A Visit To The California Estate Of Filoli, Complete With Family Dreams Of Wendover


Filoli mansion

Last weekend, I visited Filoli, a Northern Californian turn-of-last-century estate. Well-known, much-visited, somehow I’d never made the trip. A reader of this blog was living temporarily on the Peninsula. We’d chatted about local things to do, and before she left she was kind enough to suggest, “How about Filoli, together?”

It’s pronounced Figh-Low-Lee, by the way, after the first words in original owner William Bowers Bourn’s motto, “Fight, Love, Live.” Built in 1917, sited on 654 acres, now part of a land trust, it’s a wonderful, wonderful place. We started in the kitchen. Resurfacing my love for glass-fronted cabinets.

Kitchen-at-Filoli

To say nothing of crystal sconces, in the hallway. Are they ever a bad idea?

Crystal-Sconce-at-Filoli

You can see more of the interiors here. But the ballroom sent me into a fugue state of sorts.

Filoli-Ballroom

I stood looking at the murals, the gilt, and the parquet floors, for a few minutes, seeing but not seeing. Then I turned and exclaimed to my companion, “Ah, I used to have recurrent dreams!”

Why? The photo below is where my father lived, decades ago, in the summertime. Called Wendover, the house was built in 1905 by my great grandfather, Walter P. Bliss, for his wife Katharine Bliss née Baldwin. Katharine, who went by B. in the High WASP nickname tradition, remained there after Walter died. One of her daughters, Sibyll Carnochan née Bliss, eventually returned to live at Wendover as well, along with her husband, Gouverneur Morris Carnochan, and my father.

It was a big place.
Wendover Estate

I told my tolerant companion that several years back I had a series of dreams in which I was walking through a mansion. Up three flights of a long mahogany staircase, to a ballroom. High-ceilinged, gilt, parquet-floored, gorgeous. But the first few steps are dangerous. The room starts to shake. The visitor turns in a circle, trying to see everything before the collapse, no use, the house is falling down.

Whether I actually ever saw a ballroom at Wendover is unclear. My father says that one existed, but was unused even during his years, except to host another Bliss daughter’s wedding. I was 9 or 10 when the estate was sold. But, as my companion pointed out, I live in earthquake country, I dream of past family holdings, well, things don’t get much more explicit.

My father wrote a memoir, here, with a far more coherent, real-life narrative. I only dreamed it.

Let’s return to Filoli. The house integrates beautifully into its surroundings. From side entries,

Side-Door-at-Filoli

to wrought iron gates, farther afield. Serious geometry, recreational curves.

A-Gate-at-Filoli

The courtyard flower beds extend the theme of lavish restraint.

Bed-at-Filoli-in-May

Up close, Filoli’s gardens are lush, colorful, profuse. From the containers,

Filoli-Pansies

to the beds,

Foxgloves-at-Filoli

Columbines-at-Filoli

to the ponds. A pansy fell onto a lilypad, evidently.

Filoli's-Water-Lilies

My favorite part of Filoli’s gardens is the long views.

An-Almost-Bare-Tree-at-Filoli

I do remember Wendover’s pool, and the lawn. We must gone to swim, one day in my childhood. These clouds hovered over Filoli.

Clouds-Above-The-Filoli-Swimming-Pool

The vista. Not the place itself, but what you can see from there. Which is sort of how I feel about wealth, or aspire to feel. Were I to rename this blog, I’d call it Sightlines.

If you come to Silicon Valley, or San Francisco, or even the California coast, do visit. There’s a cafe where you can eat lunch or have cake, and the live peacock may display its tail. We’ll leave the resonant imagery at that.

 

Credit for image at top to David McSpadden, on Flickr. Do we find the affiliate link to my father’s book ironic, or fitting? George P. Bliss, the founder of the Bliss fortune, made his first money in dry goods, after all.

Correction: It was Sibyll Bliss Carnochan who was sometimes called B. In the ways of High WASPs, even we get mixed up.

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34 Comments

  • We need an affordable reprint of your father’s very favorably reviewed memoir! I want to read it. I love it that the name he goes by is Bliss–I can’t think of many better names.

    05/28/15
    9:36 am
    Lisa said...

    @Susan, I like that we call him “Bliss” too. Everyone does:). And maybe I can persuade him to have the memoir reprinted. I will surely try.

    05/28/15
    9:58 am
    Mary Anne said...

    @Susan, count me in s well

    05/28/15
    10:17 am
    Susan said...

    @Susan, Yes, PLEASE persuade him that he has a waiting readership out here.

  • Isn’t it such a marvelous place to visit, especially the gardens, and especially in the spring. Your photos capture the beauty so well.

    I was just down the road this past weekend myself, and recognized the low-hanging clouds from your final image. When are we going to see blue skies again?

    05/28/15
    9:37 am
    Lisa said...

    @Chronica Domus, Thank you! And it is marvelous. Of course, the fog is a good thing in this time of drought, albeit not so fun. Here on the Peninsula we’re seeing blue skies in the afternoons, but I could imagine that in SF the gray is not receding.

  • If you had visited during tulip/daffodil season, I don’t think you would have used “restraint” in reference to the flower beds.

    I have only begun visiting again recently (our membership inspired by the summer jazz series), and I prefer the gardens to the house, although I was fascinated by the kitchen (and did you see the room that stores the tableware aka silver). I resented, decades ago, the inability to bring children, as I had a young son who loved flowers, and somehow that kept me away. (That restriction is no longer the case, which is obvious on the weekends.)

    Very interesting, the family memories that your visit inspired.

  • My “thank you” got cut off above.

    Oh, and I want to mention a 4th grade field trip to the wilder parts of the land, which occurred during newt mating season. That was of great interest to 10-year-olds! I do wish we could wander the trails without a docent so I could visit Filoli and get a hike in at the same time.

    05/28/15
    9:44 am
    Lisa said...

    @Cathy, Newt mating! The things that really stick with us;). I understand that the daffodil meadow is quite a sight. The restraint I refer to is around the sharp angles of the beds, and the single flower type plantings – I am absolutely going back over and over again to see the gardens over the years. I am glad you find the family memories interesting – I hesitate these days to post them, and then always remember that there’s a wonderful supportive contingent here, so I go ahead.

  • Hello Lisa, Filoli must be part of a collective memory, because it seems very familiar to me also–I am sure I have seen something filmed there, or perhaps read an article. (I just checked and found that it is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so I must have read about it in their publications.)

    About your family estate of Wendover, I grew up near a street called Wendover in Beachwood, Ohio. It is shown on maps from the 1920’s, but oddly was not developed until the 1960’s.
    –Jim

    05/28/15
    9:45 am
    Lisa said...

    @Parnassus, Wendover seems to have come from England, as so much of what the pre-World War gentry took for “fancy” would. And I like the points of shared familiarity very much, and find them reassuring. Thank you.

  • What a timely post! We’re headed up the coast next week and will definitely include a visit on the way into the city or home.

    05/28/15
    6:02 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Leslie, Enjoy! It’s right off 280, you know, the Edgewood exit.

  • Gorgeous place. Wonderful gardens. Isn’t Filoli where the old soap opera , Dynasty, was filmed?

    05/28/15
    6:04 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Mary Anne, So says Wikipedia, not filmed there altogether, but the source of the flyover opening credits! Who knew?

  • I love the name Bliss! I hope it’s carried on through the ages. Suits male or female equally well.

    Thank you for the link to http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com – I will be spending the rest of the week there!

    05/28/15
    6:04 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Patsy, You’re welcome. And one of the grandchildren has it as a middle name, maybe the next generation will use it as a first name?

  • Looks like a lovely day! Those gardens! I am definitely adding this to my California bucket list. I think it’s interesting about your dream. I tend to be a very literal dreamer myself, although I’m sometimes not aware of the obviousness of the symbolism until days or even weeks later. Thanks for sharing this along with a glimpse into your family’s past.

    05/28/15
    6:05 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Town and Country House, You’re very welcome. I think you’d love Filoli, right up your alley.

  • Away from home with only my phone to read on and comment from, so I’ll be short. But this is a marvellous post, one I’ll come back to. The recurrent dream, the ballroom, the gardens, the vista… Perhaps we’ll get out to Filoli, next visit to SF. And Sue will fly up and we’ll have a splendid day of it…a girl can dream…

    05/28/15
    6:06 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Frances/Materfamilias, The three of us would have a spectacular time – and the photo ops;).

  • What a magnificent mansion and gardens. Thank you so much for sharing the beauty indoors and out. Loved the pansies and foxglove, too!

    05/29/15
    8:40 am
    Lisa said...

    @Candace, My pleasure. And it was sheer dumb luck that the pansies and foxgloves were there when I showed up:).

  • Filoli is one of my favorite spots – year round. The jazz series is fun for a nice relaxing afternoon summer Sunday. I found the docent led hikes to be interesting too.

    In addition to the facade being used to film Dynasty, the estate was also used to film portions of the movie, Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty. And, more recently, The Wedding Planner (I think that was the name). Those are the only ones I know but wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.

    Enjoyed this whole post – thank you!

    05/29/15
    8:41 am
    Lisa said...

    @Colleen, My pleasure. Thank you for the additional info on where it shows up in entertainment. Next time I’d love to try a docent hike – especially if they bring you to vistas.

  • I will add Filoli to my shortlist for the next time I am in SF. And add me to the list of those who would love to read your father’s memoir! It sounds wonderful.

    05/29/15
    8:42 am
    Lisa said...

    @Jane, Thanks. Turns out that there’s no easy way to reprint the memoir. Apparently an electronic manuscript doesn’t exist…

  • Will definitely visit the next time we’re up there, and I would also love to read your father’s memoir.

    05/29/15
    8:45 am
    Lisa said...

    @kathy, <3. I am not sure if there will ever be a way to read it other than shelling out $50 for a used copy, as I just did, having lost the original one he gave me.

  • There is always the magic of scanning and OCR.

    05/29/15
    1:12 pm
    Lisa said...

    I’ve been thinking about that…

  • I found a copy of Bliss Carnochan’s memoir for $20.00, which is probably what a reprint would cost. Those of you interested, keep looking–there are a lot of sellers out there. Amazon is not the only source. I look forward to reading it!

    05/29/15
    3:10 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Susan, Thank you for your interest, for searching, for persisting, and then for returning to tell us.

  • Two breathtaking houses, and what stories each must contain!

    05/29/15
    3:12 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Duchesse, Yes. My father’s family house having burned to the ground, all the stories that remain are ephemera – documents and photos not yet electronically archived. So I take what stories I can from my dad.

  • “Filoli…after original owner William Bowers Bourn’s motto, ‘Fight, Love, Live.'”

    From your link:

    “Mr. Bourn arrived at the unusual name Filoli by combining the first two letters from the key words of his credo: ‘FIght for a just cause; LOve your fellow man; LIve a good life.’”

    05/29/15
    5:17 pm
    Lisa said...

    You are right. I did not specify The First Words Of His Motto. I forgot. My apologies.

  • Filoli holds sucj happy memories for me. I would go there with my grandaughter when she was a toddler. My husband would take photos of her reaching for a tulip. We spent many happy weekends wondering around the beautiful estate, Love it when the tulips bloom.

    Bliss Carnachan? Is there a better name? I must search for his book. Wendover? Breathtaking. Must be so many stories in that home.

    05/30/15
    9:44 am
    Lisa said...

    A great place for toddlers and photos thereof:). I hope you enjoy the memoir – it goes beyond Wendover to Harvard and early days at Stanford, etc. A portrayal of an era and the privileged class making choices. My father was Don Draper’s age, approximately. Maybe that’s one of the reasons MadMen made me so mad…

  • Just purchased his memoir!

  • I just ordered the memoir and am eager to receive it and start reading :-)

    05/30/15
    9:44 am
    Lisa said...

    :)

  • I’ll add that to my places to go when visiting the Bay Area. I’m always up for a visit to the Golden Gate, but it’s good to have something new to do. Too bad they don’t have an Instagram feed. Museums and gardens are one of my favorite things to have scrolling across my IG feed.

    05/30/15
    9:45 am
    Lisa said...

    Ah, you’re right, they’d be an Instastar!

  • Absolutely beautiful.

    Fresno has Kearney Mansion, which is really just a farmhouse out in the fields west of Fresno, but it has not been maintained in the manner it was originally imagined by its creator, M. Theo Kearney.

    He had planned to build a 100 room castle for his own abode but died, on a cruise ship, returning to Europe to purchase more furnishings for the castle. The excavation was halted and the castle never built. Sigh.

    05/30/15
    9:45 am
    Lisa said...

    Oh fascinating. It would be kind of cool to take a California tour of the mansions – including Hearst Castle, of course.

  • Beautiful! Just what I needed to see and read about on a dreary day in Sydney.

    Much love

    SSG xxx

    06/02/15
    12:54 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Sydney Shop Girl, Happy to oblige!

  • Looks like a beautiful spot to explore…would love to read that book of Bliss’s about Wendover and your family history.

    06/02/15
    12:55 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Bungalow Hostess, I bought a copy.:).

  • I love touring old mansions, better yet, with a friend. Which reminds me, it’s time for a tour of Old Westbury Gardens.

    06/02/15
    12:55 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Mamavalveeta03, So much better with an appreciative friend.

  • Beautiful! Thanks for the tour. It is just what we need on this second day of rain and cold.

    06/02/15
    12:56 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Linda, My pleasure. We’ve been having gray skies too, quite unusual this close to actual summer.

  • Lisa…Put me on the list for your father’s memoir as well! I would love to read it. My mother-in-law is the storyteller in our family and she was of the era, we often say she should write a book. Names and estates long forgotten but WOW…are there stories to tell. We are all flying in to SF to celebrate her 85th next week. She is still going strong. Thank you for the glimpse into this beautiful property. I love how you tied the story into your own. My only experience with CA is the few occasions I had to visit my husbands grandmother in La Jolla. Next time you are visiting my blog, scroll down the sidebar to Si Petite. Days gone by…

  • They dress the whole house up for Chistmas and transform it into a boutique. I usually hate shopping, but for the one day I go to Fioli’a Holiday Traditions function. Not to be missed!

  • To equate vista with wealth is genius. Have to think about that. I also love sightlines.

  • Earlier this week, I ordered the memoir from a second vendor and again, after being informed that my order had been shipped, the vendor turned around and said that my order was being refunded as they could not fill the order. So frustrating but I guess the book is not available any longer :(

  • Me again. I received the book in the mail! So excited and eager to read it.

  • I grew up on Bliss Road in the early 1960s. Our property was next door to Wendover. My brothers and I used to play inside the vacanandansion. We found many hidden passages and a secret door built into the china cabinets that lined the enormous ballroom wall. A spirel staircase led up to one of the master bedrooms. There was little furniture left in the place. A few beds on the second floor. And a couple of beds and dressers in the servants quarters on the third floor. The huge kitchen was in the basement and there were 4 gigantic cast-iron stoves, many sinks and cupboards. From the west portico one could see the mountains of Pennsylvania 50 miles away. It was truly a grand house in every respect. I believe Mrs Bliss died around 1961. The picture on this site is not of Wendover. And the ballroom was on the first floor. My parents also became friends with Jerry Volpe and Mr. Shandley, the principle developers of Roxiticus Golf Club. We were friends and schoolmates with the Volpe children. Our neighbor and friend Mr. Davidson owned the estate across the street and at the corner of Bliss Road and Bernardsville road.

  • Lisa,

    My Father was a charter member of Roxiticus G. C. He joined the club in ’67. He also worked alongside Bern Shanley from ’67 to ’87 as club treasurer to – 1) develop the club’s membership and, 2) save it from bankruptcy.

    In researching the history of the club, I understand your Dad was part owner of Beech Tree Properties – the company syndicate founded by Jerry Volpe to create the golf course and the country club. Other shareholders in the syndicate included Priscilla & Bill Mallory (your Dad’s aunt & uncle), Hal Purdy (golf architect), James Bouton (Yankee Pitcher), Ralph Terry (Yankee Pitcher), Alfred Luciano (course excavator), Keith Family (Jerry’s sister’s family), Peter Debell (friend of Dr. Keith), Roy Johnson (employee of JC Penny, Peter Lussani (owner of Casa Lussani Italian Restaurant in Columbia, NJ) and Archie Barbara. I’d like to know more about these people and their relationship to Jerry Volpe. Per chance, is your Dad still alive? Might he be willing to correspond and/or talk to me?

    I have tons more I can say…like, I spent a summer working for Priscilla Bliss & Bill Mallory on Wendover Farm. I have pictures taken by my Father of the old mansion the night it went up in smoke, etc.

    I hope to hear back from you.

    I share your sentiments of Filoli, by the way.

    Kindest Regards,

    Art