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Spirits Of The Bay: The Glory of Filoli

Written by Gary Kamiya | Illustration by Paul Madonna

For 50 years, the Peninsula was as big a showcase for the real estate bling of San Francisco’s superrich as Nob Hill. Starting in the 1860s and continuing into the early 20th century, its resident magnates erected opulent mansions and created verdant country estates south of the City. The ornate homes lined up like preening wooden peacocks on Nob Hill were more visible and aroused more outrage, but they were equaled by the manicured estates and imposing manors in and around what are now Burlingame, Hillsborough, Atherton, Menlo Park, Woodside and other exclusive enclaves.

The initial impetus for this great flow of marble, statuary, turrets, stables, pools and pristine gardens to the south was the 1863 opening of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, which made it possible for the City’s newly minted wealthy to travel easily between the Financial District and San Mateo County. The area’s warm weather and beautiful scenery ensured that, as Frank M. Stanger writes in South from San Francisco — San Mateo County, California: Its History and Heritage, “Wealthy men’s mansions — some modest, others bizarre and flamboyant — would be for more than half a century the dominant feature of the Peninsula scene.”

Many of them have vanished or have been converted to other uses. But some have survived, and of these a few are open to the public. One of the most noteworthy is the grand estate called Filoli. A 56-room mansion located in Woodside on 654 acres of land south of Crystal Springs Reservoir, Filoli is one of the finest remaining examples of a great country house and grounds in California. Just as a visit to the Haas-Lilienthal House in Pacific Heights allows visitors to imagine what daily life was like for the City’s elite, so a trip to Filoli opens a window into the bucolic existence enjoyed by a few wealthy families on the Peninsula a century ago.

Filoli was one of the last of the great Peninsula mansions. It was built from 1915 to 1917 by William Bowers Bourn II, the president of the Spring Valley Water Company, the privately owned company that provided all of San Francisco’s water. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter who saw the plans for the house and interviewed Bourn and his wife, Agnes, wrote: “The Bourns have in mind a house which will be a veritable haven of rest, filled with lovely things that have been chosen not for their historic or intrinsic value, but for their simplicity, repose and beauty.”

Filoli opens a window into the bucolic existence enjoyed by a few wealthy families on the Peninsula a century ago.

It was understandable that Bourn wanted his home to be a “haven of rest,” for Spring Valley was the second most despised company in San Francisco, trailing only the hated Southern Pacific Railroad, aka “The Octopus.” By the 1910s it was the largest privately held public utility water company in the country, and for decades progressive reformers and the press accused it of gouging, price-fixing and dealing in bad faith with the City. The Chronicle’s attitude toward Spring Valley can be discerned by a less than fair-and-balanced December 1916 headline: “JUSTICE EXPECTED IN WATER INQUIRY. RATE PAYERS PINNING FAITH TO FAIRNESS AND INSIGHT OF THE STATE RAILROAD BOARD TO SHAKE OFF GRIP OF SPRING VALLEY.”

The Chronicle also needled Bourn and his family, running a snide piece in August 1916 about how the poor plutocrats had shipped their “handsome car” and their “prized chauffeur” to England so they could travel about Europe in their accustomed extravagant style, but were forced to take déclassé jitneys after their chauffeur was unexpectedly drafted into the British army.

Whatever Bourn’s motivations were, along with architect Willis Polk and landscape designer Bruce Porter, he succeeded in creating an oasis of beauty and tranquility in a gorgeous setting. The house, in neo-Georgian style, is grand but unexpectedly informal and comfortable — “a large mansion that feels like a home,” in the words of an architectural critic. And its 16 acres of formal English gardens, whose centerpiece is the wondrous Sunken Garden with an exquisite reflecting pool, are spectacular.

After the Bourns died, Filoli (which stands for Bourn’s credo “fight for a just cause, love your fellow man, live a good life”) was sold to William Roth, and his wife, Lurline, who was heir to the Swedish shipping company fortune. In 1975, the Roth family donated it to the National Trust, an act of philanthropy that ensures one of the Bay Area’s great architectural and horticultural treasures is open for all to enjoy.

Filoli Historic House & Garden, located at 86 Cañada Road in Woodside, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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