Passersby who happen to pause to peer through the opening in the fence fronting Marion and Bob Oster's property in the Lindenwood neighborhood of Atherton may get more than they had bargained for -- a glimpse into the Midpeninsula's opulent past.
What can be seen through that opening is a gleaming fountain, 20 feet tall and 24 feet in diameter, presided over by a water nymph and four seated maidens. The cast iron and zinc fountain was produced in 1878 by J.W. Fiske in New York and restored -- from the top of the nymph's head to the tiled basin -- by the Osters in 2017.
Long before it was part of a suburban garden, the fountain was a feature of the grand estate built by silver baron James C. Flood, said to once have been the richest man in all of California.
Behind the brick walls that now border the Lindenwood neighborhood's 480 homes was Flood's country estate, its crowning jewel a home named Linden Towers. While the Oster's fountain could be seen from the windows of Linden Towers, it was vastly overshadowed by a much larger fountain that stood in front of the home. That fountain was 60 feet tall, with life-sized bronze statues and a marble basin.
Histories of the estate say construction of the three-story home -- topped by a 150-foot-tall tower that led some to call it "Flood's Wedding Cake" -- began in 1878. It had at least 40 rooms and an elevator, a library, game room, smoking room and several dining rooms.
Rooms were paneled in rare and expensive hardwoods. There were marble fireplace mantles, stained glass windows and frescoes painted by Italian artists on walls and the 18-foot-high ceilings. Bathrooms had sterling silver faucets and marble tubs. The hand-carved billiard table had cues inlaid with mother of pearl.
There were 36 acres of lawns which took three days to mow with horse-drawn mowers and extensive outbuildings -- including a racetrack favored by Leland Stanford -- and two lavish barns, where the horses had stalls paneled in rare woods and silver and gold tack.
Water for the estate was supplied by a reservoir filled by an underground river, which also fed a lake at the rear of the estate.
There was also a swimming pool and reflecting pond near what is now Juniper Drive off Flood Circle.
Although the home was demolished in 1936, in addition to the Oster's fountain, other remnants of the estate still exist throughout Lindenwood, including the two entry gates at James and Linden Avenues and the brick wall along Middlefield Road. One barn was remodeled into a home on Larch Drive.
Of the home's main fountain, nothing remains but a couple pieces of granite that formed its edge. One theory is that it was melted down for its metals during World War II.
Rags to riches
Histories show James Clair Flood was what could be considered the quintessential American success story. Born in 1826 to Irish immigrant parents in Staten Island, New York, Flood first sailed to San Francisco in 1849 during the Gold Rush. After returning to New York, he married Ireland native Mary Emma Leary. The couple spent a short time farming in the Midwest before making their way back to San Francisco.
Flood worked as a carriage builder and then opened what some historical records refer to as a "saloon" and others as "a bar and grill," called the Auction Lunch. After the success of that business led to moving to steadily better quarters, Flood and the Auction Lunch ended up near the Stock Exchange. There, stock tips from patrons convinced him to invest in mining stocks. Success there led to a partnership with William S. O'Brien, John Mackay and James Fair that controlled the Consolidated Virginia Silver Mine near Virginia City.
In 22 years of operation, that mine and the partnership's associated nearby California Mine yielded more than $150 million in silver and gold and paid out $78 million in dividends, according to a 1996 history of the 100 wealthiest ever Americans, "The Wealthy 100" by Michael Klepper and Michael Gunther.
Flood and his partners were called the "Bonanza Kings."
Flood diversified into banking, founding the Bank of Nevada, and used some of his new fortune to build a mansion in San Francisco and, in 1876, to purchase 300 acres along the east side of Middlefield Road for $500 an acre. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1898 that the Atherton home he spent three years building was "a structure of exceeding grace and beauty, rising in its green setting like sculptured marble, although constructed of wood upon stone foundations."
In 1880, the year the home was completed, President Ulysses S. Grant visited. An elm tree he planted during that visit still exists along what was the estate's driveway now Flood Circle and was given the very first Atherton heritage tree award in 1991.
The Flood family, including son James Leary and daughter Cora Jane, used Linden Towers as a summer home until the senior Flood's death in 1889. Mother and daughter then made Linden Towers their main residence.
Heir falls for a dancer
The story takes another soap opera-worthy turn when the younger James fell out with his family over his romance with Marie Rose Fritz a dancer with the Victoria Loftus British Blondes whom he had met in a San Francisco dance hall. Fritz left the country after the disapproving Flood family paid her $25,000 to go, the Flood's chauffeur said but young James followed her to Italy and married her there in 1887.
When the couple returned, he became president of the family's Nevada Bank, but family members refused to accept Marie Rose. The couple had no children, but in 1893 brought an infant into the family, naming her Constance May Flood.
James Leary's mother died in 1897 and soon after, his wife died suddenly during surgery to remove a tumor. She was 34.
James Leary and young Constance May accompanied by Marie Rose's 19-year-old sister, Maud took Marie Rose's body back to her family in Missouri.
Soon James Leary fell in love with Maud Fritz, and 13 months after his wife's death the two married. Before James Leary and Maud left on their honeymoon, they left Constance May with Maud's parents, where the child lived for several years before being sent to a California boarding school.
While James Leary and Maud were honeymooning, sister Cora Jane became overwhelmed trying to care for the Atherton estate. She donated the property her parents had willed to her to the University of California in 1898.
The university was itself a bit overwhelmed by the donation, so a few years later when Cora Jane offered to buy it back for $150,000, officials agreed.
In July 1903, the property was transferred to James Leary and his family. He spent $100,000 redecorating before moving there in 1904 with Maud and their two children, Mary Emma and James Leary, Jr.
Maud and James Sr. returned to San Francisco from a trip abroad on April 17, 1906 and spent the evening at the opera house watching "Carmen" with Cora Jane. They awoke to devastation, but their Clay Street mansion had escaped damage from the massive earthquake. They left for Linden Towers, but the fires that followed the earthquake burned their mansion to the ground.
Their 12-story Flood Building, just completed in 1904, also survived the earthquake only to end up burned in the fire. Its construction, however, was robust enough that it was repairable. It still stands on Market Street between Powell and Ellis streets.
Back in Atherton
Maud and James Sr. had yet another tragedy in their lives when their 4-year-old son died. But they soon had another son, whom they also named James, who lived to be 82. His son, named James Clair like his great-grandfather and known as Jimmy, had a home in Woodside at the end of Greer Road.
James Leary made many improvements to the Atherton property, including a 20-car round garage near what is now Acorn Way and Catalpa Drive. It had a central turntable, wood-paneled and plaster walls, and a domed ceiling of copper and glass.
In 1908 James Leary spent $75,000 replacing the white picket fence and gates on the property's periphery with new brick walls and iron gates. In 1911 he acquired 50 more acres of land and extended the wall to Marsh Road for an additional $11,000.
The Linden Avenue Gate is 27 feet tall, with two 16.5-foot openings for cars that have the James C. Flood crest at their peak and wrought iron gates, plus pedestrian entry archways on each side. A history by the Lindenwood Homes Association says "The Linden Avenue gate has never been closed in accordance with Flood's belief that the public be allowed access to the many varieties of trees and plants on the estate grounds."
The James Avenue gate is 18 feet high, with no crest. "It was intended as a tradesman entrance and has been altered to allow for traffic," the Lindenwood history says.
After James Leary's death, Dorothy Regnery wrote in "An Enduring Heritage" that the widowed Maud Flood "declared the house a relic from another era." She auctioned off the furniture and, in 1936, had the house demolished by the Symons Brothers. It took more than three months.
Once the home was demolished, the property was subdivided in stages and became Lindenwood.
Constance May reappears
Bringing a close to the family drama is the reappearance of Constance May, the little girl dropped off by the Floods in 1899. In 1926, after James Leary Flood's death, the now-married Constance May Gavin claimed that James Leary had been her father and that she deserved a share of his fortune.
In a notorious trial, a San Mateo County judge ordered the jury to find in favor of the Flood estate and dismiss Gavin's claims. But in 1933 the Supreme Court of California reversed that decision and ordered a new trial. Before the retrial, the family offered Gavin $1.2 million from the $8.6 million estate in trade for Gavin dropping claims that she was James Leary's daughter, which she did.
She died in 1950.
• See related story -- Meticulously renovated Lindenwood fountain is ready for another century