An entrance to the home A traveler driving from San Francisco through the rolling wooded hills of San Mateo County will pass the small sign at the edge of the highway north of Woodside, California. The only identification is the word "FILOLI".
This was a new word to us, so on a beautiful, crisp and clear April Sunday we turned off the freeway and immediately found ourselves surrounded by squads of people on bicycles, scooters and unicycles -- the country road parallel to Interstate Highway 280 must be a favorite route for non-motorized travel, especially on the weekends. Not far from the freeway exit we turned into the entrance of the Filoli grounds and spent the next three hours on a ramble through some beautiful flowering gardens. Beginning the garden tour
William Bowers Bourn II and his wife Agnes were the first residents of the house, which was built for them by architect Willis Polk, with the aid of Bruce Porter who helped plan the layout of the extensive formal gardens, built between 1917 and 1921. Bourn had made his fortune in the famous Empire Mine of Grass Valley, California, and expanded his wealth as president of the Spring Valley Water Company which supplied water to San Francisco and the surrounding area (Crystal Springs Lake, on his property, was one water source). The name Filoli is derived from Bourn's credo: FIght for a just cause; LOve your fellow man; LIve a good life. The Bourn family occupied the house from 1917 to 1936 The silver vault when they died.
The next owners were William P. Roth and his wife Lurline Matson Roth, the daughter of the founder of the Matson Navigation Company, also known as the Matson Lines, which ran a highly successful passenger service to Hawaii. Lurline Roth was particularly interested in landscape gardens and retained Isabella Worn, who had supervised the original planting of the garden. Under Mrs. Roth's patronage, Worn enriched the garden with a variety of plants, including hundreds of camellias, rhododendrons, roses, magnolias and other rare plants. In 1975 Lurline Roth donated the house and 125 acres which include the gardens to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The remainder of the property, more than 500 acres, was given to the Filoli Center, which operates the estate.
The grand ballroom We started by touring the first floor of the house, which is 36,000 square feet on two floors (only the first floor is open to the public but that is plenty). We walked through a formal drawing room and smaller ante-rooms, through the two kitchens, past the walk-in safe containing the silver serving pieces and other especially valuable pieces of tableware. Another safe, originally built for the collection of Empire Mine gold and records, later held the Roth's wine cellar.
The most arresting room is the grand ballroom, with its high ceilings, generous windows and murals which represent the Irish residence of the Bourns' daughter.
Throughout the home we were struck by the magnificent floral displays. "Are these real?" we wondered, and indeed Flowers of every color abound they were - massive displays of Filoli's floral finery "created with flowers from the Lurline B. Roth Garden by the Friends of Filoli Flower Arranging Committee," according to the guidebook. We imagine it takes a decade or two of volunteering to rise up to membership in the FoFFAC.
This house, however, was only a preliminary to our tour of the gardens. We began by admiring the wisteria climbing the brick walls on several sides of the house. The 14 horticulturists and 100-plus volunteers and interns keep the grounds supplied with pots of flowers, which on our visit were tulips of many different colors.
The gardens extend almost too far to be covered in one walk. They include the Sunken Garden, the Walled Garden, the Yew Allee, the Pear Allee, the Woodland Garden and the Swimming Pool Pavillion. Subsidiary gardens include the Gentleman's Garden, the Dutch Garden, the Wedding Place, the Daffodil Meadow and others. The boxwood parterre on the eastern side of The Sunken Garden the Walled Garden is a floral replica of the Tree of Life stained glass window from Chartres Cathedral.
We saw the last of the camellias, which had reached their peak about three weeks ago. Ground covers and shrubs provided masses of contrasting colors, while the trees provided grand varieties of design with twisted branches and many kinds of leaves, from the delicate Japanese maples to the immense magnolias.
Two gorgeous trees with light green flowers covering their drooping branches must be nearly unique: they are Camperdown Elms, from trees found on the Irish estate of Lord Camperdown; they were grafted onto Scotch elms at Filoli.
The trees on the estate are, of course, about a century old, so they lend a certain majesty to the estate. There A Camperdown elm are gingkos, copper beeches, dawn redwoods, and European Hornbeams; Hinoki False Cypresses, and an orchard of old Mission and Manzanillo olives; Japanese maples and a boxleaf azara tree. There's an immense Sunburst Honey Locust behind the pavilion next to the 25-by-74 foot swimming pool, and a rare Climbing Hydrangea near the Bowling Green.
Of course there are greenhouses and garden buildings galore, including the Garden House, designed by Arthur Brown, Jr., featuring six cast faces designed by Gaston Rognier, an inscribed sundial and a Dutch Garden with an extremely rare specimen of New Zealand Black Beech.
In contrast to most of the gardens we have visited, these are pleasure gardens, a private A bed of green flowers conceit in which the appearance and fragrance of each area is designed for the delight of the owners and their visitors; botanic gardens, with their arrangement of similar plants for study, do not have these vivid and varied plantings. We agreed that the development of this estate was only possible during the boom years before 1930.
We stopped at the Filoli Garden Shop, which occupies the former Carriage House, and is well-staffed with volunteers and horticulturists. It was hard to resist the showy tree peonies and the many climbing and rambling vines that we had seen all over Filoli's walls.
Our legs told us that we had walked many paths and had seen enough to be overwhelmed by the blooms Wisteria at The High Place and scents. The parking lot was quite full, yet the gardens were not crowded, and we heard a number of foreign languages spoken by guests touring the house and grounds. This was surprising, considering that Filoli does not seem to appear on local lists of major tourist destinations. Perhaps the greater gardening community has its own network.
Among the family portraits we had seen was our favorite, a painting of Lurline Roth. She is standing in her beloved garden, her blue hat keeping her warm on a Spring day as she contemplates one of her flowers. Her lifelong passion for horticulture has provided happy experiences for many generations, and should continue for years to come.
Lurline Roth Unlike Europe, which had centuries to develop an aristocracy and outfit it with large country estates (chateaux, schlossen, castles, manor houses, hunting lodges, castillos, palaces, etc.), the United States has never adopted a hereditary upper class (notwithstanding the efforts of some to make it so!) And there's something about remaining in the same family home for many generations which imparts a sense of permanence. We have many fewer "great houses" in the U.S., and they tend to change hands from one successful owner to another with great rapidity. We think of Filoli in terms of the Empire Line, first, and the Matson Line, second, and quickly forget the names of Bourn and Roth (if, indeed, we ever committed them to memory). For Americans, it's the beauty of a place that stands out, and the identity of the owners that fades quickly.
So with Filoli, we take away memories of a rather big house that was once used for entertaining, but now sits empty, and an enthralling garden so bedecked with spring beauty that it took our breath away. We're not tempted by the idea of living in such a large building, but the idea of walking often through those gardens ... !