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The Bourn's Vision for a Country Estate

The design and construction of Filoli as a country estate involved a number of architects, designers, decorators, landscape designers, horticulturists, artists and contractors throughout the Bourn and Roth ownerships. At times there were different professionals involved sequentially or even simultaneously working on different projects. The design and construction process for William Bowers Bourn II began with his first letter to Willis Polk before World War I and continued through the 1920s with the design and construction of the family cemetery following the tragic and early death of the Bourn's daughter Maud Bourn Vincent.

Explore FiloliFiloli house in Spring bloom.

For many members of Bourn's social class, the prospect of creating a country house was solved relatively simply by hiring one architect and letting that person develop the design, manage the construction, and even decorate the interior. The creation of Filoli followed a very different model. One could view the creation of Filoli as an entrepreneurial enterprise in which Bourn had a vision for a particular goal and then sought, hired, and managed the best available talent to achieve that goal. Bourn used various private architects and his associates at the Spring Valley Water Company in the creation of Filoli. Bourn was the nexus for all of the participants.

The specific location for the House and its access roads were carefully selected by Mr. Bourn. The beauty and privacy of the land appears to have played a major role in Bourn's decision to build in the more remote upland valley, away from El Camino Real and the commuter railroad along the San Francisco bayshore. Bourn had also found a landscape that reminded him of the Muckross House, an estate in Ireland he had purchased for his daughter as a wedding gift in 1910.

The location, floor plan and exterior appearance of the House were also of concern to Bourn. The design and appearance of the House recall English country houses built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The common design features between the English models and Filoli include the brick walls with corner quoins and belt courses, hipped roofs and dormers and classical cornice and classical window frames and door cases. The careful proportions and the "U-shaped" footprint recall English Renaissance models. The exterior architectural appearance of the House presents a unique interpretation of the Georgian revival style by Willis Polk with its relatively severe brickwork and restrained handling of decorative ornament and features.

After the deaths of both Mr. and Mrs. Bourn in 1936 and the purchase of the estate by the Roths, a new era began. The Roth period is best viewed as one of stewardship and enjoyment of the estate. The Roths had the swimming pool and its attendant structure built and enclosed a second floor terrace off the master suite.

Architectural Features of the House

The design of the Filoli House represents a number of stylistic traditions and influences. Willis Polk, a prominent San Francisco architect, blended these styles to create a stately and gracious country house. He borrowed architectural forms from English sources of the Stuart and Georgian periods to create a modified Georgian English country house. The use of Spanish mission roof tiles introduced a California touch to the 17th and 18th century English architectural styles.

Some significant Georgian features include:

  • Entry courtyard
  • Symmetry and functional zoning
  • Hipped roof with paired chimneys. There are eleven chimneys to serve the seventeen fireplaces. Eight of these are grouped into pairs. Each pair is then linked together with a brick archway to form the six chimney assemblies.
  • Exterior brick walls laid in Flemish bond brickwork. Quoins at the corners walls. (The bricks and the Spanish roof tiles were made in San Jose.)
  • Entrance portico is Italian baroque style with two Tuscan-style monolithic columns. The portico contains pocket doors, sidelights, and a fanlight.
  • Wrought iron work around windows. The windows are French casement type.

The 36,000 square foot house has 43 rooms, excluding bathrooms and storerooms. The interior has elegantly carved moldings, marble fireplaces, inlaid parquet floors and magnificent architectural doorways, with a superb sense of space and proportion. Most of the major rooms are 17' high, but the Reception Room is 18' 6" high and the Ballroom is 22' 6" high.

The house was built with a steel superstructure with an exterior wall of brick and lath and plaster on the interior. Downspouts are concealed within the wall. A true Georgian style building would not have had exposed gutters.