Decades after Mills died, Burlingame attempted to annex the estate, but faced resistance from neighboring Millbrae. In 1954, the property was sold to developer Paul Trousdale. Local community groups opposed development from the start, challenging Trousdale’s plans at planning commission and city council meetings. Among the concerns was the fate of the trees on the Mills property. The developer, in order to keep the peace, promised to preserve some of the eucalyptus trees on El Camino Real. On June 23, 1954, the “Happy House” was destroyed by accidental fire. Soon after, the land was completely stripped of its manmade lakes, large groves, and exotic trees and plants from around the world.

Top: aerial view of Burlingame, 1927, showing location of the Gunst Estate in the lower center (© Russell Photography). Click to enlarge. Bottom: Gunst Mansion, located on the future site of Washington Park (photo undated)

Gunst Estate

What is known today as Washington Park was once the Moses A. Gunst Estate. Moses Gunst was a wealthy cigar retailer. He was also named Police Commissioner in San Francisco in 1895 and pushed through such reforms as police uniforms and paddy wagons. Gunst purchased his land (formerly the Corbitt horse-breeding ranch) in 1904.

In 1940, the city purchased the estate for $30,000 to expand the existing 10-acre Washington Park. The purchase included the mansion, which was used as a community center  until it was destroyed in the 1960s. The Burlingame Historical Society is housed in the former carriage house of the estate, which is still standing. No one is sure whether any of the trees from the Gunst Estate still stand, but it is believed that the last of them was removed within the last decade.

Ansel Mills Easton (son of Ansel I. and Adeline Easton) at his home in 1900 with unidentified neighbor

Blackhawk Estate

The historic Blackhawk Estate was the home of Ansel I. Easton and Adeline Mills Easton, the sister of D. O. Mills, and sat to the south of Mills Estate. The 1,500-acre estate, like  many of the other parcels in the area, was planted by John McLaren, and the grand entrance to the estate, like many of McLaren’s other plantings, was lined with rows of eucalyptus trees.

In 1910, a portion of the estate, by then subdivided by Ansel and Adeline’s son Ansel M. Easton (in photo above), was annexed to Burlingame. The portion of the property where the Blackhawk home stood is now in Hillsborough, which incorporated in 1910.

Today, many of the original trees still stand on Easton Drive, which marks the former entrance to the stately mansion. In 2007, city tempers flared over the debate whether to preserve or destroy “Tom the Tree,” a eucalyptus (by then about 130 years old) whose roots had disrupted the street surface and was considered to be dangerous.

[*1] Lister (1934). See Resources.