FIght, LOve, LIve: California’s Filoli Estate And Gardens

Thirty miles south of San Francisco, the Filoli Estate and Gardens is an elegant oasis in the South Bay Area.

What’s In A Name?
First, the name. While "Filoli" sounds like a typically mellifluous Italian surname, it was not named for its original owner, nor was the owner Italian. William Bowers Bourn was a mining baron who began construction of the estate in 1915. He chose a building site at the southern end of Crystal Springs Lake, which was part of his property holdings (Mr. Bourn also owned the Spring Valley Water Company). He named it Filoli by combining the first two letters (FI-LO-LI) of the verbs "fight, love, live," from his personal motto, "Fight for a just cause, love your fellow man, and live a good life."

Humble country kitchen.

Facts And Figures
Living a good life could be pretty easy at today’s Filoli estate and gardens. The site comprises 654 acres, including the 36,000-square-foot home and the 16-acre formal garden. Seven miles of trails weave their way through the grounds. These can be explored on your own or via one of the 2-1/2-half hour docent-led nature hikes offered most Saturdays. Guided tours of the house alone or the house and gardens are also offered, as well as specialty tours such as the Camellia Tour, Orchard Tour, and Cutting Garden tour. (The Cutting Garden provides the spectacular floral arrangements on display throughout the home.) Both the house and gardens are wheelchair-accessible.

Filoli is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from mid-February until late October, closed on holidays. Standard admission is $12 for adults, $5 for students, and free for children under the age of 4; higher admission is charged for certain festival and event days. The estate is a California State Historic Landmark as well as being listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. It is protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

One of 17 fireplaces.

The House
William Bourn hired San Francisco architect Willis Polk to design his mansion in the Georgian style, but with influences of other styles popular in early 20th-century California. The Spanish mission tile roof and the Italianate, columned entrance are two departures from the English country home theme, the French casement windows are another.

The home has 43 rooms, not counting closets and bathrooms, and 17 fireplaces. Ceilings are 17-foot or higher throughout, lending a soaring grandeur (and a bit of a draft!) to every room.

Sundial on the grounds.

The Gardens
The Bourns’ original vision for their property included gardens on a grand scale, with an eye toward classically designed, gracious, and functional landscapes that would last for decades, even centuries. As was the fashion of the day for a "gentleman’s farm," the original garden included formal gardens with terraces and a sunken garden, a kitchen garden with vegetables, fruits, and greenhouses, and an orchard.

The formal gardens were divided between a distinctly Georgian style in the north section and an English Renaissance style to the south. The original gardens took over a decade to construct and are rather unique in that they have maintained their design integrity for nearly a century. The home changed hands to owners Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth in 1936, but the integrity of the gardens was maintained. The only substantive change during the 40 years the Roths owned the home was the addition of a swimming pool and its surrounding gardens. The Roths turned the home over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975.

A bit of topiary.

Getting There
From points north or south, such as San Francisco or San Jose, take Highway 280. Just south of the Highway 92 and Highway 280 junction, take the Edgewood Road exit. Take Edgewood west to Canada Road. Turn right on Canada and proceed 1.25 miles; the entrance to Filoli will be on your left.

From the East Bay, take Highway 92 west, then Highway 280 south to the Edgewood Road exit and proceed as above.

For more information, including special events and holiday closures, phone 650-364-8300, e-mail, or check out the official website at

Sally O’Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest, but considers the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area her second home. She writes weekly for

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