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Paradise Preserved : Filoli, in Northern California, Is a Step Back to the Golden Age of Lavish Estate Gardens

June 17, 1990|ROBERT SMAUS

THE MOST ELEGANT PUBLIC GARDEN in the state is virtually unknown by Southern Californians. Located in Woodside, in an oak-speckled valley just south of San Francisco, it easily compares with the classic European gardens that inspired its design. Named Filoli, an acronym for "fight, love, live," by its Faustian builder, William B. Bourn Jr., the estate is now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Bourn had the good fortune to inherit a hard-rock gold mine and the foresight to invest in water--thus controlling Northern California's two most valuable resources. Suitably financed, he set about building his country place in 1916.

He had the perfect spot, at the head of his own Crystal Springs Reservoir, which supplies San Francisco with water. Willis Polk, the designer of San Francisco City Hall, did the grand Irish country house, and Bruce Porter, a painter and designer of stained-glass windows, laid out the gardens (one walled garden is planted to resemble a window at Chartres Cathedral).

In 1937, Mrs. William P. Roth purchased the property. An avid and knowledgeable horticulturist, she was careful not to tamper with the original scheme. A crew of expert gardeners, most of them Italian (many were in their 60s and 70s by the time the garden was transferred to the Trust), kept the garden impeccably maintained. Filoli is now one of the few grand estate gardens from the Country Place Era (which began at the turn of the century and ended with the Depression) that still looks as it did.

Walking through the gates takes one back to this golden age of lavish gardens. "When I first arrived, it was like stepping into 'Alice in Wonderland' or the 'Secret Garden,' " recalls Lucy Tolmach, superintendent of the garden. "It was so charming and so well preserved." A rustic copse of olives softens the transition from native oak savanna to man-made landscape. Once inside, yews, hedges and brick walls assert their formality--everything is prim and pruned. The gardens are laid out along classic Italian-French lines with a series of walks connecting enclosed spaces and the allees tying the parts together visually. As is a characteristic of the Country Place Era, borders are brimming with flowers in bloom, as they are most of the year (these photographs were taken last August).

Tours of the gardens are conducted, by reservation only, Tuesday through Saturday. Dedicated gardeners might enjoy the self-guided tour on Friday, which allows time to study the plants (reservations not required). Admission: $8; no children under 12. Telephone (415) 364-2880, or write to Filoli, Canada Road, Woodside 94062.

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