Want to visit Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle)? You don’t have to go to England. Just go to San Francisco, travel 30 miles south, and turn right into Filoli.
Strange name? It’s actually an acronym created by William Bourn, owner of the Empire Gold Mine and Spring Valley Water Company that now supplies the city water as the San Francisco Water Company. Fi stands for Fight (for a just cause), lo (love your fellow man–women were excluded because this estate’s name was created in the early 20th century, by a man), li–live the good life).
You would think that, having survived the 1906 earthquake, San Franciscans like William and Agnes would build their singular, Irish inspired estate between 1915 to 1917 in a shake free zone. However, Filoli, a 43 room Georgian influenced mansion with 17 bathrooms, was constructed 275 yards from the San Andreas Fault according to excellent tour guide Donna Mollenhauer. The Bourns, however, made it as earthquake-proof as possible so it survived the severe 1989 quake with only one cracked chimney.
My favorite story about Filoli’s history had to do with its second owners, the Roths, owners of the Matson Navigation Company, who bought Filoli in 1937. Getting ready to sign sale documents in 1975, Lurline Matson Roth was appalled to realize that Filoli would subsequently be torn down. She immediately called off the sale and, instead, donated the house and gardens to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We benefit. The estate is now about 600 acres and hiking is popular beyond the house.
And what gardens! They rival any I’ve seen, anywhere in the world. After the house tour, I couldn’t imagine anything grander until Donna took us through the gardenS. To describe them would exhaust my adjective supply, so, let me just say, 250 types of apple trees and an entire section recreating a Chartres stained-glass window.
And then there’s the house that, many times, had me thinking I was actually touring Downton Abbey, especially in the kitchen, hallways, below the Belgian marble stairs (Belgian Congo, the source), and the Reception Room, my favorite. Ruth’s was a dollhouse sized miniature (maquette) of the sumptuous ballroom that rivals, or outdoes, any palace ballroom I’ve seen in Europe. One hallway is a 148 feet long transverse tunnel that could accommodate the entire Downton Abbey cast with much space left over. Donna’s favorite is Mr. Bourn’s comfortable office which could be a Downton Abbey set without a single modification. As I stood admiring the kitchen’s enormous work table, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to have Mrs. Patmore bustle in and offer tea.
It takes a battalion+ of 1,300 volunteers like Donna to keep Filoli a 5 Compass attraction. When opened to the public from some time in February until October, flower arrangers, for example, appear every Monday to create the floral masterpieces like the one above that are seen throughout the house.
Hollywood has noticed Filoli. 12 films have been made here, the first being Heaven Can Wait. One of the J C Penney commercials on the 2013 Oscar broadcast was shot at Filoli.
Lurline provided some of the house’s current decor but what visitors mostly see is Melville Martin’s superb collection of multi-period furnishings.
I checked Highclere Castle’s visitation schedule to find that March, April, and May are sold out. There are only 3 dates available in July and 8 in September. August is currently your best shot, but surely not for long. So do yourself a big favor and save a fortune by going instead to our very own Downton Abbey–Filoli.