An Illustrated Guide to Lake Merritt
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If you’ve ever walked or jogged the nearly 3.5-mile loop around Lake Merritt, you know there’s a lot to check out. While Merritt certainly has a set of devotees who know its every nook and cranny, even locals have a hard time wrapping their heads around everything there is to do and see. But never fear, this handy guide will help you navigate more than 30 of Lake Merritt’s landmarks (and a few of its less-obvious gems).
1. Cleveland Cascade: The Cleveland Cascade, a 250-foot stairway, leads from Lakeshore up to Merritt Avenue. It was constructed in the 1920s as a park with flowing water down the center of the stairs. Though Cleveland Cascade has been dry since the ’50s, it remains as a place to add an extra kick to your workout if jogging the lake just isn’t enough.
2. Pine Knoll Park: From Pine Knoll Park you can check out views of the lake and boathouse. It also has one of the few public restrooms around Lake Merritt, should you need one.
3. Athol Plaza: If tennis is your game, Athol Plaza has two courts. There are also benches and some trees if you’re looking for somewhere to sit with a book or take your lunch.
4. East 18th Street Pier: The East 18th Street Pier, built in 1908, isn’t very useful for boats – although you could row right to the base of the platform, there’s nowhere to tie up. But this scenic lookout on the shore is perfect for sitting and taking in a panoramic view of the lake.
5. Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center: The historic Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, no. 27 of Oakland’s official landmarks, closed in 2006. Before then, the 5,000-seat center housed performances of Elvis, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and the Grateful Dead. Martin Luther King Jr. even spoke here once. Though the city sold the space a few years back, it was reverted to the city’s ownership and stands unused today.
6. Peralta Park: Once the home of Peralta Playland, a small amusement park, Peralta Park, located just outside the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, has a play structure and cement benches. The area is named for Luis María Peralta, the former namesake of Lake Merritt itself.
7. René C. Davidson Courthouse: If you live in Alameda County, chances are the Davidson Courthouse is where you’ll be serving your jury duty. Sure, jury duty’s a drag, but the lovely building, named after a longtime court recorder, almost makes up for it. Some important cases have taken place behind its doors, too, including the trial for the murder of Chauncey Bailey, a renowned Oakland journalist killed because of his investigative reporting.
8. Oakland Museum of California: In addition to a schedule of rotating exhibits, the Oakland Museum of California has permanent displays on California art, history and natural science, many of which are interactive. Every Friday night, the OMCA hosts Off the Grid food trucks, dancing, and art workshops with half-price gallery admission for adults and free access for those 18 and under. Plus, there’s an outdoor garden that overlooks the lake and admission is free on the first Sunday of the month.
9. Camron-Stanford House: The Camron-Stanford House is the last of the nineteenth-century mansions that once surrounded the lake. The restored Victorian functions as a museum. The collection features American arts and furniture from the Victorian era, as well as photographs and some household items. Larger groups can book tours of the house with high tea or lunch.
10. Lake Chalet: The Lake Chalet restaurant is known for its impeccable views and, if you show up on a nice day, there’s lakeside seating available. Brunch and happy hour are offered, plus Taco Tuesdays that feature $2.50 tacos, $3 pints of beer, and half-price margs. Yum!
11. Gondola Servizio: If you’re looking for somewhere to take a date or celebrate a special occasion, the Gondola Servizio has authentic Venetian gondola tours, including ones that come with wine and cheese or chocolate.
12. Oakland Scottish Rite Center: The Scottish Rite Center was built in 1883, just three decades after the then-young city of Oakland was first incorporated into Alameda County. There are private, members-only sections of the temple, but the historic building also opens for public events – everything from weddings to Super Bowl parties – and is home to the Childhood Language Center, a nonprofit speech clinic. In July 2014, the center started undergoing a $1.2 million renovation to return it to its former glory.
13. Lake Merritt Hotel: The renovated 1927 Art Deco–style Lake Merritt Hotel is home to the Terrace Room, a restaurant with a view of the lake. Brunch-goers love the bottomless mimosa special.
14. Veterans Memorial Building: Constructed in 1926, the Veterans Memorial Building has an auditorium and two floors. It is also home of the Lake Merritt Dance Center, which offers dance lessons throughout the week.
15. Lakeside Park: One of the most frequented parks in Lake Merritt, Lakeside Parkencompasses a lot of Merritt’s jewels and stretches from Fairyland to beyond the Rotary Nature Center. Its open spaces are often taken over by picnics, barbeques, and people soaking up the sun on warm days.
16. Edoff Memorial Bandstand: Built in 1918 for the Oakland Municipal Band, the Edoff Memorial Bandstand was fashioned in the likeness of another bandstand in Milan. Though the band doesn’t get funding from the city anymore, it still performs here each summer. You can check out its free concerts starting on July 4th and each subsequent Sunday in July. Little ones can climb on “the monster,” a nearby play structure that looks like a long, twisted gray creature.
17. Children’s Fairyland: Children’s Fairyland, which opened in 1950, was one of the first amusement parks of its kind in the country, and Walt Disney reportedly visited to get ideas for Disneyland. With puppet shows, rides, on-site animals, and more, it’s a must-see for any Bay Area kid. Some of the most memorable features of the park are the Talking Storybooks. Kids can turn plastic keys inside boxes scattered throughout Fairyland to hear snippets of various stories. If you grew up in the East Bay, you probably have fond memories of your visits here. (My claim to fame was winning a special-edition Talking Storybook key in an art contest.) Though, sadly, adults are not allowed to enter the park without a child, Fairyland occasionally hosts adult-only nights.
18. Gardens at Lake Merritt: Admission is free for the seven acres of groomed gardens. Some of the most popular areas include the bonsai garden, which has special hours, and the sensory garden, which includes lavender, lime, chives, and other scented plants. A wooded, Japanese-style area at the center of the garden can be entered by crossing under a torii, a traditional Japanese gate gifted to Oakland by the city of Fukuoka, Japan. The gardens are a great spot to take lunch or a book, or to just go on a quiet walk. The Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt oversees garden development and welcomes volunteers.
19. Bowling greens at Lakeside Park and Oakland Lawn Bowling Club building: If you want to give lawn sports a try, Lakeside Park has both lawn bowling and croquet. Club lawn bowling goes down from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; there are some Sunday bowling hours as well as introductory lessons for those who are new to the game. One of the bowling greens is also home of the Oakland Croquet Club. You can become a member to play or hire the club to help you host a lawn party.
20. McElroy Fountain: John E. McElroy was a city attorney when Frank K. Mott was mayor. He died at age 39 of pneumonia and the fountain was dedicated to him in 1911. Twelve metal plaques on the monument depict events from McElroy’s life. The piece, which was created by Walter D. Reed and Douglas Tilden, was the first officially commissioned artwork in Oakland and is registered by the Smithsonian.
21. Schilling Garden: Schilling Garden, a nineteenth-century lakeside estate, was owned by August Schilling, cofounder of the A. Schilling spice company. The family opened the gardens to public viewings around 1911 and for years it was known as a place for high-class parties and weddings. Although the gardens are no longer open to the public, and are much smaller than they once were, people have been known to peek through the gates – which have an “A” for August – to have a look.
22. Snow Park: Snow Park was once home to the Snow Museum, which housed taxidermied game from the travels of Henry Snow. The buildings were eventually raised and now just a grassy area with a putting green, benches, and picnic tables remain. Snow Park is a regular spot for start and finish lines for Oakland walks and runs, and was one of the camping locations during the Occupy Oakland movement. (Be warned – locals often joke that the “snow” at Snow Park refers to all the goose droppings here.)
23. Sailboat House: The Sailboat House is home to the Lake Merritt Boating Center, several rowing clubs, and the Lake Merritt Institute. If you want to take to the water, you can rent pedal boats, rowboats, kayaks, and sailboats. There’s a discount for residents too. If you want to learn more about the lake, you can take a guided, private charter on a pontoon, dragonboat, or whaleboat. Beware the wind on cold days. If staying indoors is more your thing, the Sailboat House regularly hosts events throughout the year.
24. Junior Center of Art and Science: The 60-year-old nonprofit Junior Center of Art and Science has exhibits, art and science classes, and workshops. It reports reaching more than 30,000 children each year. It also hosts themed parties for kids, which typically involve hands-on craft projects.
25. Rotary Nature Center: The brightly colored totem pole outside will help you spot the Rotary Nature Center. Built in 1953, it helps maintain and protect the lake and other open spaces in Oakland. The Center offers natural science presentations and summer camps for youth. It also houses various exhibits, including a working observation beehive and some live animals.
26. Wildlife Sanctuary: Lake Merritt was originally a wide, tidal estuary and today it is home to thousands of migratory birds, including black-crowned night herons, bufflehead and goldeneye ducks, cormorants, egrets and, of course, the ubiquitous Canada geese. The lake was declared a National Wildlife Refuge in 1869, making it the oldest of its kind in America. Today, it is overseen by the Rotary Nature Center and includes five artificial bird islands with boundaries to keep out boats. Free binoculars are available and there is also a small, enclosed park where people can get closer to the birds for photos. A massive geodesic dome houses hurt and otherwise vulnerable birds.
27. Kiwanis Kiddie Korner: If you have kids with you that still need to burn off some energy after Fairyland, or if you want somewhere to let them play while you have a picnic nearby, then Kiwanis Kiddie Korner is the place to go. There are always dozens of kids running around and climbing all over this play structure.
28. Earth Maze: In 1992, the city commissioned Alex Champion to design the Earth Maze, a small labyrinth. Champion has constructed more than 100 earth mazes around the nation, many of which are located in the Bay Area.
29. Bellevue-Staten Building: The classic Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Bellevue-Staten apartment building was designed by Herman Carl Baumann in 1929 and today is on the National Register of Historic Places.
30. Cathedral of Christ the Light: The Cathedral of Christ the Light is a stunning piece of architecture. It was designed by Craig W. Hartman to replace the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales after it was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake. The building is easily identifiable: the roof comes up in spikes, almost like a crown. Inside, the worship space is formed by the intersection of overlapping panels of wood and glass. The design, inspired by the miracle of the loaves and fishes, makes for some otherworldly lighting. There are free, guided tours of the cathedral for individuals and small groups. Plus, it has a coffee joint, the City Lights Cafe.
31. Pergola and Colonnade: The Pergola and Colonnade used to be a landing point for boats that would transport goods, livestock, and people. Today, the area behind it is still called El Embarcadero, which translates to “the pier.” The area was designed by Walter Reed in 1913 and renovated by the city in 2007. Some of the most iconic images of the lake – and a lot of wedding photos – include the structure.
32. El Embarcadero: The park between the pergola and El Embarcadero sees a lot of activity from those practicing capoeira or slack lining, picnickers, families playing Frisbee, and the occasional dance or spiritual ceremony.
33. Eastshore Park: This park is home to the Lakeview branch of the Oakland library, which has thousands of books and some regular exhibits. It’s also where you can find the Astro Park, which has a restroom and drinking fountain.
34. Splash Pad Park: Splash Pad is a popular spot for relaxing with lunch or meeting with friends. The relatively young park was designed by Walter Hood, chair of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, and opened in 2003. It’s well known for its water features and as the home of the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market.
35. Grand Lake Farmers’ Market: Known as one of the best in the East Bay, the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market has more than 40 local farmers and 30 specialty food vendors. It takes place year-round on Saturday mornings and afternoons.
36. Our Lady of Lourdes Church: In March of 1772, the first Catholic Mass in the area was held just down the bluff from Our Lady of Lourdes Church, which has a plaque outside commemorating that moment. The parish used to include a school, though now only the church remains.
37. Leon Olson Memorial: The simple plaque mounted on a rock near the intersection of Lakeside Drive and Jackson Street reads “Leon Olson loved to walk here.” Olson was an Oakland resident who religiously circled the lake three times every day. After he died in 2002 at the age of 89, the memorial was created in his honor.
Special thanks to Scott Oliver and the Once Upon A Time, Happily Ever After project for some of the historical information included.