Exquisitely beautiful and ever-changing, the gardens of Filoli offer visitors the chance to learn about the estate’s renowned horticulture practices or to simply enjoy the serenity for which they were designed. Explore the history of Filoli’s world-renowned gardens and enjoy a walk through the gardens from your computer. Dig more deeply and you’ll find details on our plant collections and an ever-expanding knowledge base in our Garden Resource Center.
The Bourns’ Vision
Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn had, for many years, anticipated building an estate in the country where they could finally enjoy their retirement; but the War, travels, business, and family obligations had kept them from realizing their dream. Then, in 1915, after years of collecting ideas, they were ready to apply their vision towards planning a project that, in Mr. Bourn’s own words, might be interesting a few hundred years from now.
Compared to many other country places being built on the San Francisco Peninsula, Filoli was more of a gentleman’s farm. Located outside the town of Woodside, it was considered quite remote compared to the more popular suburban locations of Hillsborough and Burlingame, both linked to San Francisco by a commuter rail line. The scale of the House and Garden was also smaller in comparison, but the acreage was larger.
Filoli was designed to include many of the elements you would expect on an English country estate. In addition to a formal garden, plenty of space was allocated for a large working kitchen garden with espaliered fruits, berry cages, vegetable garden, cutting garden and greenhouses. There was a farm group constructed with a superintendent’s house, stable for draft horses, cook house and dormitory for the men. The 10-acre gentlemen’s orchard, with its rare collection of fruit and cellar, was a significant feature placed in a prominent location right along the entry drive. A stone corporation yard was built to house farm vehicles and there were fowl houses for raising Mr. Bourn’s favorite breed of Chanticleer chickens. There were two cow barns on the site and pasture for Mr. Bourn’s flocks of sheep which not only added landscape value, but kept the vegetation down, reduced fire hazard and helped keep the landscape views open.
Filoli had the distinction of being one of the last country places built on the San Francisco Peninsula and the one that survived the longest in its original design.
The site was attractive to the Bourns because the views of Crystal Springs Lake reminded them of Muckross, while Spring Valley, the rift valley of the San Andreas fault line, reminded them of the pastoral landscape surrounding the Lakes of the Killarney in Ireland. The backdrop to the west was the steep foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. They wanted to capitalize on all of these existing features and frame them so they could be enjoyed from the house and garden.
In making design decisions, the Bourns were conservative and preferred English traditional styles for the House and the Garden. Both the Bourns and the Chases were from English ancestry; families that had originally immigrated to America in the late 17th century. They followed classical planning aesthetics and absorbed ideas from many different Country Life publications and also from their travels and past experiences. They enjoyed managing the project themselves, treated it like a business, and watched their costs very carefully because they were maintaining several other properties, including the Empire Mine and Muckross, at the same time they were building Filoli.
Compared to other projects, the Bourns showed amazing focus and restraint in making decisions. They required that the design satisfy their need for privacy and seclusion and provide opportunities to enjoy country life. They repeatedly chose the less elaborate and simpler alternative when presented with multiple design options. The result, almost a century later, is an understated and elegant beauty that draws people from all over the world.
No grand master plan has ever been found for Filoli but correspondence, records, maps, and drawings help us understand the original design intent. Filoli Architectural Documentation Report Volume 1, by George O. Siekkinen, Senior Architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, drew on the research of Timmy Gallagher and Pat O’Brien. Siekkinen also obtained new information from archives and from the Spring Valley Water Company records for his detailed documentation and analysis. From the timeline of the correspondence it is easy to conclude that the vision for Filoli came from its owners and was not the inspiration of a design professional.
The Bourns used a team of artists, consultants and draftsmen to transform their ideas into finished working drawings. It is clear from the research that the master plan was firmly rooted in the minds of the Bourns, and that the house, the garden and the grounds were planned as one unit: the formal garden, starting with the terraces and the sunken garden, following the construction of the house. The entire garden was built spanning the years between 1917 through 1929. The strength of the garden’s design is its long links to the house and its compartmentalized character defined by its hedges and walls. It remains remarkably preserved as one of the few surviving and best examples of an English Renaissance style garden. Many of the original 17th century prototypes in England have either been altered as garden styles, have changed, or did not survive wars and years of neglect. Fortunately the Roths respected the original design and maintained its historic integrity for 31 years.
The design of gardens and the grounds is reflected by the personalities of its owners. Bourn’s parents landed in San Francisco around 1850. They were leading citizens and members of San Francisco’s elite philanthropic society by the time Filoli was built. They preferred a lifestyle of privacy and seclusion and avoided public attention. Even when it came to building Filoli, the project was never publicized in design magazines of the times, as was Harriet Pullman Carolan’s estate, Carolands, among others. Mr. Bourn considered that sort of publicity self-promotion and refused several offers. In moving to the country they wanted to get away from the crowds in the city and create a retreat where they would have more leisure time and could have a closer relationship with the land and an opportunity to enjoy nature in all its beauty and serenity. Mr. Bourn was looking forward to growing young at Filoli and being personally involved, for 40 or 50 years, with its supervision.
A team of talented Bay area professionals known for their collaborations was brought together by the owners as consultants and to prepare the working drawings needed for construction. Bruce Porter was the artist on the project and from correspondence seemed to be involved in every phase of it. He was a close and trusted friend of the Bourns, of the same social strata, and maintained a personal relationship with them. Today he is recognized as one of California’s first native designers to apply an environmental approach to landscape design. He was a stained-glass maker, muralist, writer and interior decorator. Bruce Porter is given credit as the designer of the Filoli gardens, but it is not clear how much he was involved in laying out the garden’s architecture. To date little written documentation has been discovered to explain his total contributions. Being an artist, Porter communicated with sketches, leaving the working drawings to draftsmen in the Bakewell & Brown firm.
Two prominent Bay area architects, Willis Polk and Arthur Brown Jr., had important roles in the architecture of the house and the secondary structures. They worked from the Bourns’ vision, offered technical advice and produced construction drawings. They engineered the project, helped to plan the approaches and, like Porter, were even involved with interior decorations. Not much evidence has been found to explain Arthur Brown Jr.’s complete involvement in the gardens, but it seems that they were very significant. He designed the secondary structures and the garden walls presumably leaving the detailed design of the garden rooms and parterres and the plant selection to Bruce Porter and Bella Worn.
Floral designer Isabella Worn was a local horticulturist and an authority on the selection of flowers and foliage used for making flower gardens and decorating. She ran a small florist business with her sister in San Francisco which made its reputation planning social events for San Francisco’s elite high society. She also worked as a plant broker locating large specimen plants for estate gardens like Filoli and for other country places like Hearst’s San Simeon. At Filoli she supervised the planning of the flower displays and provided continuity for the design when the garden changed ownership with the second family, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth in 1937.
The terraces surrounding the house and the entry courtyard follow the Georgian style and are different from the English Renaissance style of the enclosed gardens to the south. It was on the north and the west sides of the house that the Bourns wanted to capitalize on existing landscape features. The view was so important that Bourn noted in correspondence to Willis Polk before the house was even built that a good view of the lake could be captured if a porch were constructed outside the master sitting room on the second story. Indeed, in 1929, a wrought iron porch was added so Bourn could still view the lake from his sitting room after he suffered a series of strokes. It was removed in 2004 but its outline can still be seen where bricks were damaged in its demolition.
The importance of capturing views can also be seen in the paintings of Muckross and the Lakes of the Killarney on the walls of the Ballroom. According to Mr. Bourn’s grandson, William Bourn Vincent, they were painted only after Mr. Bourn’s stroke when it became apparent to the family that he would never be able to travel to his beloved Muckross again and that the paintings would be a comfort to him.
At the start of the project a wooden tower on wheels was constructed for use in locating the best vantage points from the garden for capturing views. The house and gardens were then oriented to take full advantage of the views of the lake where it could be seen from the hall on the first floor, from the terraces, and from the High Place at the south terminus of the yew allée in the gardens.
The design of the terraces and the balustrade was kept simple, devoid of distracting and frivolous garden plantings and ornamentation. The goal there was to direct the views up to the backdrop of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and to the lake and rift valley to the north. The simple low brick retaining wall surrounding the lower terraces did a good job of defining the boundaries between the designed landscape and nature and preserving the expansive view. It definitely added an elegant Georgian touch but although it resembles a ha-ha (a barrier with a trench to keep out foraging animals), the wall was purely ornamental and not designed to keep out the deer and wandering sheep.
Originally only the walled garden was protected with wooden gates to keep out rabbits. These were later replaced with five elegant wrought iron gates which are effective today in keeping out deer. This original plan to protect only the walled garden may explain why so many of the plants outside of the walled garden, like yew, boxwood, holly, acanthus, wisteria, leptospermum and plane tree, are all deer resistant. Eventually low deer fencing was added to the perimeter of the garden and the orchard but it was never completely effective and new deer fencing was constructed in 1994. The choice of the Blue Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’ for the north side was interesting in that the foliage contrasts sharply with the native vegetation to the west on the hills, and its sparse branches frame rather than block the views.
The Bourns also cherished the native live oaks which flourished at Filoli. They chose an ancient grove on a low knoll to build their 36,000 square foot Georgian style home. An early site analysis by the Bourns shows how much thought they put into incorporating the footprint of the house into this existing grove to avoid harming the trees. Even much smaller oaks were identified on the site plan and saved. The terraces and formal gardens were designed around these wild trees which eventually grew up to become the dominant canopy over the garden.
The entry courtyard located on the east side of the house was planned to relate to the entry drive and the approaches. The view to the East was the least interesting and Mr. Bourn planted the olive orchard to help screen the view of the water tower on the east hills. The entry courtyard was designed for receiving guests and for accommodating the large groups that would be invited to attend their social affairs but not for lingering. Mr. Bourn wanted automobiles to access the house as close as possible to the front door with plenty of space for a convenient turning radius and room for guest parking. The courtyard is the best place to view the house close-up to see the Georgian architectural features like the Flemish bond brick pattern with its belt courses and decorative corner quoins. The selection of the simple Tuscan column order was the appropriate choice to symbolize a place that the owners wanted to convey as a farm or agricultural establishment.
Garden Style: English Renaissance
On the other side of the house to the south, the Bourns created a private English Renaissance style garden which was planned as one unit in connection with the house. The house and garden design, linked by two parallel axes, was unusual; few examples can be found outside of Italy. Most surviving American country estate gardens have one axis or perpendicular axes which are usually aligned with one or two perpendicular halls of the houses. Two parallel axes make more sense in a long narrow garden where the halls of the house are also parallel.
At Filoli one axis starts at the top of a classical yew theater, called the High Place, where the lake could originally be viewed. It leads down a long allée of Irish yew trees to the brick walk dividing the center of the walled garden, to the walk leading through the west end of the sunken garden and connects to the lower terrace walk on the west side of the house. The other parallel axis is a long English style garden walk linking the house from the dining room terrace, along the brick walk looking down on the sunken garden past the wall of the garage, through the east end of the walled garden, rose garden, and cutting garden, finally terminating where the long walk originally ended in a formal row of Lombardy poplars. Several crosswalks linking these two parallel axes at strategic places provide interesting possibilities for circumnavigating the garden without having to retrace any steps.
English Garden Features
As with the house, the garden is organized and divided into rooms with different functions. The formal sunken garden with its garden pavilion and terrace, bowling green, walled garden, woodland garden, tennis court, and rose garden were designed for display and various leisure and recreational uses. A formal allée of Irish yew trees links the formal garden rooms to the formal yew theater at the top of the allée called the High Place.
The best plant growing location, up in the south end of the garden, was reserved for the large working kitchen garden called the panel garden. Its function was for growing necessities like fruits, vegetables and cut flowers. Stone fruits were originally trained as fans on its 10 to 12foottall brick walls, and a post and wire support system was planted with 700 feet of espaliered apples and pears. The panel garden also contains a cutting garden, three English fruit cages (two of which have been converted to flower cages because of birds), two long shrub borders for picking lilacs, a fruit garden under planted and edged with narcissus, and a row of Mission olives, vegetable garden, greenhouses and cold frames.
Clipped hedges are the hallmark of an English style garden. Filoli has many formal hedges including copper beech, English holly, English laurel, English boxwood, myrtle, Grecian bay and yew hedges. The hedges and the brick walls divide the garden into compartments which guaranteed the seclusion and privacy desired by the Bourns. The anticipation heightens as one circulates through the enclosed garden with discoveries and surprises around every corner.
The secondary structures like the garage and the gardener’s cottage communicate the Georgian style architecture of the house out into the garden. Most of the secondary structures were designed by Arthur Brown, Jr., with the exception of the pool pavilion which was added during the Roth period. The garage with its Christopher Wren inspired clock tower is visible throughout the gardens. It is decorated with four different clock faces so the time can be read from almost every location – even outside the garden wall – and is topped with a gold finial rooster weathervane. The choice of a rooster may relate to the Chanticleer chickens raised in the fowl houses located to the south of the gardens by the corporation yard.
The garden structures included the garage, the garden pavilion, the gardener’s cottage, the tennis court dressing room, and the greenhouses. A feature of the Georgian style architecture is the way the brick walls link to the structures at the corner quoins to tie the composition together. Like the walls of the house, the garden walls are also in Flemish bond pattern, with decorative belt courses and corner quoins. A total of 21 exquisitely crafted wrought iron and arched wooden gates frame the interior views and add to the garden’s charm and intimacy.
Other English Renaissance garden features are the manicured lawns, the balustrades supporting the upper terraces, 224 formally pruned Irish yew trees, gravel and brick walks, box lined flower parterres and reflecting pools. Authentic garden ornaments include the red Verona marble bird bath, the marble Festina Lente plaque, a wooden trellis work, sundial, olla jars, ceramic pots, lead and bronze flower vases, marble tables and benches, fountains, and statuary original to the garden and some passed down from original family members.
The Roth Garden (1936-1975)
While the Bourns had the vision to create the gardens, the second family, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth and their children, carried the tradition forward and preserved the gardens by providing stewardship of the entire place. The Roths ultimately ensured Filoli’s preservation by giving it, along with a generous endowment, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975.
The only change to the original garden design made by Mrs. Roth was the addition of the swimming pool and its pavilion and plantings in 1947. This addition created a new transverse axis and lifted the view across the sunken garden upwards towards the gorge to the west and the backdrop of the Santa Cruz Mountains. She accomplished this feat with the help of Isabella Worn who she retained as a consultant. They supervised the transplanting of yews from the double rank allée in the panel gardens to create an allée north of the pool and the transplanting of olives into the sunken garden where they were planted on both sides of the pool pavilion to tie the sunken garden to the pool pavilion and to help frame the view. It was Mrs. Roth who suggested that the newly transplanted olives should be formally trained with open centers in a formal goblet style in keeping with the formality of the sunken garden. Her other considerations were to control their size and create contrast with the olives growing in the nearby orchard across the lower lawn terrace. As the garden became more shaded by the oaks, Mrs. Roth added camellias, magnolias, tree peonies, maples, and other rare specimen plants.
The National Trust & Filoli Center (1975 to present)
When Filoli was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975 and opened to the public, changes were made to the garden to accommodate the needs of the fledgling non-profit Filoli Center in its new role as a cultural center.
Significant changes were made outside the gardens, including the development of a parking lot within the olive and mixed orchard and, more recently, the construction of the Visitor and Education Center in 1996. Some of the changes in the garden that occurred during the National Trust period involved converting the tennis court to a reception area for fundraising events. The garage was converted to the Filoli Garden Shop and the laundry drying yard in the service courtyard was developed into a lath house for selling plants. A shrub border was planted in the olive orchard north of the swimming pool for providing more foliage for flower arranging to support floral design programs. A collection of historic roses was added outside the formal garden to the west of the lower lawn terrace for interpreting the horticultural history and development of the modern hybrid tea rose.
Other changes to the garden made by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Filoli Center were located mostly in the panel gardens, including the development of an experimental trial garden in space once used for growing cut flowers. The rose garden was reorganized from a mixed garden to separate color beds. Two new matching Celtic knot gardens were designed by members of the Woodside Atherton Garden Club and planted in an area that was also, formerly, rows of cut flowers.
A 300-foot-long English style perennial border was planted in what was originally a bed of fruit trees along the English laurel hedge and main garden walk to the greenhouses. This addition was a project of the Hillsborough Garden Club. Other additions to the panel gardens were a tree peony collection in one of the cutting garden beds, a collection of English and species ivies planted along the perimeter deer fencing, and adult ivies in the area south of the fruit garden to be used for cut foliage. The fruit trees in the fruit garden and along the garden walk to the greenhouses were removed to develop a fall color garden which was never implemented. The fruit trees were replaced several years later to restore the original fruit garden. A long border of historic iris was added west of the yew allée for interpretation of the history of bearded iris in California.
Part of the upper vegetable garden was developed for a new propagation house and cold frames because of the increased plant production needs. Another significant enhancement was the restoration of the original 10-acre mixed fruit orchard east of the gardens.
Several collections of historic plants were accepted from the Domoto Nursery before it closed including tree peonies, mume plums, and Japanese maples. Other collections of historic plants were accepted for germ plasm preservation including ivies, roses, iris, and fruit.
Historic Significance and the Future
Today Filoli is California State Historic Landmark number 907 and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Filoli Center continues a commitment to stewardship, preservation, and interpretation. Unlike other historic resources, gardens are unique examples of living art with a special set of challenges and threats.
Plants grow and continue to change over time and are directly affected by changes in the environment. These changes affect the management of the garden. Formal gardens must be continually renewed to maintain the original design and keep the gardens dynamic and healthy. Woodlands and vegetation can encroach and block important historic views. Tree canopies increase, and shade compromises the health of plants and the integrity of aggregate features below. Sometimes catastrophic events occur causing trees to fail. Environments can change drastically requiring the construction of special temporary shade structures for long periods of time. Pests and diseases take their toll on historic plants and clonal replacements are often unavailable, unless their replacements have been planned and propagated in the greenhouse.
Some of Filolis historic plants are part of aggregate features, like allées or formal hedges. The loss of just a few plants can ruin the entire feature. Other plant specimens have been trained for decades to achieve specific forms and shapes in the landscape. Garden preservation depends on the training of gardeners to maintain the health of the plants and the continuity of the design. With every pruning cut, gardeners carry the art and tradition forward into the next season and provide continuity.
Long-range planning must also be ongoing to address maintenance, renovation, replacement and propagation of woody plants, and production of period flowers for the parterres. Filoli has been well-cared-for by three different owners and, although its use has changed, it still maintains its original country place character, its plants, ornamentation, and historic integrity.
Filoli is open to the public for the enjoyment of its beauty and serenity. It provides many opportunities to the community for learning and professional development in subjects including history, art, architecture, design, landscape preservation, conservation, botany and horticulture. Filolis use policies and etiquette were developed to protect its historic resources and to enhance the visitor experience in keeping with Mr. Bourns original vision that Filoli will continue to be an interesting place, enjoyed for several hundred years and more.