My excitement grew as my husband and I drove up a serpentine driveway flanked by ancient oaks, nearing the famed estate of Filoli. Over the years, people described its beautiful gardens and grand home, often filled with exquisite flower arrangements, but I had yet to visit. The house is an amazing 36,000 square feet, and there are sixteen acres of European-style gardens. The property, most of it left to grow as it will, is 654 acres.
It was the day before Easter and grey clouds washed over the sky, but everything was green, glistening with dew or raindrops, as we drove into a parking lot dominated by olive trees. My in-laws were there, waiting for us, eager to show us one of their favorite local places.
Filoli is only a half hour’s drive south of San Francisco, near the affluent community of Woodside. It’s right off the 280 freeway, tucked against the eastern flank of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
William Bowers Bourn II, a man made wealthy from Californian natural resources, wanted a country estate for he and his wife, Agnes. (He owned Crystal Springs Lake, Empire Mine of Grass Valley, a gold mine, and was instrumental in the creation of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Just for the record, he wasn’t loved by all—the San Francisco Chronicle labeled him “a thief and scoundrel.” Even the Filoli website describes him as “a proud man” who forbade his gardeners to see him roll along in his wheelchair after he suffered a stroke in later years.)
The Bourns wanted to move onto the peninsula after the 1906 earthquake but it took until 1917, when Filoli was ready to be moved into, for them to settle. In the interim, Bourn married off his daughter to an Irishman, buying the new couple a fabulous Irish estate as a wedding gift. Bourn wanted a similar estate in California. His first choice was to build along Crystal Springs Lake but ultimately Filoli was built just south of there.
Bourn commissioned Willis Polk, a famous architect from San Francisco, to design the home; Polk already designed homes for the Bourns in Grass Valley and San Francisco. Polk was known for his creativity and at Filoli he fused Georgian, Stuart, and Spanish architectural styles. Construction began in 1915; two years later, the Bourns moved in.
According to the Filoli’s official brochure, “Filoli” is an amalgam of Bourn’s motto: Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life. It sounds like a good maxim. After reading some of the history, my husband jokingly mused, “And dig for gold.” Filolidi.
It was a lovely day to walk through the gardens: the inclement weather kept the hordes at bay, and the tulips looked particularly beautiful with dewdrops on their pastel petals. The surrounding land is gorgeous, quintessentially Californian with tree-covered hills and meadows. As we traipsed through gardens—Chartres, Daffodil Meadow, the Knot Garden, the Wedding Place, the Bowling Green, the Woodland—my baby leaned forward from her sling, interested in the colors and textures of flowers and leaves.
I noticed some visitors brought strollers for their children. I highly recommend leaving your stroller behind if you visit with a baby or child. The many steps and levels make maneuvering a stroller a challenge only overcome by sheer physical strength, as seen in Mom and Dad grunting and lifting their stroller to continue along certain paths.
A cold wind snapped us into the warm home, where I’d never seen so many different types of marble (black Belgian, beige Tavernelle, white Carrara, red Verona, French rouge, Machiavelli). We wandered from room to room, admiring the antique furniture, Tiffany silver, oak and black walnut flooring and shelving, ornate chandeliers, and paintings. The ballroom had impressive murals of the Irish estate that Bourn bought for his daughter as her wedding present. My mother-in-law and I agreed the original green wall paint, a murky color called “watergreen,” was less appealing to the eye.
In contrast to the large and fabulous ballroom, one tiny room was filled with unique maritime odds and ends, paintings of ships, and miniature models of boats. Filoli’s second owners, the Roths, also owned the Matson Navigation Company. As an admirer of all things nautical, I appreciated the eclectic collection of maritime-themed artwork in such close proximity to something as royal as the library carpet, once laid in one of Queen Victoria’s homes.
I also appreciated that the kitchen—an ample room with a gargantuan stove—had simple adornments, the menus from the Matson’s ships. Instead of salivating over the Tiffany silver, I imagined tasting certain menu items: Roast Duckling with Apple Dressing and Orange Sauce, Assorted Garden Fresh Vegetable Platter with Fried Scallops, Waldorf Salad, or the Aiguillettes of Mahimahi. What does Consommé Gold Nugget taste like, I wondered? Or Saxon Soufflé Pudding? I’ll skip the Smoked Ox Tongue in Sauce Piquant and the Jellied Essence of Tomato, thank you very much.
By the end of the tour, my baby had fallen asleep in my arms. There was a serene expression on her face. In her head, perhaps dreams of tulips and daffodils.
Lunch in Woodside
Later we lunched on Italian entrees and freshly baked pastries at the bright Woodside Bakery and Café (3052 Woodside Road, Woodside, 94062). If you have a small child as I do, I recommend sitting at one of the wide, leather-covered booths, where the baby can lay after she’s dined on applesauce at her borrowed highchair. If you’re a rascal, like I can be, you’ll begrudge the fact that there’s no baby-changing table in the bathroom, and surreptitiously change your baby’s dirty diaper on the soft, leather seat of the booth.
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Filoli Center. “The Bourns Build Filoli.” http://www.filoli.org/explore-filoli/history/the-bourns-build-filoli.html 2010.
National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Filoli: Self-Guided Tours of the House and Garden” brochure, 2009.
Wikipedia contributors. “William Bowers Bourn II.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Jan. 2010. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.