Filoli Gardens on Dynasty
Do you remember the 80’s soap opera “Dynasty?” I remember it so clearly. As the credits rolled, they showed an aerial view of Filoli Gardens – it was supposed to represent the fictional, over-the-top Carrington family’s ancestral seat.
I had recently moved to graduate school in Boston and remember my roommate waxing poetic about the series. Dynasty focused on the lives of the Carrington family, a wealthy and powerful oil family who, “lived and sinned in a 48-room mansion.”
Living in an urban jungle that is Mumbai, I had never seen a sprawling, expansive country estate with formal and informal gardens of extraordinary beauty. It mesmerized me.
Filoli Gardens – a history
A decade later, I moved to California and delighted in the historical Georgian Revival estate that is the Filoli Historic House & Garden, a mere 45 minutes from home.
With a rich history dating back to 1917, William Bowers Bourn II and his wife, Agnes originally built it as a private residence to fulfill their vision of a self-sustaining country estate.
Bourn, the heir to California’s Empire Mine gold fortune, foresaw the future value of water and electricity as the Bay Area population boomed and had invested heavily in utility companies.
He built his estate on 654 acres of unceded ancestral lands of the Ramaytush Ohlone and surrounded it with 16 acres of formal gardens, a 6.8-acre Gentleman’s Orchard, and a nature preserve with eight miles of hiking trails, all nestled along the slopes of California’s coastal range.
Bourn called it Filoli, a name he came up with by combining elements of his life’s credo: “Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life.”
Filoli Gardens – a refuge
Bourn saw Filoli as a refuge: “My idea is to devote the afterglow of my life, this is the next 40 to 50 years or so, in personal supervision of its development. There, I hope to grow young.”
Sadly, it was not so. In 1922, just as they had completed the gardens, Bourn suffered a severe stroke and had to use a wheelchair. He spent his days gazing at the beautifully landscaped gardens till his death in 1936, at 79. His wife, Agnes had preceded him as had his children. The family is buried on the estate.
Filoli Gardens–The National Trust
After Agnes and William Bourn’s deaths in 1936, the Roth family purchased Filoli. Lurline Matson Roth was the daughter of Captain William Matson, founder of the Matson Navigation Company. Lurline’s husband, William ‘Bill’ Roth, would later take over as company president.
While the Bourns had the vision to create the Filoli House and Garden, the Roths stewarded the estate forward. Lurline Roth took great interest in the garden, working with the Bourns’ original garden designer to add to its beauty. Roth often worked alongside her gardeners, dead-heading the camellias or pruning roses.
After Bill’s death, Lurline moved to a smaller home nearby and later donated the House and Garden to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, explaining, “Filoli is too beautiful to be private.” She still visited whenever she could and when you visit the house, you can see the arc of their lives, with several pictures of the couple and their three children, parties that the couple hosted as well as music wafting throughout the space.
The perfect setting for a wedding
Today, as I roam the beautifully manicured gardens with a friend as I oft do, I am reminded of my friend Kinjal’s son’s wedding here last July. When Kinjal and Hemant Buch were planning their son, Arsh’s wedding reception, they wanted to have an outdoor bash and invite everyone they knew…desi style. “I really wanted to do things the way they do it in India, you invite everyone you know, makes it feel so much more personal. I hate just splitting the costs. We loved hosting and welcoming the bride’s family,” says Kinjal.
They fell in love with Filoli the minute they saw it, an ideal oasis for their “non-stuffy” reception. It could comfortably host 400 guests, it had an amazing backdrop of manicured lawns, a pool, lush lawns, and blooming mature trees — all providing the perfect focal points. “We never needed any other decorations,” the Buchs gush.
The young couple, Arsh and Prachi, strolled through the gardens, greeting guests and posing for pictures with friends and family in the many intimate “rooms” that one finds here. Kinjal wanted the guests to roam the gardens, enjoy the view and have a chance to chat with each other.
“Indian weddings are about meeting everyone, talking, and catching up, we didn’t want a formal sit-down,” adds Kinjal. So, they did just that, an al fresco cocktail hour and dinner with fairy lights and twinkling stars. Food is, of course, the most important thing at a desi bash. Filoli works with Jalsa, the preferred vendor at most Indian weddings.
Filoli Gardens today
The ticket allows unlimited access to the house, gardens, clock tower shop and The Quail Café managed by the Epicurean Group. A grand and long driveway, leads up to the 54, 256 sq. foot mansion designed by architect Willis Polk. The House took three years to construct and cost $425,000 ($8.5 million in today’s currency.)
The self-guided tour passes through 5-6 large ballrooms, dining areas and reception rooms, staff quarters, and the large, well-stocked kitchen. Placards and descriptive panels explain how each room was used. Historic photographs reveal that the Bourn and Roth families filled the House with houseplants and flowers from the Garden. Today, Filoli’s horticulture team continues the tradition with fresh floral arrangements.
Almost every room faces the jaw-dropping gardens. They blend two English garden styles — 18th-century Georgian-style terraces and the more formal English Renaissance style. They feature lush flower beds, yew-lined avenues, and centerpieces like the Sunken Garden. What separates Filoli from other gardens is their creation of a series of “rooms.” Each one has a different purpose. They serve as gracious outdoor rooms, lending a measure of privacy and surprise at every turn.
The Walled Garden’s ephemeral beauty during my spring visit was such a delight! Enclosed within 10-foot-high brick walls, clipped hedges separate it into many smaller, ornamental garden rooms, each intended to be enjoyed as an individual experience. Blossoming crabapple and cherry trees provide shade and scent making it the perfect place to read.
The Sunken Garden
The pool pavilion where Arsh and Prachi Buch had their wedding reception leads to the beautiful Sunken Garden dotted with water lilies. Winding paths through the Daffodil Meadow and Family Orchard lead to the High Place — a “green theater” that originally featured views of the Crystal Springs Reservoir.
The Quail Cafe
No visit for my family is complete without a visit to The Quail Café. My husband’s 4 p.m. coffee and dessert pit stop waits for no (wo) man. The café is a charming greenhouse like structure, dappled sunlight peeks through its many windows and it’s indoor outdoor space is surrounded by verdant gardens and flowers.
This visit, I went in time for lunch and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Epicurean Group is managing the dining. Keeping the clientele in mind, the café now has a rotating menu of locally sourced, sustainable, and freshly made salads, sandwiches, coffees, and desserts. They have a lot of great vegetarian and vegan choices in addition to some great daily soups on their winter menu: we had the Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad and the freshly made tri-tip sandwiches, coffee, and petite cakes (all three flavors, yes, we like our desserts!) All highly recommended.
A vibrant future
Wrapping up a wonderful spring day at the garden with a friend was the perfect end to my Filoli visit, connecting our rich history with a vibrant future through beauty, nature and shared stories, and a renewed appreciation for beauty in or everyday life.
Bourn had built it for posterity. Filoli, he prophesied, could well prove to be “interesting a few hundred years from now.” He was right, over 100,000 visitors tour the property annually.
Some images of Filoli Gardens by Sree Sripathy for India Currents/Catchlight Local