Sam McManis

Discoveries: Filoli gives a glimpse into Woodside’s opulent manses

The 654-acre Filoli estate in the Peninsula town of Woodside features views such as this one of the sunken garden.
The 654-acre Filoli estate in the Peninsula town of Woodside features views such as this one of the sunken garden.

Heard there’s this mansion in Woodside, home of tech titans and venture-capital vultures, where they give tours of the sweeping and opulent house and sprawling and fecund gardens.

Great. Always wanted to see the humble abode of software king Larry Ellison, who had the gall to tear down a Julia Morgan-built estate to erect a mega-manse with a 16th-century Japanese Emperor palace theme. Word is, Ellison has the place on the market after he bought an entire island in Hawaii.

Alas, that’s not the mansion open to the hoi polloi for gaped-mouth gawking.

Do not be disappointed, though. There’s plenty to admire and envy at Filoli, an estate spanning 654 acres carved into the Peninsula foothills, featuring 16 acres of gardens whose technicolor floral display is all the more vivid framed against the muted green-and-brown hillside. The “season” for visiting ended Oct. 24 but, come February, the wondrous gardens and oh-so-glamorous interior will welcome visitors once more.

This isn’t some nouveau riche vanity project, either. We’re talking (sniff, sniff) old money here. How old? Gold Rush old. PG&E old. Senior-water-rights-holder old.

Ninety-eight years ago, William Bowers Bourn II, he of the Empire Mine gold fortune in Grass Valley and late 19th-century Bay Area watershed monopoly known as the Spring Valley Water Co., sought refuge from the welter of city life in San Francisco and swelter of Nevada County. His oasis was Filoli, a 36,000-square-foot Georgian-style “country” home (54,000 feet, if you count the attic and cellar, where only the “help” trod) with 43 rooms, 17 bathrooms and 17 fireplaces.

Though the estate’s name (pronounced Fie-Low-Lee) sounds Italian and drips like extra-virgin olive oil with old-world pretensions, the Bourns were classic Horace-Greeley-Go-West-Young-Man success stories. Bourn, senior, acquired the wealth – mostly through the mine and, as they say, a diversified portfolio – but it was his heir who put on airs. William II reportedly relished the notion that people thought the name Filoli was plucked from some classical European derivation, but it actually comes from the first two letters of the key verbs in his personal credo: “Fight for a just cause; love your fellow man; live a good life.”

Over the years, the name has helped to ferret out people who pretend to be “family friends.”

“Our former curator has a funny story,” docent Bob French told our group during a recent two-hour tour. “He was walking through the gardens and saw two young men going by and noticed they didn’t have their stickers on. So he stopped them and said, ‘You guys will have to go pay for your tour.’ They said, ‘No, no, it’s all right, really. We were told we could come out any time we wanted without paying. We went to school with the Filoli brothers.’ 

The manse’s conjoined name matches its mishmash of styles, which somehow work despite disparate time periods and origins. The audacious aesthetic and eclectic tastes belonged to the Bourns – and, after the death of William II in 1936, to the shipping heiress Lurline Matson Roth, and husband William, who bought the place. (The estate was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975.)

As you amble down the ample hallways, stopping to admire antique furniture, Persian rugs worth more than your lifetime earnings, glittering chandeliers in the Louis XIV, V, XVI styles, fireplaces alternating between Italian, Belgian and French marble, a Chinese Coromandel palace screen from the 18th century and an East Indian rosewood cabinet holding the 581-item Tiffany wedding silver, you marvel at the elegance.

You also may chuckle at the overstated opulence, and think that the Bourns and Roths were just trying a bit too hard to impress. It’s what you might imagine the inside of a modern-day tech magnate’s manse in Woodside might look like: impressing you with a Warhol original here, a solid gold Eames chair in the sitting room, a Portuguese armorial carpet that looks as if someone slopped red wine on it.

Give the Bourns credit, though: They knew quality and knew how to drive a hard bargain. San Franciscans used to praise William Sr.’s canny business acumen by calling him “Bourn Luck,” and William II was born lucky with the same wealth-management gene. French, the docent, loves to regale visitors with the manner in which the Bourns acquired a rare Isphahan palace carpet.

“It came up for sale in London,” he said. “At one time, it was in Osborne House, the summer home of Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight. A few years after they sold it to Mr. Bourn, someone in England decided, ‘Gee that wasn’t very smart selling the Queen’s rug,’ so they asked (Bourn) if he’d sell it back. He said, ‘No way. It’s in my library.’ So the English have a fake, well, I guess you’d say a copy of that carpet, and we have the original.”

Sometimes, the owners didn’t even know the true value of their possessions.

“See that Flemish tapestry above the fireplace?” French said during a stop in the Reception Room. “I call that our very own ‘Antique Road Show’ surprise because for years, we told everybody it was a 19th-century English armorial tapestry, armorial coming from the coat of arms. But a conservator brought it back and said, ‘Aren’t you fortunate to have this 16th-century Flemish tapestry in such beautiful condition.”

It’s comforting to know, however, that the Bourns didn’t always get their way, that money could only wield so much power.

In the handsome, black-walnut-lined library are oil portraits of William II and wife Agnes, by Sir William Orpen, a commercially successful painter in Edwardian London. It would be unkind to call Orpen the Thomas Kinkade of his day, but critics have long dismissed him. Agnes, I must say, looks a little peeved in the painting, posing in what kids today call an “RBF.”

French explained why: “The Bourns really wanted American John Singer Sargent (hailed by critics as the “leading portrait painter of his generation”) to do the portraits, but Sargent had retired by then. So Orpen did it. But Mrs. Bourn did get Sargent to do sketches of them, and she liked the sketches much more than the portraits.”

If the rooms in the manse constitute a curious amalgam of styles and periods, the 16-acre garden is no less diverse but fits neatly together in a symmetry of color and design. From the verdant brilliance of the sunken garden framed by Irish yews standing sentinel, to the multi-hued splendor of the rose garden, to the bulbous blue of the hydrangeas and the fiery begonia beds, the garden is sublime and quite a sight in these parched days.

(OK, we need to stop right here for a digression, hopefully not too long, about Filoli gardens and the drought. Yes, the 13 paid gardeners and 120 volunteers are cognizant that we are in the midst of a four-year drought, and Filoli officials say they’ve addressed the problem by vastly curtailing irrigation, letting some lawns and woodland areas go completely brown, a.k.a., “California Gold.” Filoli, in fact, details its drought mitigation on its website,

“We’re only watering places that are prominent,” French said.

Then he pointed to the lushness of the sunken garden, subject of many a tourist selfie, and added: “But if we let that go completely, well, you can imagine what that would look like. There are a lot of places here that we don’t show to you as much, that aren’t getting any water. … (The landscaping) takes anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 gallons of water a day during the summer. Mr. Bourn built five wells and also put in redwood tanks on top of the Santa Cruz Mountains. During rainy season, he’d pipe water up, then in summer he’d let it gravity flow back down. Now we do get some of our (water) from Hetch Hetchy.”

Which is kind of ironic, if you know the Bourns’ history as water czars.

But little matter. It’s always wise to keep F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line top of mind – “Let me tell you about the rich; they are different from you and me” – when you visit a historic estate such as Filoli. Rather than succumb to bitterness over income inequality and all that, just suspend judgment and take in the scene.

That’s what French suggested when he led us to a gap in the live oak trees near the tennis court, where a sweeping view of the back of the estate beckons.

“Does that view look familiar?” he asked. “That’s the shot in the opening credits of ‘Dynasty.’ 


When: New “season” for visitors begins in February

Where: 86 Canada Road, Woodside

Hours: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., starting in February

Cost: $20 general; $17 seniors; $10 students

More information: (650) 364–8300;

Bay Area historic mansions

The Bay Area is known as a haven of “new money,” with high-tech billionaires building lavish manses. But there’s a long history of rich people building trophy houses. “Discoveries” has visited three historic dwellings.

Today: Filoli in Woodside

Nov. 1: Pardee Home in Oakland

Nov. 8: Winchester Mystery House in San Jose