Deep in the heart of Silicon Valley--past the manicured office parks of the venture capitalists, past the gated estates of the Internet zillionaires, past the packs of trendy mountain bikers with their obnoxious spandexed butts (yeah, we know you're in shape, now go away)--lies a deliciously low-tech attraction. Filoli, a turn-of-the-century country house half an hour's drive south of San Francisco, is literally a world apart. Okay, not literally. But that's how you feel when you walk into this Georgian Revival mansion--like you've just been dropped into a Merchant-Ivory film, suddenly awash in gentility and good taste. A couple of hours here and you'll forget all about Internet bucks. The guy who built this place made his money the really old-fashioned way--he owned a gold mine.
That would be William Bourn II, who in 1915 hired architect Willis Polk to design a country retreat for himself and his wife in this gorgeous setting overlooking the Coast Range. Polk obviously had quite a time, borrowing ideas from the classic manor houses of Europe, especially from Bourn's beloved Ireland. But the mansion's Spanish tile roof is pure California.
Filoli, now a National Trust property, is one of California's few remaining country estates still in its original setting--and one of the best examples of country estate architecture anywhere. But you don't have to be an architecture snob to appreciate it. As usual when visiting this sort of place, it's fun just to snoop around the lives of the very rich, even as you shudder at some of their excesses. The "men's lounge" must have been a nice place for the guys to hang out after dinner, but did the designer really have to inlay those little wooden bow ties in the parquet floor? And perhaps that 18-foot, 12-panel antique Chinese screen in the reception room is just a bit much. On the other hand--doesn't every kitchen need a small walk-in safe so there's someplace to stash the silver?
That kitchen, no surprise, is lust-inducing, with an 18-foot vaulted ceiling, acres of built-in cabinetry and a smaller, separate room just for making pastry. The enormous range was originally designed for a ship and comes complete with a grab bar--something for the chef to hold onto during rough seas.
About that name--Filoli. No, it's not Italian--it comes from the first syllables of Bourn's three-word credo, "Fight, Love, Live." But if his choice of house names was quirky, his tastes were classic, as quickly becomes apparent when you wander around. The library is lovely--paneled and dark and redolent with the great smell of old books. Fireplaces are Italian marble, rugs are priceless Orientals, floors are intricate parquets. The enormous ballroom (of course there's a ballroom), painted an ethereal blue-green with gilt trim and lined with hand-painted murals, conjures all kinds of fairy-tale scenes. Sigh. Did people ever really live like this? Did they deserve to?
Social class issues aside, the real beauty of Filoli is outside, in the enclosed gardens. The 16-acre spread was designed as a series of "outdoor rooms," each with a distinct theme and each lovelier than the other as you wander through. As you leave the house, huge yews frame a view of the hills--you feel like you're in Tuscany. Stroll through the Walled Garden, the Woodland Garden and the Knot Garden, where flowers of yellow, lavender and crimson form intricate designs, and follow the Yew Allee to the spot known as the High Place, for a final glorious view of the gardens, house and fields beyond. The Internet seems a world away.
Filoli (86 Canada Rd., Woodside, Calif., 650-364-8300, www.filoli.org) is open from mid-February until early November, Tuesdays through Saturdays. From San Francisco, take Route 101 south to Route 280 to the Edgewood Road exit; go west about 200 yards and turn right on Canada Road, and Filoli is 1 1/4 miles on the left. Admission is $10. Both docent-led and self-guided tours of the house and formal gardens are offered; guided hikes of the 620 acres of undeveloped grounds also are available by appointment. There's also a cafe, and a garden shop with plants, garden supplies, prints, books and housewares. Picnicking is not allowed on the grounds, but the staff can provide you with a list of nearby parks.