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Sunday, June 03, 2001

Hastings’ dream house became a nightmare

Jerry Bowen

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The house on the corner of West 2nd and L street in Benicia was magnificent. Four stories tall and with 45 rooms, 21 of them bedrooms!

Good grief! Why would anyone want a home that big in 1881?

Well, as it so happens, the owner would have reason to wonder that himself in the years to come.

A native of Newton, Massachusetts, 28-year-old Daniel N. Hastings booked passage for California, arriving in San Francisco on Dec. 1, 1849. He worked for a while as a carpenter until 1850, then decided to try his luck at mining on Sullivan’s Creek near Stockton. It didn’t take him long to decide that this wasn’t the way to make his fortune.

After another short stay in San Francisco, Hastings settled in Benicia where he built a small butcher shop. He prospered enough to go back east and bring his family to California in 1852. By 1862, he was a substantial landowner, mixing with the social giants of the community, especially Andrew Goodyear and Lansing B. Mizner.

The conception of the house began as idle conversation between Hastings, Mizner and Goodyear as they described the homes they would build for their families. As men are accustomed to do, they began to try to outstrip each other in the lavishness of their dreams.

Apparently Hastings became quite obsessed with his idea of a home. Goodyear went on to build a substantial abode that eventually cost him around $25,000, a sizable sum in the 1880s. Mizner contented himself with staying in the modest home that he had been occupying for several years.

But Hastings threw himself into his dream - hook, line and sinker.

At first he selected a large lot at the corner of First and F streets in Benicia. The foundation already had been finished when a disagreement with the Board of Trustees caused him to abandoned the site.

Then, deciding to build at a new location at the corner of West 2nd and L Streets, he hired contractor A.J. Ryder to build the mansion. And what a castle it was when finally completed in 1881! The huge kitchen was equipped with marble slabs on the tables and drain-boards. Cupboards and pantries lined the walls from floor to ceiling. An entire room next to the kitchen was devoted to shelves full of preserves and supplies.

Along the halls were bedrooms on the second and third floors. The first floor held a library, reception rooms, a game room and a billiard room. Walls were paneled with exotic woods and the floors covered with marble tiles and expensive carpeting.

For its day, the house had every amenity, all of the installation supervised by Hastings who insisted on perfection in every detail, no matter what the cost. The staircase leading to the front door cost $8,500, an equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars at today’s rates.

The house boasted 88 doors, 85 windows, five fireplaces, a 50,000-gallon cistern and a 2,000-gallon water tank on the roof.

In all, the cost of constructing the house reached about $85,000, but after all the appointments and furnishings were in, the price tag topped out at a whopping $350,000! It was Benicia’s finest and the town boasted of that fact.

But trouble began even before the house was completed.

For starters, Hastings had to float the $85,000 in a loan from his brother-in-law in order to construct the home. I’m not sure where the rest of the money came from, but it probably depleted in a big way much of any savings the Hastings had.

When the family moved in, it quickly became apparent that such a big home took a lot of attention, requiring a small army of servants. Few of them remained employed long because of the constant effort required to go up and down four floors of stairs to accomplish their daily tasks.

Tragedy struck the family when one of Hastings sons, William, lost an arm in a hunting accident. Depressed and unable to cope with his problem, he committed suicide.

Amid the high costs of maintaining the house and grieving over William’s death, the family decided to move to a smaller home in San Francisco. Not wanting to leave the house unoccupied, Hastings asked his friends, the Charles Prince family, to occupy the house in his absence.

Just when things seemed to get better for the Hastings family, the 1906 earthquake destroyed their new home in San Francisco. They arranged to move back to the house in Benicia until the San Francisco home was rebuilt.

When the family moved back across the bay, they left their son, Zeb, who was crippled, to stay in the Benicia home while a sale was arranged. To Zeb, the home held many dear memories. He began brooding over the impending sale and died shortly before a deal was closed with a Catholic priest, Father McQuaid, for a mere $10,000.

Father McQuaid’s mother lived in the house until she died and the property was deeded to nuns to be used as a boarding school for boys.

The house operated as the school until 1936 when it was finally abandoned. It had become a fire hazard because of damage created over the years by the antics of the boys. In 1937, Ray Boldt of Vallejo bought the house and immediately began to dismantle it.

The final death knell for one of Benicia’s finest homes and for Hastings’ dream of grandeur was summed up in an ad in the Times-Herald, “Now wrecking; the Hastings Estate at West 2nd and L streets, Benicia; Save up to 70 percent on lumber, brick and pipe, etc.”