Review of Filoli Historic House

Table of Content

History of the Property

William Bourn II was of the wealthy mining magnate family of California that believes:  “Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life”.  In the crafty acronymic combination of the first two letters of the first words of the three phrases of his credo, he named the 624 acres estate he and his wife, Agnes Moody Bourn developed and built between 1915 and 1917 – Filoli.

It is an eclectic estate garden in Woodside, California – south of San Francisco, at the end of Crystal Springs Lake, on the eastern slope of Santa Cruz Mountains.  The estate comprises the country house surrounded by the lush formal gardens.  The house was commissioned to Architect Willis Polk and the garden to the Landscape Designer Bruce Porter.

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It is the inspiration of creating a modern day Eden wherein there is the bounty of land, plentiful resources and a portrayal of self-sufficiency.  By principle, a master blueprint of the grand plan in the design of the Filoli Estate, has not been discovered.  Upon the taking over of the National Historic Trust Foundation, they tried to research to no avail.  It therefore came to the conclusion of researchers that indeed the inspiration and concept of Filoli is the profound instinct, initiative, and inspiration of William and Agnes Bourn.

Nevertheless, the Bourns sought the technical assistance of artists and draftsmen to draw what they envisioned about the estate.  The vision is an estate with its house with its gardens and grounds to be constructed and designed as a unified entity:  one is of the other – in purpose and function – from the house to the terraces to the sunken garden to the formal garden.  One must lead to the other.  One must be “prefaced” by the other.  One must “conclude” the other.

The variances and the dynamics of the hedges and walls preclude, include, conclude one compartment to the other. Landscaping of the garden was laid out between 1917-1929.  The gardens in the estate cover a total area of 16 acres.  The structural concept is to connect the garden spaces that lead and open to one another.  This concept provides long axial views that juxtapose compact foliage of hardy and annual plants vis-à-vis lush lawns, the pavements, reflecting pools, plant hedges lined, clipped and framed against walls.  What highlights this neat arrangement are narrow, columnar Irish yews.

The flowers in the garden are bursts of colors and shapes and vibrancy.  Spring brings forth 35,000 tulips and 25,000 daffodils.  And summer brings forth hundreds of cherry, pear and apple trees.

History of the Design Concept

Sixty years before the Bourns bought Filoli Estate, migration to Northern California was inspired by the California Gold Rush.  Thus, wealth blossomed.  With the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, the emergence of development through beautiful and magnificent country estates sought to sort raise the social psyche from the “ashes”.

The Landscape Design of the Filoli gardens is reflective of the combination of the English style and American style that emanated during the 19th century. As a remarkable model of the Renaissance gardens of England, the integrity of the Filoli gardens was kept intact all thru the years.

The purpose of gardens designed during the renaissance is to symbolize pleasure, prestige, wealth, power, royalty.    It is a showcase and venue for entertainment, ceremonies and social gathering.  Simultaneously, it could be a venue for learning to study nature, the sciences and experimentations with botanical and zoological lives.

Therefore, the widest variety of tree plants, fruit plants, vegetable plants, floral plants, to even medicinal plants abounds in renaissance gardens. It was written in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible that:  “A river glowed out of Eden to water the garden……” [2].  Thus, it is concluded that gardens have structures that serves as basin of water.   Just like in medieval gardens, “structures from which water, artificially controlled, rises, falls, or flows, rather than on natural springs” stands as an allegory to the “eden-ness” of the Filoli gardens with its reflective pools and fountains.

Rationale of the Design

The Bourns thought of a “place of retreat” to be secluded, peaceful and timeless.   As a reflection of the inert perspective of the Bourn, the style and design speaks of their persona:  quiet elegance.  Inspite of their wealth, they are private, quiet and reserved family.  From the inception of the Filoli Estate, until construction time, until completion – no publicizing of the project ever came about.  The Filoli Estate is the Bourn’s quiet retreat from the humdrum of their demanding business and social life in the city.  They wanted to get close to nature, land and virgin beauty of the environment of the countryside.

The principal architect, Willis Polk, and Mr. William Bourn II have been longtime friends.   The Architect has already worked with Mr. Bourn on their two other homes. The landscape was assigned to Bruce Porter because William Bourn did not like the earlier concept interpretation of Chesley Bonestell – who is a college of Architect Polk.  The concept of Mr. Porter in highlighting the natural landscape and view of the mountains in the west together the view of the north to – made Mr. Broun choose Mr. Porter’s vision.

“Landscapes are, of course, much more than signifying systems. As the visible surface of places, landscapes are ensembles of physical elements and economic infrastructure-hills, fields, streams, dirt roads, barns, mansions and cottages, railroads, offices, stores and villagescapes, as well as images, views, and individual and collective memories. They are media molded into grand compositions that are enacted within the framework of culturally and historically particular discourses.

As we have argued, landscapes, especially landscapes of home, become incorporated into the formation and performance of individual, familial, and community identities. The meanings of places upon which people base their identities are contested and assembled from very loosely articulated cultural discourses.”  (Duncan & Duncan, 2004, p.37)

 The art of landscaping responds to nature.  Thus, natural concepts to be interpreted through landscaping techniques involve calls for the highest order of creativity.  The sensibility and sensitivity to balance the multidimensional purpose and features of nature with the scientific and mathematical methods to build and create a landscape are premium responsibilities.  It is because landscape and gardens “convey cultural meanings and intellectual ideas.  Gardens and landscapes were, from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, powerful expressions of intellectual ideas and cultural perspectives.”

Implementation of the Design

Undertaking landscape of Filoli reckoned the pertinent pattern, perception and process necessary to achieve the objective of the estate. Objects and characteristics of things around us are not there by chance.  Everything follows a pattern.  It is recognizing the pattern that a property or the environment around it that would help in assessing the need of such environment.

As the plan and design of Fililo evolved, it objectively recognized the raw and virginal structure of the pattern that lead to the appropriate landscape it deserves.  And it is perception that provides the ability to reflect on the patterns of environment.  It involves sensibility to the aesthetics and everything particular that creates distinction, definition and determination.  Then the processes will undertake the technical and topographical features of the pattern that will conclude the landscape design to be applied.  Such discernment will expound on the vegetation, ecological and most of all human activity within the pertinent environment.

It is the aspect of human activity transpiring and that shall transpire in an environment that will highlight landscaping methods.  “It is difficult to find a truly natural landscape, one that is wholly devoid of even the slightest traces of human activity or has not been subject to some influence at some time.”

Starting therefore from the fact that the Bourns will establish residency in Filoli, view is of the paramount consideration of the designs.  On the north side, starting from the entry courtyard and the terraces surrounding the mansion, Polk executed a Georgian style.   The enclosed gardens on the south side sustained the English Renaissance.  The Bourns emphasized that a good view of the lake must be of paramount consideration in the design of the house.  “Vision accounts for some 87% of human perception, so is proportionately more important…….Designers have been more concerned with creating attractive settings for peope to live, work and play.”

When the architects and the designers commenced with the project, visualizing each and every focal view to be paramountly captured was assisted by a moving wooden tower anchored on wheels.  Therefore the lake can be viewed the first floor hall and the terraces of the mansion and even from the High Place in the garden.  “…..landscape visualization concernes not only the reality of landscape, but also the images derived as repositories of place meaning formed and interpreted in the mind.”

The walled garden is protected with wrought iron gates that are exquisite and elegantly designed.  In addition to the gates, there grew on the north side Blue Atlas and Glauca Cedar trees.   These contrast with the natural vegetation at the west of the hills.  Their sparse branches beautiful frame the views instead of blocking them.  Furthermore, natural live oaks are much in abundance from the virginal inception of the property which the Bourns ensured their preservation.  Thus, the oaks were likewise considered as a focal point to design the terraces and formal garden, which now serve as a canopy.

The entry to the property and the mansion is accessed from the east.  However, the view from there is the least beautiful.  Oliver orchards were designed to augment the less appealing feature.  And the entry access was so designed as simply a driveway towards a roundabout in front of the mansion for the accessible coming and going of their guests, if ever.

Two parallel axes link the English Renaissance style garden in the southside to the main house.  This is distinctively uncommon in American estates which linkages are thru perpendicular axis.

One axis in Filoli starts from the High Place that views the lake and leads thru the Irish yew trees, thru the wall dividing the walled garden, thru the sunken garden, thru the terrace of the west side of the house.   The other axis goes thru the English Renaissance style garden, thru the dining room terrace of the house, thru the sunken garden, thru the garage wall, thru the walled garden, thru the rose garden, thru the cutting garden, thru the row of Lombardy poplar trees.  Crosswalks of those two axis enables circumnavigation of the garden.

The formal sunken garden has a garden pavilion and terrace, bowling green, walled garden, woodland garden, tennis court and rose garden.  It is a showcase area for leisure and recreation. A panel garden on the south side is for growing fruits, vegetables and cut flowers.   It also has a cutting garden, fruit cages, flower cages, shrub borders.  It is accentuated with narcissus, lilacs, mission olives.

The crown of English style gardens are the clipped and formal hedges.  Filoli features hedges like copper beech, English holly, English laurel, English boxwood, myrtle, Grecian bay and yew hedges. Over and above all of these features are the standard characteristics of manicured laws, balustrades of the terraces, gravel and brick walks, boxed lined flower parterres, reflecting pools, bird bath, wooden trellis, sundial, olla jars, ceramic pots, flower vases of lead and bronze, marble garden furniture.

The gardens of Filoli stood monumental to the main purpose of the estate: to give peace and relaxation. Just like the 16th and 17th century English, they “required recreations and pleasure that brought them peace and contentment.  One source of peaceful pleasure the Elizabethans and Jacobeans found in their gardens.”

Cultural and Social Relevance

Filoli is a tourist destination.  It also serves as wedding venues.  A major part of the Filoli gardens serves as a botanical nursery to produce flowers and vegetables for the mansion in the estate.  A great majority of volunteers work in the nursery. “……more than 100 amateur and professional floral designers, children and flower enthusiasts who will be participating in this year’s flower show at Filoli in Woodside May 8 to 11. “Country Elegance” is both the title and theme of Filoli’s 20th annual flower show. The four-day event is meant to evoke its original owner’s vision of Filoli as a rustic, though refined country estate, and designers from San Francisco to Carmel will contribute floral and table-setting art.”  (Papoulias, 2008)

Filoli conducts many interesting social, cultural, educational, learning activities.  It provides training and programs in horticulture, botanical art, decorative art, floral design, nature and preservation.  It holds exhibits and events to showcase the results of such training and program. “Opening to the public the following year, Filoli has since endeavored to offer visitors fun and inventive programs, including classes in flower arranging and Asian brush painting for adults, and art and nature education classes for children.”  (Seehaus, 2008)

As a comprehensive activity center and as a tourist destination and as a comprehensive art and science showcase, Filoli employs likewise a good number of personnel and professionals for paid jobs.  Thus, it creates employment opportunities.

Filoli has now indeed evolved to a truly interactive community of people.  Apart from the many personnel and volunteers in the property, the visitors and guests mingle with the property like as if it is their own.  There is therefore a personal relationships that everyone establishes with Filoli.

With the various community, customers, visitor, clientele interaction that transpire everyday in Filoli, the necessary associations and liaisons that generates all kinds of sources and resources for purposes of research, study grants, business, scientific endeavors – are founded and initiated.  The Filoli therefore serves as a medium and facility for the necessary introductions and references towards such viable and even profitable endeavors.

Filoli:  Now and Tomorrow and Forever

When the Filoli estate was eventually sold to Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth I in 1937, the botanic gardens of the Filoli estate was constructed.  Eventually in 1975 the entire estate was donated by the Roth family to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It is the 907th historic landmark in California.  The distinctive feature of the Filoli Estates and Gardens is that, unlike other landmarks, it is a perpetual showcase of natural art.  It is alive and continually evolving by itself.

The care and adjustment to the environment plays a key role in the sustainability of resources and natural wealth endowed by the design of the Filoli Estate and Gardens.  Planting, priming, pruning, preserving, planning and persevering – are challenging responsibilities and concern that resources such as the Filoli do require.

To sustain and maintain the integrity, history and purpose of Filoli Estate and Gardens is not only in awe and respect, but at the same time to ensure that the timelessness of such legacy is protected.


  1. Macdougall, Elisabeth B.,  “Medieval Gardens:  History of Landscape Architecture Colloquium”.  1983.  Page 137
  2. Dumbarton Oaks. Duncan, James S. & Duncan, Nancy G.  “Landscapes of Privilege:  Aesthetics And Affluence in an American Suburb”.  2004, page 37
  3. Routledge Publishing, New York, U.S.A. Birksted, Jan.  “Relating Architecture to Landscape”.  1999

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Review of Filoli Historic House. (2016, Nov 30). Retrieved from

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