Seasonal celebrations for the centennial of a Peninsula landmark

By Laura Ness

The meticulously manicured gardens of the Filoli Estate. (Image courtesy of Gretchine Nievarez/Filoli)

This year marks the 100th anniversary for the Filoli Estate, the beloved local landmark in Woodside. While many of the official centennial celebrations have already been held and chronicled, the holiday season provides a unique opportunity to pay a visit and toast the existence and persistence of this historic monument in our backyard.

When Filoli opened to the public in 1976, it became an instant magnet for many in the region, and has remained one ever since. “It’s such a beautiful and special place to me,” says Ann Milouf, a Hillsborough resident who has been a member at Filoli for over 30 years. “I’ve been coming here since before I was married. I love the gardens, and have taken several classes here: I even learned how to espalier fruit trees!” (Lucky her, she even got to swim in the pool.) Like Milouf, many members regularly come to Filoli to hike, read a book on a quiet bench or just to wander in the gardens, admiring their beauty. In fact, Filoli’s program boasts more than 2000 locals who have been members for more than 20 years.

On a more national level, Filoli achieved widespread notoriety when the hugely popular 1980s TV show, “Dynasty,” chose it as the setting for the Carrington House, which was actually set within the story in Denver. The Garden House in front of the lily pond served as a backdrop for the infamous high-drama quarrels between the Kardashian-esque characters Joan and Linda. Ironically, when the 2006 CBS Television special, “Dynasty Reunion: Catfights & Caviar,” was filmed at the mansion, it was actually the first time many of the cast members had been to the actual estate.

Yet long before it became famous as the mansion seen from the air in the opening credits of the show, it was a country home built for a wealthy San Francisco family who wanted to bask in the serenity of nature, with all the modern conveniences of the day.

The coming weeks of this holiday season present the perfect time to get acquainted with—or perhaps reacquainted with—the unique history of this local landmark, and to engage in the many festivities that the estate has to offer.

Poolside with the Aqualilies during centennial celebrations. (Image courtesy of Gretchine Nievarez/Filoli)

Local legacy

Constructed between 1915 and 1917 for wealthy water and gold mining magnate, William B. Bourn II and his wife, Agnes Moody Bourn, Filoli was designed by renowned California architect Willis Polk, who had previously designed the Bourn’s homes in Grass Valley and on Webster Street in San Francisco. For their country estate, they instructed Polk to take cues from their mansion, known as Muckross House, near Killarney in County Kerry, Ireland.

Polk modified the Georgian Revival genre by employing the sloped tiled roofs that were uniquely California at the time. He managed to render an edifice that feels at once ripped from the Emerald Isles, and yet perfectly integrated into the Spanish-influenced California setting. The elegant 36,000 square foot brick structure contains 43 rooms, 17 bathrooms, 17 fireplaces and 18 ft. high ceilings on the first floor.

Beyond Filoli, Polk’s work can also be appreciated all over San Francisco and throughout the Peninsula. In San Francisco, he designed the Flood Mansion, the Beach Chalet on the Great Highway, the Gibbs House in Pacific Heights, and many churches and civic buildings as well. He also designed Carolands in Burlingame and the lovely Le Petit Trianon on what is now the DeAnza College Campus: it houses the California History Museum today.

One surmises the Bourn’s Irish home to have been the inspiration for many of the idyllic murals that adorn the walls of the magnificent Ballroom at Filoli, with its oversized fireplace and stage for musicians. On Saturdays, during the holidays, various musicians take to the stage to perform their craft.

Live music at dancing in the Filoli Ballroom during the Centennial Gala Celebrations. (Image courtesy of Gretchine Nievarez/Filoli)

The day I visited, pianist Laureen Spini brought the keys of the baby grand to life. She was followed by harpist Samantha Storey, the Bella Sorella Singers and harpist Audrey Kearns. The program changes weekly.

Each room of the mansion is currently decorated for the holidays, with wreaths and displays all done by the many volunteers who are dedicated to preserving the historical artifacts with which the place is abundantly blessed. Many of the period pieces on display have been donated by local families.

The entire first floor is open to the public for viewing, while the second floor has been converted mainly to offices. Each of the upstairs rooms, which once housed lucky guests, has a balcony from which to take in the splendid views.

And what a view they have, all the way to the hills above the Crystal Springs Reservoir. Outdoors is where you’ll long to spend more time, appreciating some of the roughly 600 acres on which the mansion is set. After you admire the stunning pool with the water lilies flanked by lawns, roses and olives, you’ll want to explore the 16 acres of formal gardens, bounded by clipped hedges of boxwood, holly and laurel, as well as by artfully done rock walls and impressive rows of Irish yews, many of which were propagated on site onsite from cuttings.

Scenes from the Centennial Dinner on the back lawn of the Filoli Estate. (Image courtesy of Gretchine Nievarez/Filoli)

The gardens are a kaleidoscope of discovery, where you’ll find reflecting pools, fruitful orchards, generous garden beds with myriad flowers, many of which are used in producing wreaths, sachets and other products sold through the Filoli gift shops. Each tree, each bush, each dahlia bed seems to have an artful purpose. Be sure to look up: you never know what might be blooming above you. And be sure to do one of the docent led tours.

You might wonder where the fanciful name originated. Filoli is an acronym formed by combining the first two letters from the key words of William Bourn’s motto: “Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life.” A noble goal and good counsel to keep in these days of uncertainty, when alphabet soup nomenclature seems to signify little beyond its own self.

After William and Agnes Bourn passed away in 1936, the estate was sold to Mr. William P. Roth and Lurline Matson Roth, heiress to the Matson Navigation Company. It was the Roth’s who installed the stunning collections of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas, which appear throughout the woodland garden. They also added the serene swimming pool and screened-in teahouse at the western edge of the estate.

In 1975, Mrs. Roth donated the entire estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, along with an endowment to help in its upkeep, setting Filoli on a path to become a shared treasure for all to appreciate.

The Filoli House in all of its holiday spledor. (Image courtesy of Gretchine Nievarez/Filoli)

Holiday Events for 2017

The house is nicely decorated for the holiday season, with variously themed Christmas trees throughout. The most impressive is the natural tree at the entrance to the house, decorated with flowers and plants from the estate gardens.

An homage to the 1960’s, the brightly pink ornamented tree in the Living Room will grab your attention, while the trees in the grand ballroom reflect the dreamy murals upon the walls. The massive stone fireplace, festooned with boughs, begs for a roaring set of cedar logs to bring it roaring to life. The coatroom adjacent to the Ballroom is fully dedicated to the hunting sport, with a tree covered in equestrian-themed ornaments and foxes.

In Christmases past, the children of the late owners and their cousins remember caroling in the gaily decorated mansion on Christmas eve and then going for rides on the Connemara ponies that were kept in the equestrian stables.

Speaking of children, each Saturday through December 23, is Santa Saturday, where crafts and face painting take place in the Visitor Center, as Santa arrives, making appearances throughout the house. Mrs. Claus can be heard reading every 30 minutes in the Reception Room, while pony petting happens from 11–2pm in the Entry Courtyard. Photos with Santa are available as well.

A scene from Filoli’s “Santa Saturdays,” all month until Christmas. (Image courtesy of Gretchine Nievarez/Filoli)

Holiday Marketplace

This year, the shopping all takes place in the new Marketplace under a tent, where a variety of vendors offer a diverse selection of unique gifts, including food, jewelry, handbags made from upholstery material (Earth Sister), wreaths and table garlands, candy and coffee.

The Clock Tower Shop is packed to the rafters with Christmas decorations, including Filoli’s own snow globe, along with lotions, candles, holiday jewelry, cards, books, puzzles and all manner of giftable goodies.

Wine & Dine at the Quail’s Nest Café

Begin your visit to Filoli with breakfast or lunch at this pleasantly set in the woods café, or meet friends after shopping at the Holiday Market for a glass of wine, some coffee or dessert.

Augmenting the shopping pleasure this year is the new wine and beer service available on weekends in the Garden House Wine Bar. Check out the poinsettia display and the Christmas trees while you take in the sights.

Garden Lights, Fridays and Saturdays

On Friday and Saturday evenings from 5–9pm, head to the Sunken Garden and Walled Garden to see them dazzlingly lit with elegant white lights that bring a new dimension to the spectacle.

Holiday Teas, 3 p.m. Dec. 5, 12 and 19

What could be more perfect than a holiday afternoon tea at Filoli? Each one includes a traditional tiered tray served at each table with finger sandwiches, freshly made scones and holiday treats, along with Filoli Holiday Blend tea. Following the tea, visitors can tour the house to see how a traditional tea would have been served in the Drawing Room.

Strolling carolers singing during holiday festivities at Filoli. (Image courtesy of Gretchine Nievarez/Filoli)

Winter Solstice Celebration, 5–9 p.m. Dec. 21

This traditional winter fête marks the shortest day of the year, with a ceremonial lighting ritual and meditation. Sparkling wine and light hors d’oeuvres will be served, and all of the “Holidays at Filoli” amenities, including Garden Lights, will be open. Wine, beer and coffee will be available for purchase. Reservations suggested.

Guided Tours, Days and Evenings

Docents will lead special holiday tours of the mansion, sharing stories about the history of Filoli’s families and holidays past. The guided one-hour tours cost $5 in addition to the entrance fee.

A Filoli membership costs $56 per year, which gets you access to the estate during open hours.

Filoli’s holiday activities run through December 23rd and many are sure to sell out, so advanced registration is absolutely recommended. Please note that Filoli is closed on Mondays. Purchase tickets online here. 650–364–8300.

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