Finding Sanctuary at Filoli

From its colorful past to its mission-based present, the historical house and gardens of Filoli strive to make the future one of unity and peace
Located 20 miles south of San Francisco, the handsome, 56-room Georgian Revival house at the heart of the 654-acre Filoli estate was designed by Willis Polk and completed in 1917.

“My mother used to take us there when we were little. She loved the gardens,” says the fellow helping me with my too-many bags as I arrive in the Bay Area to visit the nearby Filoli Historic House & Garden. Seems you either have a story about the handsome 1917 Georgian Revival house and its expanse of formal gardens or you have never heard of it, according to a purely anecdotal survey by yours truly. Maybe you only recognize it from its star turn in the opening credits of the hit  ‘80s nighttime soap opera Dynasty, among its other cameos in various shows and films. But Filoli likely doesn’t come to mind when you think of Woodside, California, located near San Francisco and Silicon Valley—an area more famous for its high-flying tech companies than for its high-maintenance, grand old houses and gardens. That may explain the under-the-radar status of this extraordinary 654-acre property given to the National Trust in 1975 for all to enjoy, arguably no more so than in the last two years.

daffodils at Filoli
According to the American Daffodil Society’s historic daffodil list, Filoli preserves 37 cultivars.
It take 14 horticulturists to look after the grounds of Filoli, which includes hundreds of containers for seasonal displays.

“Gardens in particular have surged in popularity lately,” says Filoli CEO Kara Newport. “The pandemic really solidified the importance of gardens as cultural centers. They’re universally relatable.” After all, the inscription on a sundial at Filoli reads, “Time began in a garden.” And ever since that beginning, it’s the stories behind gardens—and the houses that often go with them—that give them life.

The sunken garden is the centerpiece of the garden “rooms” and features the largest, most dramatic flowerbeds. The charming clock tower tops the gift shop, originally the garage.

Filoli’s stories originated centuries ago with the indigenous migratory Ramaytush Ohlone peoples who occupied the land, followed by Spanish settlers, Mexican rancheros, and then North Americans. Entrepreneur, socialite, gold mining magnate, and utilities tycoon William B. Bourn II and his wife, Agnes, built the house at Filoli as a country retreat in 1917, naming the place as an abbreviation of his credo by using the first two letters of the first word in each sentence: “Fight for a just cause. Love your fellow man. Live a good life.” From the fortune they amassed to the estate they stewarded, the couple seemed to live out this doctrine to the extreme, as evidenced in gatherings such as the  “Drunks Dinner” they hosted in 1933 celebrating the end of Prohibition.

A grassy expanse framed by a colonnade recalls an Italian Renaissance garden and is sometimes used as a performance space.

In 1937, a year after both Bourns died, Bill and Lurline Roth acquired Filoli and continued the Bourn legacy. Lurline, like her predecessor, Agnes, was an avid gardener and worked to expand the elaborate Bruce Porter- and Bella Worn-designed gardens. Bill’s business successes mounted, the estate thrived, and the revelry continued to roar with extravagant fetes decorated by the incomparable late Tony Duquette. Tony’s protégé and business partner Hutton Wilkinson remembers a blue-and-white party with giant pagodas and suits of armor painted to look like blue-and-white porcelain; a mise-en-scène with tableaux that looked like Flemish paintings created from acres of sunflowers planted at Filoli just for the occasion; and a pink-and-white ball with puffy white clouds floating across an enormous tent done in swaths of Jim Thompson silk woven by Thompson himself. “How can you describe the indescribable? It’s almost impossible,” says Hutton. He doesn’t even mention the giant replica of a three-masted, flower-bedecked schooner that once sailed across the lily pond or the 10-foot-tall arrangements that often graced the reception room.

The gateway to the upper gardens bears the Filoli crest, with each symbol separated to emphasize William Bourn’s motto: “Fight for a just cause. Love your fellow man. Live a good life.”
The sundial’s inscription fittingly reads, “Time began in a garden.”

Although such stories of extravagance do not serve Filoli’s current aspired-to narrative of inclusivity, they are part of its history. Filoli, and others like it, must tread a delicate balance between yesteryear and modern day. The idea is to create a Filoli for today that is an elegant platform from which to present a broad sampling of human experience that influenced not only a single estate, but also a broader scope of culture and society. “That is our intention,” says Kara. “The various spaces in the house and gardens emit different stories.” For example, a plaque in the reception room tells of a Japanese butler who returned to service at Filoli upon his release from the internment camp where he was held during World War II. And there are many others—Chinese cooks, Polish maids, Italian gardeners—all with stories to share of their time at Filoli. Rooms now include “soundscapes” that re-create conversations that might have occurred.

The garden house was designed by Arthur Brown, Jr., and constructed in 1920.

The movement toward a modern-day mindset is also evident in the gardens. Director of horticulture Jim Salyards oversees the upkeep of the landscape that consists of English Renaissance Gardens, a Gentleman’s Orchard, and a nature preserve with multiple, distinct ecosystems. “Sustainability and water conservation are top of mind,” says Jim. “We also have a more recent focus on vegetable and pollinator gardens.”

Filoli’s formal gardens, originally designed by Bruce Porter and Bella Worn, have evolved over the years to adapt to today’s sense and sensibilities.

Perhaps the democratization of grandeur need not make Filoli less grand but rather more interesting, capturing as it would a broad sampling of human experience that influenced not only the estate, but also a broader scope of society. After all, houses and gardens are history perpetually in the making.

The Glory of the gardens

The 16 acres of formal gardens are Filoli’s main attraction, highlighted by a sunken garden and reflecting pool, a Chartres Garden inspired by the Tree of Jesse window at the 12th-century Chartres Cathedral in France, and a 1-acre walled garden subdivided into numerous ornamental garden rooms. There are terraces, woodlands, hayfields, orchards, cutting gardens, panel gardens, and greenhouses as well. “We are in the perfect microclimate to grow a lot of things that are familiar to people from the East Coast, as well as other parts of the world,” says director of horticulture Jim Salyards. “We have something blooming 365 days a year, including an incredible camellia collection.” Camellias were fashionable in the 1930s and 40s around the time the Roths bought Filoli, and Lurline Roth was a devotee. Today there are nearly 300 shrubs and over 150 varieties. The camellias are in good company with a million daffodils. (Yes, you read that number right.) Close to 2,000 containers hold tulips, foxgloves, pansies, and other spring bulbs.

Multiple varieties of wisteria drape and bow along walls and walkways at Filoli
Multiple varieties of wisteria drape and bow along walls and walkways.

Jim and his fellow senior staff members are working with landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz to create a master plan for gardens and infrastructure for the next two decades, taking issues of water conservation and fire mitigation into consideration. Including more drought-tolerant plants and perennials in place of annuals, as well as adding more Mediterranean species, are part of the plan. The Mediterranean varieties in particular are in keeping with the original Bourn borders, but all of the plants at Filoli respect the spirit and aesthetic of the garden’s initial intent. For Jim and his team, it’s all about enriching the public’s experience of this historic site.

By Frances Schultz

Photography courtesy of Filoli Historic House & Garden

This story appears in Flower magazine’s March/April 2022 issue. Subscribe, find a store near you, or sign up for our free e-newsletter.