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The True Story of Mary Porter Sesnon and Pino Alto

While Mary Porter Sesnon’s name is well-known throughout the region, very little until now has been known about her life.

Mary Porter Sesnon, portrait, 1920s; a salon luncheon at Pino Alto, 1913. Historic images courtesy of Porter-Sesnon Family Archives.

In January of 1910, a small notice appeared in the pages of the Santa Cruz Evening News entitled “Beautiful New Home Planned.” The article noted that San Francisco-based financier William T. Sesnon and his wife Mary Porter Sesnon were planning to build what would be dubbed in the press as their “palatial country home” on the grounds of the former Porter estate (where Mary Porter Sesnon had been born and raised), located just east of Soquel on a knoll with sweeping views of Monterey Bay.

The landscape architect for the Sesnon home was John McLaren, the legendary Superintendent of Golden Gate Park. McLaren oversaw the design of the park’s famed Japanese Tea Garden, which had been created for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, and which figured prominently in the landscape design of what would be named “Pino Alto” in honor of a tall and solitary pine tree that had been reportedly planted decades earlier by Mary’s father, Benjamin Franklin Porter, on the grounds of his once-thriving tannery and sprawling family lands.

The actual construction work was to include “the terracing of the grounds, the building of reservoirs and artificial lakes,” all for the then-gargantuan sum of $50,000. For the next several months, progress of the construction was documented in local newspapers. By the spring of 1911, the project was complete, and the Sesnons sent out invitations for an “informal housewarming” at their new summer estate,

The housewarming was a truly Northern California affair, bringing the state’s business leaders, artists, literary and political figures to the Sesnon home in Soquel. More than 300 visitors were in attendance on Opening Day.

During the week following the Pino Alto inaugural, there were lengthy accounts of the celebrated gathering in the regional newspapers. “The most notable social function in the history of Soquel was the magnificent reception given by Mr. and Mrs. Sesnon at their recently completed home,” Grace Lee’s “Social Chat” column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel noted. “It is an epoch in the history of our town, and one of the most valuable assets of this locality.”

The Sentinel also sent the celebrated writer Josephine Clifford McCrackin—the author of The Woman Who Lost Him and a pillar of Bret Harte’s distinguished staff at Overland Monthly magazine—to cover the opening celebration. She would chronicle events at Pino Alto for the next several years, not only in the Sentinel, but in the nationally renowned Overland Monthly, as well.

“The time is too short to devote to descriptions of the Chinese room, the dining hall, the breakfast parlor, the suites on the second floor, the endless and numberless rooms, all thrown open on Saturday night, to the guests so cordially received by Mr. and Mrs. Sesnon,” McCrackin wrote.

The highlight of the evening, according to McCrackin, occurred when three young children, one of them the Sesnons’ daughter Katherine, “appeared on stage, charmingly costumed, and executed the most graceful pas de deux in a character dance taught by Mrs. Sesnon, which dance was a prelude, so to speak, to the appearance of Mrs. Sesnon as Terpsichore [the Greek muse of dance and song] herself. It was an entrancing sight, and people, without knowing it, crowded each other to get one last look. The applauding and positively wild cheering lasted even after the group had quit the stage.”

Later that summer, McCrackin would once again single out the performance of Pino Alto’s beloved hostess—who, it was noted, executed a “Dance de Ballet” in which she was accompanied by “the ballet corps from the Grand Opera House” in Soquel.

“In reality it was a poem, a dream of fair angels,” McCrackin observed, “gliding, gracefully, willowy, lithe,” with “Mrs. Sesnon herself, in costume, most becomingly draped and dressed.”

 

For most of the next two decades, the Sesnons would host lavish gatherings, or salons, during the summer months at Pino Alto. As with the inaugural affair, Mary Porter Sesnon and her artistic sensibilities would assume center stage, both literally and figuratively, at all of these events.

While Mary Porter Sesnon’s name is well-known to those in the region who have attended exhibitions in the widely respected gallery named in her honor at UC Santa Cruz, little has ever been published about her or the powerful artistic vision and social drive that not only defined her life, but also underscores her continuing legacy.

Mary Porter Sesnon with Charles C Moore at Pino Alto, 1911

SOCIAL STUDY Mary Porter Sesnon, left, with Charles C. Moore and an unidentified woman at Pino Alto, 1911. Porter-Sesnon Family Archives.

The scion of one of Santa Cruz’s oldest and wealthiest 19th-century families, Mary Porter—or “May’ as she was known to family and friends—was born in 1868 and raised on the family land, then located along the old Santa Cruz-Watsonville highway (today Soquel Drive). She was trained in the arts—music, dance and watercolor—and traveled extensively with her family, while her father, Benjamin Franklin Porter (after whom Porter College at UCSC is named), expanded the family land holdings and business activities to the far reaches of the state.

Perhaps most importantly, Benjamin Porter built his daughter an art studio on the property that she forever cherished. Wherever she resided in California, the Porter property in Soquel would always be her second home and forever held the dearest place in her heart.

Mary Porter Sesnon’s life—and the artistic, intellectual and social expressions of it that were revealed for more than two decades at Pino Alto—is now the subject of a fascinating exhibit at the gallery that bears her name, curated by the gallery’s talented director, Shelby Graham, and it includes a number of family artifacts never before made public. Funded by the UCSC Arts Division, this seminal exhibit shines a bright light on the details of a life that go far beyond a name.

As a complementary component of the Mary Porter Sesnon exhibit, the Porter College Faculty Gallery will be hosting a compelling exhibit featuring the works of Sesnon’s great granddaughter, Molly Porter Cliff Hilts, herself an alumnus of Porter College (1981) and a celebrated artist in her own right, currently residing in Portland, Oregon, and following in the traditions of her great-grandmother.

Entitled “State of Wonder,” Cliff Hilts’ work fuses a multitude of visual media—photography, printing (using wax), lithographic ink, oil, and graphite—creating powerfully haunting images that create deeply emotional encounters. Vast and dreamlike vistas are juxtaposed with intimate photographic transfers as a way of linking memories of place to specific familial or personal events. It’s a perfect complement —and provides a dynamic one-two artistic/historical punch.

 

Although the Porter name is omnipresent throughout Santa Cruz County—around UCSC, Soquel, Cabrillo College, Nisene Marks, Watsonville, and even into Pájaro in Monterey County—as with Mary Porter Sesnon herself, the family history is remarkably unknown in the region, and much of what has been written is, frankly, inaccurate.

Although precise dates and sequences in many accounts vary, the Porter family legacy here actually stretches back to the Gold Rush era, when a trio of Porter cousins—George K., John T., and Edward F. “Ned” Porter—made their way from New England to Santa Cruz County and engaged in a wide array of entrepreneurial activities.

In 1853, another cousin, Benjamin (Mary’s father and a brother of Ned) made his way to California by crossing the Isthmus of Panama by foot, before joining his protean family members in Soquel.  Immediately upon his arrival, he became active in the local economy and in the mid-1850s purchased the Soquel Tannery along with his cousin George K. Porter and a friend, C.W. Moore.

Once again, various historical writings present conflicting dates and activities for the Porter cousins, but in the 1890s, eminent California historian Herbert Howe Bancroft sent a research team to interview Benjamin Franklin Porter, while the family was residing in Los Angeles. Bancroft asserts that Benjamin Porter landed in San Francisco “on his twentieth birthday, with $80 in his pocket, which he loaned at three percent per month, and went to work at cutting and chopping redwood trees.”

The 1860 Federal Census lists the two cousins, George and Benjamin (both 27) living in Soquel; George is listed as a “master tanner” while Benjamin is listed as a “tanner.” By the beginning of the Civil War, Benjamin began purchasing large tracts of land just east of Soquel on which the tannery continued to expand its operations (and on which Cabrillo College today is situated).

He and his cousin George later purchased an expansive tract of land in Southern California that comprised nearly the entirety of the San Fernando Valley (think Chinatown a generation earlier than the time portrayed in the classic film starring Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson). But Benjamin Porter, like his daughter, always favored his adopted home in Soquel. “I am paying taxes in twelve counties,” he once famously declared, “but this is the spot of them all. Here, I can get away from the multitudinous cares which come into the life of every man of business activities. This is a safety valve and place of rest.”              

Molly Porter Cliff Hilts, great-granddaughter of Mary Porter Sesnon of Pino Alto

ART IN THE FAMILY Molly Porter Cliff Hilts’s show ‘State of Wonder’ complements the exhibition at Porter College dedicated to her great-grandmother, Mary Porter Sesnon. PHOTO: JINX FAULKNER

                   

In addition to their activities in business and economic enterprise, the Porters were integral components in the civic and political life of the region. John T. was elected County Sheriff; Ned was named Soquel’s first postmaster; and George was elected to the California State Senate. Benjamin served as a supervisor in Santa Cruz County in the early 1860s; so did Ned. John T.’s son, Warren Porter, would later be elected Lieutenant Governor of California.

In the autumn of 1867, Benjamin traveled to New England, where he married his childhood family friend Kate Hubbard, and then returned to California, where they soon started a family. The couple’s first child—the only one to survive into the 20th century—Mary Sophia “May” Porter was born in Soquel on Oct. 9, 1868 (not 1869 as is recorded on her headstone, nor 1870 as recorded elsewhere); according to family lore, a twin brother of Mary’s died at birth. Another daughter, Sarah H. “Sadie,” was born in February of 1871.

The two Porter girls were the darlings of Soquel, then Los Angeles (where they moved in 1882) and San Francisco (where they resided in the 1890s). At the wedding of one of their cousins here in Santa Cruz, Mary played the wedding march on piano. At an 1894 social hosted by the Calvary Church in Santa Cruz, it was reported that a “feature of the program was Miss Sarah Porter, who possesses a sweet voice, which has been carefully cultivated. Miss Porter sang two operatic selections and a ballad. Each number was heartily encored.”

Her sister Mary, according to the account, “made all of the guests happy by telling them their fortunes. She was kept so very busy that it was a late hour before all those who desired to listen to her ‘unravel the mysteries of the future’ were satisfied. Miss Porter, who is a decidedly bright young lady, made a decided success.” At the golden wedding anniversary of their maternal grandparents in Soquel, Sarah performed as a vocalist, while Mary performed a solo on the banjo.

 

In May of 1891, Mary (listed as “May”), Sarah and their mother all submitted applications for U.S. Passports. They departed from San Francisco that month, eventually embarking on an ocean liner from New York to London. A short notice in the Sentinel asserted that the “object of their visit to the old country is for the purpose of completing [the sisters’] musical education … They will be absent from America for a year, but are undecided to reside in Paris or Berlin.”

It wasn’t until nearly two-and-a-half years later—in November of 1893—that the trio returned from their European sojourn. The following year, it was reported that the Porter mother and daughters spent two months during the fall at the family’s “country residence near Soquel.”

Then tragedy struck. In May of 1895, Sadie was diagnosed with typhoid fever leading to pneumonia, and died in San Francisco at the age of 24. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that “she was prominent in musical and social circles” and “that she had a host of friends.” Mary would eventually be the lone descendant—and lone heir—of not only her father and mother’s vast estate, but also of her Uncle Ned’s estate, who also had extensive residential and commercial holdings in the Soquel township.

 

The following year, in December of 1896—after Mary and her mother made a series of short visits throughout the state—Mary married a family friend, William T. Sesnon, a promising businessman and civic leader who had served as Deputy State Secretary of California and as Clerk of San Francisco County. Born in 1860, Sesnon was the son of Irish immigrants whose father had died when he was a teenager, leaving him resourceful and also ambitious. He graduated from Hastings Law School, and while uninterested in the practice of law, he was drawn to civic and entrepreneurial activities.

By 1891, he was a guest at Porter family functions, where he joined Sarah Porter in vocal performances. Following the death of his father-in-law, Sesnon would later expand the Porter family business and real estate holdings into successful oil ventures, manufacturing sites and land development. The Sesnon couple would have four children—Porter (1899-1991), Katherine (1901-1922), Barbara (1902-1987) and William Jr. (1905-1979)—all of whom were raised spending their summers at the Pino Alto estate.

Long before they built their expansive “country home” in 1911, the Sesnon couple and their growing brood often spent long weekends and most of their summer months at Pino Alto, enjoying the company of Mary’s extended family. Large gatherings included pig and beef roasts, barbecued fish caught off Capitola, and lots of games and performances. The events were often used as a way to raise money for local churches and charitable organizations. In 1898, the Santa Cruz Evening Sentinel announced that “a garden fête is soon to be given at the Porter place, Pino Alto, for the benefit of the Episcopal Church of Capitola.”

These gatherings were almost always documented in the local press, and the family’s daily activities were often reported as well. The Porters—and later the Sesnons—were treated like celebrities in the greater Santa Cruz community. “A very handsome and natty rig dashed down Pacific Avenue Friday afternoon containing Mr. and Mrs. Wm. T Sesnon and guests,” the Evening Sentinel reported in August of 1906, shortly after the Great Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco. “It attracted considerable notice.”

After the Sesnons built Pino Alto, the gatherings ratcheted up a notch or two, as both William and Mary were closely involved with the most prominent business and civic leaders in the state. In 1912, William was elected President of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and the following year he was appointed to a “Commission Extraordinaire” by U.S. President William Howard Taft for the purpose of meeting with foreign leaders in advance of the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) in San Francisco. Charles C. Moore, the President of the PPIE who owned a large estate in the foothills overlooking Santa Cruz, was also a regular guest at Pino Alto, where plans for the international exposition were often the center of conversation.

The Pino Alto salons were organized around performances—or “stunts”—much like the celebrated summer gatherings at the Bohemian Grove on the Russian River in Sonoma County. These performances included music, dance, singing, orchestral arrangements, vaudeville acts, skits, and readings. There were also a multitude of recreational activities (hikes, tennis, swimming at the nearby beach, bridge and mahjong) carefully organized by Mary. Early phonograph recordings and radio programs were played, and silent films were also screened, including The Argyle Case, a lost masterpiece produced by and starring early screen star Robert Warwick.

Judging from the salon book signings, archival photographs and newspaper accounts, men were usually in the majority at these affairs, but women were significantly represented and children often accompanied their parents. At a time when women were often excluded from such gatherings, Mary Porter Sesnon demanded—and facilitated—their active participation.

 

It should be noted that the fêtes at Pino Alto were often used to raise money for causes dear to the heart of Mary Porter Sesnon. Perhaps the most notable occurred shortly after the opening of the estate, when Mary raised funds (and provided the land) for the construction of the Porter Memorial Library in Soquel (still located on Porter Street in Soquel, named after her Uncle Ned).

Mary held fundraisers for a multitude of other causes, including the Soquel Improvement Club, the Parish Guild of the Cavalry Church and the San Francisco Opera Company. The Sesnons also hosted dinners for prominent foreign diplomats, including those from Brazil and Japan visiting the U.S. in preparation for the PPIE. One banquet at Pino Alto featured 16 officers from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Another hosted 100 cast members of the play Julius Caesar, visiting Santa Cruz in the summer of 1921 for a special performance at the Casa del Rey hotel on the local waterfront.

One columnist for the Santa Cruz Evening News assessed the gatherings in the most glowing of terms. “The charm of the hostess alone makes the visits delightful,” it was noted. “From early morning, when so many enjoy a brisk canter down the country roadsides, followed by an appetizing breakfast out of doors, until evening when lights are lowered to enjoy a novel motion picture or an informal dancing party is arranged—every moment brings some new delight.”

When William Sr.’s health deteriorated in the late 1920s, the once thriving salons at Pino Alto came to an end. William died in 1929 and Mary—following an extended trip to the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia—passed away upon her return to San Francisco the following year.

While the Sesnon children and their families made frequent use of the estate during the next decade, the property was eventually sold off, first to the Salesian order in 1942, before it was finally purchased by Cabrillo College in 1974, where it became known as the Sesnon House. The mansion was badly damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake (it was only a few miles from the epicenter) and was rebuilt to its present glory in the 1990s. Today the facility is used for college and community events, and serves as home to the Cabrillo College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Program.

Descendants of the Porter-Sesnon family have also made large donations in honor of their family at the University of California, Santa Cruz: Porter College is named after Benjamin Franklin Porter, while his daughter’s love of art and community is commemorated at the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery, where her grand spirit is finally being honored with an exhibit celebrating her life and times that goes well beyond her name.


Portions of this story have appeared elsewhere and are excerpted from the forthcoming Santa Cruz is in the Heart: Volume III.

The ‘Mary Porter Sesnon and Pino Alto’ Exhibit runs through Saturday, May 12, at Mary Porter Sesnon Galley at UCSC’s Porter College. There will be a curator and alumni walkthrough on April 28, from 2-4 p.m., and a Sesnon Family Sign Dedication at Porter Koi Pond on April 28 at 3 p.m. Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 12–5 p.m.; Wednesday 12-8 p.m. 831-459-3606.

‘State of Wonder,’ featuring works by Mary Porter Sesnon’s great-grand daughter, Molly Porter Cliff Hilts, runs through Saturday, May 12, at Porter Faculty Gallery at Porter College. Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 12–5 p.m.; Wednesday 12-8 p.m.

 

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Jana Marcus

    May 4, 2018 at 8:55 pm

    Great article Geoffrey! Here’s a fun/weird side note: In 2006, during a performance in the old Cabrillo Theater (the 300 building) the image of a ghost watching from the wings was captured. It showed the eerie presence of a woman in turn of the century clothing whose shape disintegrated as it met the floor. The image was run through testing for authenticity, but no explanation was ever determined. The actors of Cabrillo Stage were enthralled by the image, as they had been experiencing unexplainable happenings backstage for decades. In 2009, when my office was in the Sesnon House, I was shown old images of Mary Porter Sesnon, and one of them looked VERY much like the ghost captured in the theatre!

    Historian Sandi Lydon told me that as a young girl Mary loved to put on plays, and a stage was built for her in one of the lower level rooms of the Sesnon House. I like to think that Mary’s spirit enjoyed going over to the Cabrillo Theater to enjoy the shows!

  2. Anonymous

    April 27, 2018 at 10:38 am

    You must mean the red church downtown, Calvary not Cavalry.

  3. Tyler Sesnon

    April 25, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    Great read! Thanks for the history lesson!

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