Back in my childhood days in
Swampscott, Massachusetts, we used to drive once in a while to Nahant,
out Cape Cod way, so I could show off my toy truck to my friend
two could run around in the back yard of the grand and mighty Atlantic
Ocean, while our parents sipped martini cocktails and, presumably,
exchanged methods and horror stories of cultivating the business
of the rich and famous old New England families living nearby. Noblesse
Oblige - the well-bred rich have an obligation to honor us in their
On drives such as this, my mother would rhapsodize over the drippingly
palatial 100-room mansions whose imposing New England outlines could
be seen even from Boston Harbor. "Cape Cod Cottages",
she would call them. I sensed she was at once embarrassed that there
could be families so much wealthier than ours that they might use
estates such as these as summer homes, and yet, proud that this
kind of genteel living existed so close to our much more modest
LIKE THEY USED TO BUILD THEM
Here in California, a number of factors preclude such grand scales
of domicile, not the least of which is time. A century ago, labor
costs to maintain acres of garden, livery and stables, hotel-size
kitchens and personal servants included room and board, transient
labor, and the possibility of a lifetime of employment for "loyal"
retainers of the family and estate. I know second-hand (from books,
and from anecdotes passed on from other generations) that many of
these employees were highly skilled artisans, craftspeople, and
managers whose organizational and peoples skills were easily on
a par with our modern-day CPA's and computer systems folks. Those
employees of old had to believe in what they were doing to visualize
and execute it so well.
Today, the cost of employment of human beings includes complex
contractual and legal considerations, benefits, scale and minimum
wage artifices, and a profit and organizational plan micromanaged
down to the gnat's behind. There is also the horrendous overhead
of administering the organizational structure itself. When someone
like Microsoft's Bill Gates buys an entire cove of prime Vancouver
waterfront property to build a modern-day palace, please note that,
even with all the Gates billions, no home in the United States may
ever again, in the style of prior centuries, be populated with an
entire village of human beings to keep it running. Modern hoteliers
evaluate staff in terms of number of rooms serviced or guests fed
per hour. It is easier and cheaper to wire and automate the residence
as an electronic house of smoke and mirrors. No doubt a grand public
relations coup, half-billion dollar "homes" like Gates'
are not meant to be lived in, but to be exhibited, advertised in
all the right magazines, and amortized down as a business expense.
We thought we'd seen this stuff before. Having heard before those
hushed, reverential tones of yet other docents as we, shod in cloth
slippers within still other National Historical Sites, glided through
room after room of hideously expensive, utterly tasteless crap,
I confess to many early, false and negative preconceptions about
our Filoli tour.
I'll say cheerfully, now, that I feel good about the tour, and
I'm glad I went. The United States preserves other, mostly private
memorializations of overwhelming scale and sheer opulence. We never
had enchanted castles along the Rhein, nor stately palaces and city-states
built upon the conquest and subjugation of entire peoples. The most
imposing stone edifices of Yankee traders and Southern aristocrats
show restraints in scale unheard of among European nobility. American
traders always saved their mightiest monuments for the marketplace.
Ruins of colossal sacrificial
temples along the Yucatan tell the purpose of life and death
in the Mayan jungle at a time when another civilization, the Roman,
flooded the Coliseum to entertain the masses with staged naval battles
employing (however temporarily) a cast of thousands of captured
500 years from now,
structures such as the TransAmerica Pyramid and the World Trade
Center will tell far more about American culture than shall Bill
"Microsoft" Gates' home, or Scotty's Castle. Private homes
are generally built to last a few generations, not centuries, and
the exceptions in America show that we generally are really much
more practical when it comes to building our work, transportation
and energy structures, which include the largest man-made objects
this globe has ever seen.
Filoli invites a wooded countryside up to its front doorstep.
This is a welcome relief, a comparatively small treasure of a preserve
against the excesses of civilization. Large though it may be by
private residential standards, Filoli does not impose itself upon
the environment. Filoli's stately gardens do not insulate from nature.
They serve as delightfully decorative markers, as on a compass rose,
master pointers to the grand natural setting which completely surrounds
For benefit of those of you who went with us, and those of you
who have been before, let's keep the Filoli vital statistics brief.
The Filoli estate was built outside Woodside, California as a "country
home" in 1915 with California gold and water money. Later,
it was occupied and improved by steamship money.
Solid brick walls of four
foot thickness enclose a two-story, 43-room dwelling with
17-feet ceiling heights on the first floor, 20-feet ceilings in
the ballroom. Within, one finds graciously distinctive thematically
furnished rooms, and a scale and style of living only approximated
in the finest older hotels. The grounds include acres of famous
cultivated gardens, hedgerows, ponds, a pool, and an ever-changing
maze of walkpaths and formal and informal resting and ceremonial
spots. Unimproved wilderness acreage extends into the nearby mountains,
and almost to the southern arm of Crystal Springs Reservoir.
Filoli was built for an estimated half a million, in 1915 dollars.
It is maintained today as a national trust, operated by a private
nonprofit foundation, Friends Of Filoli. It is easy to imagine that
annual operating costs today, financed at least in part by hefty
admissions charges and large, well-stocked and staffed garden and
gift shops, approach the original cost of construction.
Our tour guide was Sally, an animated and knowledgeable volunteer
docent who cheerfully shared the rich lore of the home, the gardens,
and the people who built and lived in this magnificence. The impression
everywhere is of an island universe of tranquility, great beauty,
and stately charm. I believe that experienced horticulturalists
might say that these gardens are not at their best in the description,
but in the seeing and enjoyment at least once in every lifetime.
It is not so much that there are beautiful rose gardens, or rhododendrons
and azaleas and exotic botanic specimens, but that there are great
and distinct collections of these, each bearing the stamp of the
persona of their designers. Trees, many predating the residential
construction, have gracefully passed the century mark. The residence
itself is, for the most part, remarkably preserved. Decorations
and furniture are often originals mixed with pieces on loan from
I kept an eye out for telltale signs of disintegration or neglect.
The wooden windows and casement trim on the southern exposure were
hopelessly deteriorated; the last opportunity to properly restore
the originals surely expired a decade ago. There were other little
signs that maintaining Filoli today requires compromise and trade-offs.
But the trade-offs are tasteful. The sense of the place is of life
and beauty, not at all of deterioration and decay. Generally, upkeep
is good to excellent. Television fans will instantly recognize some
of the interior shots from "DYNASTY".
The "life-force" of Filoli is not easy to encapsulize.
Several of us mentioned internalized comparisons of the scale of
living here, to our own hard-won and more modest accomodations.
There is this delicate tendency to envy, to realize and want to
forget just for a while that the possibility of a dream world exactly
like this is forever beyond our grasp.
There is this modern social correctness which draws contrasting
attention, in some circles, to all those unfortunates seeking work
or assistance simply to buy food, in order to eat. Then there are
the populist economic theories which hold that a generation of laborers
were forcibly held back by monied conspiracies from a life proper
to modern mankind, so that edifices such as this might be built
I do not place a great deal of stock in any such catechisms. I
insist it is right and fitting that monuments to grace and beauty
exist in isolation from the strife and clamor of any generation's
workaday world, provided that they are not built or maintained by
coercion or servitude. There is little to primly moralize about
here. I saw and heard no evidence of any social or financial scandal
greater than that expected when any owner of great wealth should
choose to invest part of it in an inspirational dream home, rather
than in another factory or dam or gold mine. I am content with my
"lot", which is a treasure all the same to me, just as
Filoli was to its builders.
THE WEALTH OF NATIONS
I once heard a statistic that, if all the millionaires in the
world were divested of property and fortune, and this was apportioned
out to we teeming hordes as a whole, that would work out to about
$5 for every man, woman and child in the world. Even if the figure
today is more, it seems self-evident that, in the chaos which inevitably
would follow such divestiture, a few smart people would scrabble
to figure out how to feed, clothe and house our billions. I would
hope that, once in a while, something like Filoli would again coalesce
from all that new money to remind us that, on whatever scale of
living is open to us, life is and should be beautiful.
THE QUESTION OF THE DAY
IF I had "all that money", would I personally build
something like Filoli? Well I'd probably be wired for sound, video
and digital, too, because, let's face it, if it was my money, we'd
do it my way ... but, really, would we do it? In a flash, without
hestitation, yes, you bet, we'd do it.
In 500 years, presumably,
much of Filoli's structure would still stand, if not torn down for
other development. If allowed to revert to the wild, enough of the
landscaping or terracing would endure to remind future archaeologists
that those people who built the skyscrapers to the north also at
least appreciated, and possibly worshipped, life in a natural setting.
If life's the celebration I think it is, the architecture should
copyright ©June 1, 1996 by Alex Forbes
and La Parola