Glimpses of a Golden Age at Filoli

'Filoli House and Gardens, Woodside, California"Filoli House and Gardens

“Fight for a just cause. Love your fellow man. Live a good life.” Taking the first two letters of each part of his motto, William Bourn named his lavish country estate Filoli. Bourn indeed lived a very good life in this 36,000 sq ft mansion with its 43 rooms and 17 fireplaces. The estate was built with his gold mining money in 1917, sold to shipping magnate, William Roth, in 1937 and is now maintained by The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Filoli House and Gardens is located about 25 miles south of San Francisco and really “just down the road” from my house on the peninsula between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Although it’s a popular attraction for locals and tourists, and only a ten minute drive away, I visited this week for the first time.

While you may not have heard of Filoli before, you may have seen it in films and on television. Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait was filmed there in 1977 and spurred future filmmakers to consider it as a location. Dying Young, The Joy Luck Club, The Game, Stigmata and The Wedding Planner are a few of them. Notably, it is the mansion seen from the air during opening credits of Dynasty, a 1980s television series. I first saw Filoli as a film set in the controversial 1997 remake of Lolita with Jeremy Irons.

Although the second floor of the house is closed to visitors, the downstairs reception room, kitchen, drawing room, ballroom and other living areas are open. The ballroom was used by the Bourns and Roths for their elaborate parties, one of which was aptly called “The Drunks Dinner” and was held to celebrate the end of prohibition in 1933. I was told by one of the many helpful docents that flowers from the garden decorate the house throughout and are changed early every Tuesday morning. With many pieces of furniture and art donated by the Roths and other 18th-century English furnishings contributed by a collector, the house looks much like it did when the families lived there.

As important to Bourn as the house was the design of the formal gardens and orchards which cover much of the 645 acre estate. He chose this particular location because with its setting near Crystal Springs Lake and with a vista of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it reminded him of Muckross House in Ireland, the estate that he bought for his daughter as a wedding gift.

I started a tour of the grounds at the Garden House where a birdcage with two doves was on display. Other buildings on the property include the Garden Shop (which was previously a garage and carriage house), a retail nursery, and gardener’s cottage. Because it was February, only a few of the many varieties of flowers and trees were in bloom, yet it was still very impressive. In the spring and summer seasons, Filoli will be spectacular when the 242 varieties of roses and many fruit trees are in bloom.

At the far south end of the estate called the High Place, I got a very good view of the gardens, the house beyond and the green hills in the distance. I was just minutes from a major highway, Interstate 280, and a heavily populated area of Northern California; yet, as the clock tower bell tolled and birds sang, I could easily imagine being at Filoli during its golden years.

If you go:

For more information and directions, visit the Filoli website.

I had lunch at the café at Filoli which has a good selection of sandwiches, quiche, soup, salads and desserts, but there are other options in the rustic, but affluent town of Woodside, just 5 miles south. Stay on Cañada Road from Filoli and you’ll be driving alongside bicyclists and occasionally passing a horse on the path next to the road. In the town, a sculpture of two horses fits the equestrian lifestyle of many of the town’s residents. Woodside Bakery and Buck’s Restaurant are favorites among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and locals.

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35 thoughts on “Glimpses of a Golden Age at Filoli

    1. Cathy Post author

      It really is an interesting place and one you don’t expect around here. It does indeed seem more like something you’d see in England.

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    1. Cathy Post author

      Those sculptures were just put there in September. I was surprised to see them for the first time, but it really does fit the community. There are many people with stables in Woodside.

        1. Cathy Post author

          Hi Lainey – the horse sculptures are in the town of Woodside as I mention in the article.

          What are your impressions of Filoli? Do you visit there often?

    1. Cathy Post author

      As long as I’ve lived here I knew that there was this place called Filoli and I’d pass the sign for the entrance once in a while, but I never really knew what it was all about. Glad I finally visited.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Michael. It’s an interesting place. Maybe you’ll get to see it when the flowers and trees are in bloom. It should be awesome in the spring.

    1. Cathy Post author

      The Bourns and the Roths lived quite a life, didn’t they? I guess that’s what very successful gold mines and shipping businesses can buy you.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You’re right. You don’t hear nearly as much about Filoli as Hearst Castle, which is spectacular! Hearst is much larger, of course. I think they’re both well worth a visit. They’re just very different.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Michael. I think you’d probably like the filmmaking history of Filoli. There have been more movies and TV shows made here than I knew about before I visited.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Yeah, I was also pretty impressed with the the motto and how the name was created. Many people just assume it’s an Italian family name. That’s what I previously thought.

  2. The Dropout

    What a great place. I would feel an irresistible urge to reenact some Dynasty or Lolita scenes, I think. Not that I can recall any of them. I’d have to research them first.
    Wouldn’t it be fun to film your own little melodrama there?

    1. Cathy Post author

      You sound like you’ve got some acting or directing background! I can totally see why films were made there,but the scenes from Lolita that I remember being filmed there weren’t pleasant. I certainly do remember the aerial view of Filoli during the opening credits of that show. Pretty impressive place.

    1. Cathy Post author

      That’s a really good question, Zablon — especially in an area like this where prices of average homes are quite high. If I get an answer to that, I’ll let you know!

  3. Angela

    Lovely pictures, what a luxury. Very nice they kept the estate as it was when the owners lived there, when I visit such places the most interesting thing is to notice how their lifestyle was.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I agree, Angela. I like to imagine what is was like to actually be in place when it wasn’t a historical site, but when the stories were being created. Glad you liked the photos.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Do that! There are also some great trails for cycling in the area — Sawyer Camp trail is not far from Filoli. On “Bicycle Sundays”, Cañada Road is closed to vehicles between the Filoli entrance and Highway 92, so it’s a fun ride on a bike.

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