Filoli’s Irish Connection

The Bourns and Filoli

After the great earthquake in 1906, wealthy San Francisco families moved to the Peninsula and built large expensive homes. From 1908, until the Bourns moved to Filoli in 1917, they rented “Ski Farm” (named after a man with the surname Poniatowski, but over time became known as “Sky Farm”) on the Crocker property, adjacent to Crystal Springs Lake in San Mateo. During this time, Bourn often took his family to Europe and while on an Atlantic crossing in 1906, his daughter Maud met Arthur Rose Vincent of Summerhill, Cloonlara in County Clare, Ireland.

Maud and Arthur Rose Vincent were married March 30, 1910, at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in San Mateo, followed by the wedding reception at Sky Farm. The couple spent two weeks of their honeymoon in California (part of it at the Empire Cottage), and then embarked on a three-month tour of Europe and Egypt. As an assistant judge for the British Foreign Office, Arthur was to be stationed in Zanzibar, however with the encouragement of Maud and the Bourns, he resigned his post during this time. In November 1910, Bourn purchased Muckross House and its surrounding 11,000 acres on the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry, Ireland for their daughter and new son-in-law. Bourn immediately began plans for developing the gardens at Muckross and continued to be involved in the property’s maintenance and upkeep. The Bourns were frequent visitors to Muckross and became enamored with the beautiful Irish country setting.

Because of its similarity to the country setting of Muckross, the Bourns wanted to have an estate built along Crystal Springs Lake, on land owned by the Spring Valley Water Company. Even though Bourn was the president of the company, a law forbade private ownership of the public domain property that supplied water to the city of San Francisco. So the Bourns commissioned their attorney to find land available for purchase as close as possible to the lake.

Mr. William Bowers Bourn II at Filoli during construction, 1917.

In 1915 Bourn purchased 1,800 acres at the southern end of Crystal Springs Lake from E. A. Husing of San Mateo. The property fronted a line which is today Cañada Road and extended west to the top of the mountain ridge along Skyline Boulevard. The Bourn family retained 715 acres of this land from the easternmost creek to the top of the mountain for their estate, and sold the remaining acreage to the Spring Valley Water Company. Cañada Road at that time ran through the estate’s property, so the Bourns obtained permission to move the road to the east of the property where it is today.

Mr. Bourn chose the name “Filoli” for their country estate from the first two letters of the words: FIGHT – LOVE – LIVE. The origin and meaning of the name was a mystery that tantalized their friends for a long time. It was their fancy that it remain so, but Bourn’s right-hand man, Sam Eastman, president of the Spring Valley Water Company, finally found the solution. FI – LO – LI, Fight, Love, Live. “To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life” was a credo that Bourn believed in.

Willis Polk was asked to be the architect of the country estate. The construction of the house began in 1915 and the Bourns took occupancy in the fall of 1917 before the House was completed. Mr. Bourn always referred to this as “a home for Mrs. Bourn.”

Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn II at Filoli (last known photo).

In August of 1921 William Bourn had a severe stroke while at the Empire Mine. In October, 1922 he had another paralyzing stroke, also at the Empire Mine, and from this time on he was confined to a wheelchair. Bourn was a proud man and disliked having anyone see him in a wheelchair, so the gardeners were instructed to stay out of his sight when he was wheeled through the Filoli garden. He enjoyed being taken to the High Place at the top of the Yew Allée where he would have the best view of Crystal Springs Lake. A series of nature trails were developed on the property to the south, which Mr. Bourn frequented. They still exist today.

In 1922 Mrs. Bourn founded the Hillsborough Garden Club, which became a member of the Garden Club of America in 1929. She often held an open house for her friends for tea any afternoon they wished to join her at Filoli. Tea was served in the Reception Room during cool weather and on the Dining Room Terrace in warm weather.

In 1924 Bourn built a Spanish style house designed by George Washington Smith in Pebble Beach on the 17-Mile Drive for his daughter Maud Vincent. “Asilo” was the name given to that house. Smith is best known for his work in Santa Barbara where he designed several Spanish revival style buildings.

maud-rosie-bournMaude Bourn Vincent with daughter Elizabeth Rose Vincent (Rosie).

On February 12, 1929, following an Atlantic crossing en route to California with her two children to visit her ailing father, Maud Vincent died in New York City of pneumonia. Her body was brought across country by train to Filoli and she was buried in a cemetery created on top of a small knoll to the west overlooking the House and valley. At the time the gravesite was chosen, the view to the lake was clear and the hillside was bare of the many oaks and madrones that cover it today.

After the death of his daughter, Mr. Bourn gradually retired from the business world. The Empire Mine was sold to the Newmont Mining Corporation, and a year later the Spring Valley Water Company was sold to the City of San Francisco.

In 1932, finding the management and expense of the Muckross estate too difficult and too expensive, the Bourns and their son-in-law, Arthur Vincent, presented Muckross House and the surrounding 11,000 acres of land to the Irish Nation as a memorial to Maud Bourn Vincent. The estate became the first national park in Ireland. Visited by thousands of tourists each year, the house and surrounding gardens are known as the Bourn-Vincent Memorial Park and the estate is known as the Killarney National Park.

Mrs. Bourn was taken ill in 1932 with diabetes and was confined to her bedroom at the north end of the house. Parties and balls, hosted by Mr. Bourn’s sisters, continued to be held at Filoli for the Bourns’ friends, even though neither Bourn attended.

November 24, 1933 was the last dinner party given by the Bourns at Filoli. “The Drunks Dinner” was to celebrate the repeal of the 18th Amendment, with Mr. Bourn’s sister, Ida, acting as hostess. The Bourns remained in their rooms upstairs.

Mrs. Bourn died at Filoli on January 3, 1936 at the age of 75 and six months later, on July 5, William Bowers Bourn II died at Filoli at age 79. Both Agnes and William Bourn were buried in the cemetery on the knoll overlooking the House and valley, with Maud and their infant son, whose grave had been moved to the site. In 1981 their granddaughter Elizabeth Rose was buried in the family plot. The Bourn family still owns the five-acre burial plot. A copy of a Celtic cross at Muckross Abbey stands on the knoll with the words “Fight, Live and Live” carved on its base. The first “live” was undoubtedly a mistake.