The Founding of the Haggin Museum

Part II: Families, Fortunes and Philanthropy

This is the second of three articles that chronicle the events, individuals and organizations that contributed to the opening of the Haggin Museum 89 years ago this month. 

(Link to Part One in case you missed it.)

J. B. Haggin’s Nob Hill home, c.1880 (Courtesy of http://www.carletonwatkins.org)

The San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society held its first annual meeting on February 19, 1929. As the organization’s Secretary, Leroy A. Mills, sat down after reporting that their museum building fund stood at only $694.98 after more than a year of fundraising. It was apparent to all in attendance that it would be quite some time before their dream of a Stockton museum would be realized. But just two months later any gloom harbored by the group’s Board of Directors was replaced by renewed optimism.

Robert Tittle and Eila Haggin McKee

A letter from a New York City couple was read at the Society’s monthly meeting on the evening of April 16th. Written by Robert T. McKee on behalf of his wife, Eila Haggin McKee, it contained the following offer. Mrs. McKee was prepared to give the Society $30,000 for the purchase of a site upon which to build their museum if it would include a gallery named in honor of her late father—Louis Terah Haggin. In addition, she would also donate an unspecified number of paintings from her family’s art collection for the proposed gallery. With less than $700 currently in its coffers the Society spent little time in deliberating the proposal. In a telegram sent to the McKees on the morning of April 17th, Secretary Mills wrote, “DIRECTORS ENTHUSIASTIC AND GRATEFUL (STOP) BY RESOLUTION DECIDED TO AGGRESSIVELY PROCEED TO BE ABLE TO MEET CONDITIONS OF OFFER (STOP)”

The next day Mrs. McKee’s offer was front page, above the fold headline news in both the STOCKTON INDEPENDENT and STOCKTON RECORD. The City’s residents welcomed the news, but many couldn’t help wondering who Eila Haggin McKee was and why she and her husband would be interested in a small California city 2500 miles away.

The Haggin name was quite familiar to society luminaries and financial moguls. Mrs. McKee’s grandfather, James Ben Ali Haggin (1822-1914), had come to California during the Gold Rush and eventually settled in San Francisco in 1853, along with his business partner, Lloyd Tevis (1824-99). The two had a great deal in common:  both were born in Kentucky, both were trained as lawyers, and both married daughters of fellow Kentuckian, Col. Lewis Sanders.  

They also both possessed a keen business sense that allowed them to become two of the wealthiest men in California during the course of their 49-year partnership.

Lloyd Tevis, c.1865, left, James Ben Ali Haggin, c.1865

While their business enterprises were extremely varied, their most successful endeavors were in banking, land acquisition and mining. Tevis took the lead in banking, serving as the President of Wells Fargo from 1872 to 1892; Haggin led their real estate efforts with the pair eventually owning title to some 2 million acres in several Western states. With a third partner, George Hearst (1820-91), they acquired and developed the most profitable silver, gold and copper mines in the United States.  

Haggin used some of his fortune to build the first home on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. The three-story, 32,000 square-foot structure that covered an entire city block and included an 86-foot cupola with a commanding view of both the City and the Bay.  And the Haggin family’s art collection began with a need to decorate the walls of the mansion’s 61 rooms.

Blanche Butterworth Haggin, 1873, Louis Terah Haggin, 1873

Haggin’s eldest son, Louis Terah Haggin (1847-1929), attended schools in California, Switzerland and France before graduating from St. John’s College at Cambridge. After earning his law degree from Harvard, he returned to San Francisco and established the law firm of Haggin & Greathouse. In 1873 he married a remarkable woman, Blanche Butterworth (1855-1915). The daughter of the prominent San Francisco businessman and mine owner Samuel F. Butterworth (1811-75), she too was educated both in the United States and Europe. She spoke several languages and was well versed in the fine arts. They built their home on Nob Hill, not far from Louis’ father’s mansion. The couple established a second home in Paris in the 1880s where they entertained European aristocrats, writers and artists. The couple also began their own art collection, with an emphasis on works by late 19th and early 20th century American and European artists.

Blanche and Louis’ only child, Eila Haggin (1873-1936) was a true cosmopolitan. She frequently traveled between her native San Francisco and her parents’ second home in Paris. It was there—while attending a ball at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy—that Eila met Count Rudolph Festetics de Tolna (1865-1952). When she and the Count wed in February of 1892, Eila joined the ranks of the 450 American heiresses, who through their wealth and social status, married members of Europe’s nobility and aristocracy between 1870 and 1914. 

The Count and Countess Festetics de Tolna, 1892

It was announced that the couple would live in Vienna, but instead they set out on a multi-year cruise of the South Seas aboard an 88-foot sailboat named Tolna. The voyage began in San Francisco on October 9, 1893 and ended with the vessel’s sinking on February 10, 1900 off Minicoy Atoll, a small island off the southwestern tip of India.  Eila was not aboard when the little vessel was lost. Cramped conditions aboard the vessel, little time ashore and her husband’s erratic behavior had taken their toll on young Eila. She remained in Singapore when the Count sailed off in April of 1899. Ten months after the Tolna’s demise the marriage of the Count and Countess also came to an end in a California court when Eila was granted a divorce.

In the early 1890s the Haggin families relocated to New York to better oversee their myriad business enterprises that were no longer confined to the west. Eila joined her parents there in 1901. The move was fortuitous in that both of the Haggin Nob Hill homes were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It was fortunate in another respect, as well. In the early 1900s the Haggins made the acquaintance of a gentleman who, as fate would have it, turned out to be their link to Stockton, California—Robert Tittle McKee (1872-1943). 

Son of two pioneer Stockton families, “Bob” was born in Stockton and attended several local schools before graduating from the Golden Gate Academy in Piedmont. He studied art at San Francisco’s California School of Design and later toured the country designing sets for various theatrical companies. Following several years studying and working in Europe, he settled in New York City, established himself as a successful interior designer, and mingled regularly with the social elite—including the Haggins.  And although Bob and Eila had known each other for a number of years, their marriage in 1924 came as a pleasant surprise to both family and friends.   

In March of 1929, Louis passed away and because Blanche had preceded him in death, Elia was the principal beneficiary of her father’s estate, valued at $10 million—approximately $150 million in today’s dollars—mostly in stock holdings. It also included hundreds of paintings that filled her father’s Fifth Avenue residence, and despite having homes both in New York City and Long Island, Eila and Bob realized they did not have the capacity to properly accommodate this art collection.  

Serendipitously, through the invitation from some of his Stockton friends, Bob had become a member of the San Joaquin Pioneer and Pioneer Society shortly after its inception.  Aware of the difficulty the group was having in raising funds to build their museum, he suggested to Eila that a gift of a portion of her father’s art collection and a significant financial commitment would not only solve the couple’s dilemma but hopefully the Society’s, as well.  As it would turn out, Eila’s generosity did indeed prove to be the impetus for a reinvigorated effort to make a museum in Stockton a reality.

Next Month Part III: A Crystallization of Community Commitment 

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