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Impressions of Filoli

Man's reach must exceed his grasp, ere what's a heaven for? - Milton


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 Rusty.

We 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 conduct.

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 neighborhood.


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 slaves.

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 it.

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 other museums.

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 at all.

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.


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.


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 definitely match.

copyright ©June 1, 1996 by Alex Forbes and La Parola



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