The House

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News One ImageThe 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.

Learn more about the Bourn Family.
Learn more about the Roth Family.


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.

The 54,000 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.

Noted for its elegant interiors, the House is now an interpretive museum exhibit for an extensive collection of 17th and 18th century English antiques. Special rooms of interest include the Butler’s Pantry and Kitchen with the walk-in safe, the wood paneled library and the 1925 Ernest Peixotto paintings in the Ballroom.

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.

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.


Arthur Brown, Jr. was born in Oakland, California. He graduated from the University of California in 1896, where he and his future partner, John Bakewell, Jr. were protégés of Bernard Maybeck. Brown went to Paris and graduated from the École des Beaux Arts in 1901. Before returning to San Francisco to establish his practice with Bakewell, the firm designed the rotunda for the City of Paris in the Neiman Marcus department store in San Francisco. Other buildings include the city halls for Berkeley, Pasadena and San Francisco; Horticultural Building at the Panama Pacific Exposition 1915; California School of Fine Arts; various buildings for UC Berkeley and Stanford University including Hoover Tower; San Francisco Museum of Art (Herbst Theater); Coit Tower; San Francisco War Memorial Opera House; and the War Memorial Veterans Building. He was a consulting architect for the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. Brown lectured at Harvard University and was acting professor of architecture at the University of California. His achievements as an architect won him worldwide recognition.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1895, Gardner Dailey enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley in 1919. He continued his education at Stanford and Heald’s Engineering School in San Francisco. Topics of study focused on botany and economics, as well as engineering and architecture. He briefly turned to landscape design and worked for a prominent nursery in Daly City. His knowledge of this subject enhanced subsequent architectural work. Bourn allowed Dailey to use his office space at the Spring Valley Water Company. In 1924, the farm buildings were designed. They consisted of a house and a small stable with dormitories on the second floor for the bachelor Italian gardeners. Another building across the courtyard from the stable was destroyed by fire in 1970. Gardner also designed the orchard fruit cooler.

In 1926, he made a major tour of Europe and North Africa. Upon his return, he established his own architectural offices in San Francisco. Over the course of four decades, Dailey became one of the leading architects in the Bay Area, winning several national competitions while having many of his buildings recognized in architecture magazines.

He designed the Brazilian Pavilion for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island and many residences in the Bay Area. In addition, he designed the American Embassy in Manila, the former De Young Museum addition for the Brundage Asian collection and the Varian Physics Laboratory at Stanford. In his lifetime, Gardner Dailey could stride the UC campus from one end to another and almost never lose sight of his buildings Tolman Hall, Kroeber Hall, Hertz Hall, Morrison Hall and Evans Hall.

Versatile Ernest C. Peixotto was a painter and writer and one of the best and highest-paid illustrators of his day. He painted the murals of Muckross House and the Killarney Lakes in 1925 for the Ballroom at Filoli. He had a marvelous sense of humor and in the mural he painted of Muckross Abbey he included a self-portrait in the lower right hand comer, painting the scene.

Peixotto was born in San Francisco in 1869 into a family of talented individuals. He began his studies at the San Francisco School of Design, (forerunner of the San Francisco Art Institute) but left at the age of 19 for Paris.

He returned to San Francisco in 1895 and began to contribute regularly to The Lark magazine, which lasted two years. With the end of the The Lark, he left for New York City and continued to divide his time between New York and Europe. He maintained a villa at Fontainebleau, where he was chairman of the American Commission of Painting.

He painted murals, portraits and landscapes; worked in oil and water color; did superb black and white pen sketches; and so excellent were his delineations of buildings that he was elected an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

He was appointed by General John Pershing as official artist for the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I with the rank of captain. His paintings done during the War are in black and white and hang in the Smithsonian Institution. In 1921, Peixotto was made a member of the French Legion of Honor one of many awards. He was assured a steady income through his illustrations for such magazines as Scribner’s and Harper’s, as well as for books. His books, all published by Scribner’s, were illustrated with his black and white drawings. Considered one of the best and highest paid in the business, he did fifty illustrations for President Theodore Roosevelt’s Life of Cromwell, an assignment that took him a full year. He also did sketches for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters and for a series of articles on Italy written by novelist Edith Wharton. Copies of his books are in the Sterling Library.

A contemporary described Peixotto as a quiet, kindly man; his figure short and spare; magnetic but sympathetic eyes set in a spiritual face.

His brother, Edgar, was a scholarly lawyer known locally as an eloquent orator. His sister, Jessica, in 1900, became the second woman to receive a Ph.D. degree at U.C., Berkeley, and for many years served as a professor of economics there.

Peixotto died in New York in December 1940 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Willis Polk was born in Jacksonville, Illinois on October 17, 1867. The family, related to President James Knox Polk, later relocated to St. Louis in 1873. Young Polk did not have a formal education. At age eight, he began work with a local carpenter, and at age 13, he graduated to the task of office boy for the architecture firm of Jerome B. Legg.

In 1889, he came to San Francisco and up until his premature death he remained an important figure in the city’s architectural development. During the early 1890’s Polk and Ernest Coxhead introduced many ideas that were to have an enormous effect on the architecture in San Francisco and the Bay Area. From 19001904 he worked in Chicago for Daniel Burnham.

Polk returned to San Francisco to assist in the preparation of the Burnham and Bennett master plan for the city. The 1906 earthquake and fire occurred just before the plan was made public. After the conflagration, Burnham opened an office in San Francisco with Polk in charge. Although Burnham’s plan could not be implemented, Polk secured contracts for major banks, office towers, retail blocks, railroad stations and the rebuilding of the Flood mansion into the Pacific Union Club. This project was arranged by William B. Bourn, President of the Spring Valley Water Company and owner of Grass Valley’s Empire Mine. Bourn was a patron of Polk’s for whom Polk designed many projects. The partnership with Burnham terminated in 1910.

The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was planned to celebrate the rebuilding of San Francisco. Polk was appointed the role of supervising architect and received the project to design the Palace of Fine Arts. However, in an act untypical of his ego, Polk graciously accepted an independent design by his colleague Bernard Maybeck.

Polk’s many buildings and works include the reconstruction of Mission Dolores, the water temple in Sunol, CA and the adjacent parish house of the Swedenborgian Church. He is highly regarded for his elegant residential work. His mansions and estates were often in the Georgian Revival style for wealthy, prominent San Franciscans like the Bourn’s Pacific Heights mansion at 2550 Webster Street; the Empire Cottage in Grass Valley as well as Filoli estate. Polk was the American architect working with the French architectural firm that designed the Carolands estate in Hillsborough, at one time the largest house west of the Mississippi. With the exceptions of several shingle style homes, Polk was not an Arts & Crafts designer in the pure sense. However, he is most noted for his introduction of the shingle style to California architecture. Many of his residences share this style’s features and principles of harmony with their environment.

Polk passed away at the age of 57 in 1924. His office continued to operate under his name for several years. In 1924, after Polk’s death Bourn, Chairman of the Board of the Spring Valley Water Company, expressed his feelings in the company paper, SAN FRANCISCO WATER, to eulogize Polk, San Francisco’s Master Builder, by printing Daniel H. Burnham’s quotation: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir man’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing asserting itself with ever growing insistency.”

Bruce Porter, landscape designer of Filoli gardens, was born in San Francisco. He spent his youth in Martinez, CA where his father was editor of the local newspaper and state assemblyman for Marin and Contra Costa counties. He was educated in San Francisco, Paris, France, London, England and Venice, Italy. He was a talented painter, sculptor, stained glass designer, writer, muralist, landscape designer and art critic.

His rare tonalist paintings include Man and Nature (1903) and Presidio Cliffs which was exhibited at the Panama Pacific International Exposition (1915).

In 1917, he married Margaret Mary James, daughter of Professor William James of Harvard and niece of the well known author Henry James.

After rejecting Polk colleague Chesley Bonestell’s design concepts for garden structures, William Bourn asked Bruce Porter to design the gardens. Porter responded with plans to enhance the natural landscape and use the magnificent view of the mountains to the west and along the long sweeping view to the north as a dramatic background to the gardens.

As a landscape designer, Porter created the landscaping at Memorial Stadium at the University of California at Berkeley (1923), designed the Memorial Arch (1919) in Saratoga – Los Gatos Road in Saratoga, CA and provided landscaping for several private homes.

Some of Porter’s stained glass designs are found at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Pacific Grove, CA, Swedenborgian Church (1895) and the Le Petit Trianon mansion (1904), both in San Francisco. Windows he designed adorn churches in Monterey, Stockton, San Mateo, and Coronado, CA.

Porter and Willis Polk designed a monument in memory of Robert Louis Stevenson in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco. Porter also wrote art criticisms for local newspapers. For two years, 18951897, Porter along with Gelett Burgess and William Doxey, published the literary magazine The Lark. Porter also contributed to Arts in California (1916), a book that compiled the artworks exhibited at the Panama Pacific International Exposition.

Porter designed the gardens for Crocker’s New Place in Hillsborough (1910-1911), now the Burlingame Country Club, though little of the original gardens exist. The only other garden designed by Bruce Porter existing today is the Double Ranch in Carmel Valley, the home of M/M Henry Russell.

Bruce Porter died November 25, 1953 and his memorial service was held at the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco.

Isabella Worn, better known as Bella Worn, supervised the planting of the Filoli gardens. She worked with Bruce Porter at New Place, the Crocker estate in Hillsborough, and she continued her work in the gardens at Filoli with the Roths, up until her death at age eighty-one.

Bella Worn lived in Ross, named for her grandfather, James Ross. Both her father and grandfather were horticulturalists, so it was natural that the Worn girls loved plants. With their imaginative use of flowers they became the social decorators for every leading function in the Bay Area for half a century. They changed the entire concept of floral displays from stiff bouquets to the natural, graceful use of flowers we still use today. As a young girl Bella Worn traveled for two years with her mother and her sisters and visited all the great gardens in Europe.

Bourn was very impressed with Isabella Worn’s designs and her excellent sense of color. He chose her to do the plant specifications and worked with her on the color combinations in the gardens. Bella Worn and Bruce Porter had a good working relationship because they also worked together at New Place and the Double-H Ranch in Carmel Valley for Mr. and Mrs. Henry Russell.

In 1965, a redwood grove in Prairie Creek State Park was dedicated to her.