Ravenswood Historic Site, a restored Victorian country estate, is located in the heart of the Livermore Valley wine country. Ravenswood is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a State of California Historical Point of Interest, and is a City of Livermore Historic Preservation Landmark Site.
It served as a summer estate for the Buckley family from 1885 to 1920, it was also one of the larger early vineyards in the Livermore Valley, with 100 acres in grapes and winery production of 500,000 gallons per year.
Christopher Augustine Buckley, Sr. build this summer home for his bride, Elizabeth Hurley of Boston. The Buckleys traveled frequently from their San Francisco home to Livermore at Ravenswood, and gave literary parties and dances that were appearing regularly on the local Society Page.
At the turn of the century, the Buckleys were considered one of the first families of Livermore, donating generously to local charities. The early Livermore press often referred to Chris, Sr. as the “Lord of Livermore.”
Widowed in 1889, the Boss married Elizabeth's cousin, Annie Marie Hurley, in Boston in 1890. Their only child, Christopher Augustine Buckley, Jr. was born in London, England in June, 1893. This new, expanded Buckley family called the turreted building their Cottage.
The Blind Boss
Christopher Augustine Buckley, Sr., the man who built Ravenswood, was born on Christmas Day in 1845 in New York City, the son of Irish immigrant parents. As a young man, Buckley worked as a conductor on the Omnibus Railway Company's North Beach and South Park line. He quickly started bar-tending through association with impresario Thomas McGuire, builder of the Jenny Lind theaters, at McGuire's Snug Saloon. As a bartender--a "mixologist" he liked to call himself--in the City's financial district, he used contacts made behind the bar to enter the wide-open world of 19th century politics and mastered the art of back-room wheeling and dealing.
With a polished manner of speech, he was no street-thug risen to power, but rather a good-looking, educated manipulator of people. He preferred running the city from behind the scenes rather than giving public speeches to large crowds. Famous for his diplomatic skills, Buckley knew the value of appearing to be "politically correct" a century before that term was coined. His political machine won in both working class and ruling class districts, as Buckley skillfully appealed to the broadest possible cross-section.
Master at playing politics, he was clearly in control of the city and was known as the "Blind Boss" of San Francisco. The Blind Boss conducted business from the back room of the Alhambra Saloon which he owned. It was referred to as "Buckley's City Hall."
He had gone blind at about age 30, probably from the effects of untreated glaucoma. Despite the blindness, and though he never held elected office, he retained control of San Francisco and ruled the Democratic Party, and the state, for almost two decades.
You can read more about the notorious politician of the 19th century San-Francisco in this book.
The song which became popular during Buckley's last political campaign.
Come all of you little Democrats
And listen unto me,
I'll tell you of a Buckley man
Who is now across the sea,
He was the shrewdest little man
Though he could hardly see,
For many a year he boodled here
The great Democracy
Hush, hush, hush, here comes a Buckley man
You'd best look out for there's no doubt
He'll catch you if he can.
Look out you little Democrats,
Here comes a Buckley man.
He wore a dandy suit of clothes,
Likewise a diamond pin,
And if you wished to see the boss,
A darky let you in.
He owned a country mansion and
He drove a spanking pair,
And he put on all the airs and style
Of a boodle millionaire.
Revenswood Victorian luxury
The Main House was built in 1891 at a cost of $8,000 and provided expanded space for the Buckley’s frequent entertaining. The Main House appears to be two-story, but in fact has only one floor, with a high attic and a Billiard Room in the basement. It is Queen Anne style, with Eastlake influence, approximately 50 by 80 feet, and contains two main rooms -- the Drawing Room and the oak-paneled Dining Room -- a butlers pantry, kitchen, and a bath and servant's room.
In the Drawing Room you can find an enlargement of the only known photograph of the interior of Ravenswood. Published in January, 1896 by the Livermore Herald, it shows the opulence and clutter that was fashionable in the last years of the 19th century. The carpeting was teal blue and gold, to match the window seat cushions, and draperies were gold and maroon. As a guest of the Buckleys, you could sink into an over-stuffed, tasseled Turkish Chair and put up your feet on a fur-covered footstool, while one of the house waiters brought your refreshments. Downstairs is the Billiard Room, which was finished in the fall of 1896. It originally contained the Boss' Brunswick billiard table.
In the 1890's the Ravenswood estate was famous for its beautiful grounds and its gardens. The original landscaping was done by a French landscape architect and included extensive rose gardens--an early description speaks of "Happy and rose-embowered Mr. Buckley..." One hundred years ago, the privet-like euonymous near the gravel paths were probably hedges, not the sculptured trees you see today. Also original are the Canary Island date palms on the north side and across the front of the Main House.
The Carriage Barn, has the same cool, dark interior as it was in 1885. The Buckleys, because of their frequent house parties and guests, owned more than the usual number of carriages and this building is considered large for rural carriage barns of that time. Originally, there was a shed on the right side of the building for horse stalls and the coachmen and stable hands lived upstairs.
Somewhere near the barn would have been the corral for Ephraim, the Buckleys' famous boxing donkey. Trained in the art of prizefighting by Alex Greggains, the Boss' bodyguard, aide, and lifelong friend (and a former heavyweight himself), the donkey was "the sensation of the Livermore valley." Ruthless in the boxing ring, Ephraim was nevertheless gentle enough for 4-year-old Chris, Jr. and his young friends to ride at a children's party on July 10, 1897.
The Tank House was a necessity of any rural Victorian home. With its redwood tank on top, it was not only the estate's water system, but also housed servants' quarters upstairs and a summer kitchen downstairs, presided over by the Buckley’s Chinese cook, Hee Gong. The well and windmill which supplied the water was located to the south of the Tank House. It is depicted in an 1899 sketch, along with two more windmills and water tanks, one by the Carriage Barn, and one near the winery.
Buckley's Winery was built in 1890 and a brandy distillery was added in 1897. When the Boss became a winemaker, he researched grape varieties that were resistant to phylloxera, the root mite which, combined with Prohibition, almost wiped out the early wine industry both here and in the Napa valley. In 1891, he was growing twelve grape varieties--including Zinfandel, Folle Blanche, and Muscat de Bordelais--all sold and shipped in bulk. Buckley was one of the founding members of the original Livermore Valley Winemakers and Grapegrowers Association. Irish whiskey may also have been to the Boss' taste.
A Home to Roman Catholic Order
In May 1931, Chris Buckley, Jr. sold Ravenswood to a Roman Catholic order; known as the Redemptorist Fathers. Called "Villa San Clemente" by the priests, Ravenswood served as their religious retreat for more than 30 years. When the Redemptorists took possession of Ravenswood, they noted finding "about 100 old whiskey barrels"; six months later, Federal prohibition agents appeared at Arroyo Road and "ordered the old whiskey still demolished." The Fathers quickly complied.
The order was founded by an Italian priest, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, in Naples in 1732. Its purpose was missionary work among rural people. Spreading through northern Europe in the 18th century, the order was brought to America in 1832. By early 1900's, the Redemptorists' West Coast headquarters were in Oakland. Their juvinate, or seminary, was over-crowded and Ravenswood, renamed Villa San Clemente, was purchased as the site of the new college for the priesthood. For financial reasons, this never occurred. The approximately two dozen fathers who made Villa San Clemente their home in 1931 had dwindled to 3 or 4 by 1965, at which time the community moved to San Francisco.
In 1968, Ravenswood was purchased by developer Masud Mehran, who gave the core 32.6 acres to be used as a park. The 1891 Main House and 1885 Tank House were restored by LARPD in 1979. The 1885 Cottage was restored in 1986. It has now been preserved with a combination of original items and replicas of items from the period.
Free public guided tours are offered between noon and 4:00 p.m. the second and fourth Sundays of each month (closed on Mother's Day, Easter Sunday and the fourth Sundays in November and December). The last tour leaves at 3:00 p.m. Tours begin every 20 minutes and take approximately one hour, with the last tour of the day starting at 3 p.m. Each tour includes the 1885 Cottage, the 1891 Main House, and the beautifully landscaped grounds. All buildings are handicap accessible and there are public restrooms on site.
Ravenswood is available for reserved group tours Tuesdays through Fridays. The price is $5 per person for private guided group tours.
For rental/wedding information, call LARPD Facility Rentals at 925-373-5703.
For guided tour information, call the Ravenswood Progress League at 925-443-0238.
Be sure to save the dates for these two annual community events held at Ravenswood:
- Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Social on the 2nd Sunday in August
- Victorian Yuletide on the 2nd Sunday in December
This free holiday events will wow you with beautiful Victorian decorations, and you’ll also enjoy drinks and desserts, entertainment, buggy rides, and a visit with Old St. Nicholas, as well as a holiday gift shop.