More than a century before Silicon Valley billionaires began plunking down stock-funded megamansions south of San Francisco, a more old-fashioned breed of capitalist was building lavish country homes on the Peninsula. They were the magnates of the mining, railroad, and banking industries, and their elegant estates, constructed between the 1870s and 1920s, were masterpieces to rival the East Coast mansions of Newport and Bar Harbor.
Today one of the most elegant examples of this period in California history remains open to the public: Filoli, a graciously imposing Georgian mansion set against 16 acres of lush, formal gardens in San Mateo County. The quiet dignity of the house, the contemplative serenity of the gardens, the looming mountains, and the soft Mediterranean light recall the expansive confidence and sunny ease of the 1920s, when California still lay west of smog, traffic, and national contention. To visit Filoli is to gain a sense of how California's rich and powerful once celebrated the beauty of the natural setting.
Filoli was built between 1915 and 1917 by William Bowers Bourn II, second-generation owner of the Empire Gold Mine, the richest hard rock gold mine in California. His holdings also included the Spring Valley Water Company, whose Crystal Springs and San Andreas reservoirs were San Francisco's chief water supply. Entranced by the spectacular setting, Bourn and his wife purchased 1,800 acres adjoining the Spring Valley lands and hired renowned architect Willis Polk to design the country residence. Landscape designer Bruce Porter was enlisted to plan the elaborate gardens.
The unusual name, Filoli, was an acronym formed from the verbs in Bourn's motto: "Fight for a just cause, love your fellow man, and live a good life." Bourn's dedication to the last point becomes clear as soon as you enter the 35,000-square-foot, brick-finished home, with its 17-foot-high ceilings, spacious ballroom, grand staircase, marble fireplaces, and elegant 18th-century furnishings. All 43 rooms give spectacular views of the neatly trimmed shrubbery and blooming perennials of the surrounding gardens, as well as the oak woodland and redwood-forested mountains beyond. It's no wonder that Filoli has often been used as a movie and television set, with appearances in Heaven Can Wait, The Joy Luck Club, and Nash Bridges, along with a starring role as the home of the Carringtons in the TV series Dynasty.
Despite the grandeur of the mansion, the true glory of Filoli lies in its gardens. Dormant during the winter months, the land bursts into life each spring, when 35,000 tulips and 25,000 daffodils rise up from the earth. Each summer, hundreds of cherry, pear, and apple trees blossom, creating a pink-and-white wonderland that will delight all but the most hay fever prone. In addition to the floral displays, there are flowing lawns and box-trimmed hedges, somber green Irish yews and fragrant sprays of wisteria, terraces and reflecting pools. True gardeners will appreciate why the nonprofit Filoli Center employs a staff of 30 and a volunteer force of over a thousand.
Photos by Roberto Soncin Gerometta/Photo 20-20
This article was first published in March 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Filoli lies 25 miles south of San Francisco. Take the Edgewood Road exit west from Highway 280, then drive north 1.2 miles on Cañada Road. Filoli is open mid-February to October, with self-guided tours Tuesday-Saturday and docent tours Tuesday-Thursday (reservations required). Guided nature hikes on 620 acres of undeveloped lands are available by reservation Monday-Saturday. Admission: $10. Phone: (650) 364-8300. Web site: www.filoli.org.