Exploring the Power and Privilege of Water at Filoli
While the San Francisco Bay Area was originally financed by gold, it also boasts an even more valuable resource: California’s blue gold—water.
A new exhibition at Filoli, a National Trust site located in the Bay Area, connects the region’s water history with the hope for a sustainable future. In "Blue Gold: The Power and Privilege of Water," which runs until November 7, 2022, visitors explore this important resource throughout Filoli’s Gilded Age mansion,16-acre English Renaissance-style garden, and expansive natural lands.
Filoli is located on the ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone people, and that is where Blue Gold begins, highlighting the water story of the area as it evolved from a watershed valley dotted with creekside Ohlone villages to a reservoir supplying water to the post-Gold Rush population of San Francisco.
Controlling water was a path to power and wealth for the elite families who lived at the Filoli estate from 1917 to 1975. First owner William Bourn’s Spring Valley Water Company monopolized San Francisco’s water supply for decades, building many reservoirs that Bay Area residents still rely on. The Roth family, who moved into the estate in 1937, owed their fortune to the Matson Navigation Company, which pioneered shipping container technologies and contributed to the transformation of port cities and global trade.
Today, water is more precious than ever in drought-stricken California, and clean water is a privilege some are still denied. Filoli’s exhibit seeks to engage visitors through storytelling and interactive activities, encouraging them to consider the role of water in their own lives—something Filoli is prioritizing as they look to the future of the property.
Turning Water Into Gold
“Water in San Francisco costs more than bread, more than light.”Economist Henry George, 1879
In the wake of the Gold Rush, San Francisco’s population exploded, but the water in its streams and wells was scarce and mixed with saltwater. Street vendors sold fresh water from wooden barrels on mule-drawn carts, and customers often had to carry buckets home up steep hills. In dry times, buckets of water sold for a gold dollar each—about $300 today.
Lack of water was the growing city’s biggest resource problem, but there was not enough tax money or equipment to run public utilities. In the 1850s, private companies like the Spring Valley Water Company stepped in to fill the void. They acquired more land by forcing the sale of private property at low prices for “public use”—flexing the power of eminent domain usually only reserved for the government. The rich owners got richer by setting water prices to maximize profit.
William Bourn became the president of Spring Valley Water Company in 1908, buying up its suffering stock after equipment failures during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. While he owned the company, debate raged about the fairness of its water prices. San Francisco residents paid 24 cents per 1000 gallons, while Los Angeles residents paid only 10 cents for the same amount of city-owned water.
The city moved to build a huge new reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley near Yosemite, hoping to circumvent Spring Valley’s monopoly and transport water 160 miles to quench the city’s growing thirst. Newspapers of the time documented the public conversation about the future of the Bay Area’s water supply, featuring caricature illustrations that sometimes resembled William Bourn.
Eventually, San Francisco would buy Spring Valley and its infrastructure for $41 million in 1930, over a billion dollars in today’s money. Bourn, the majority shareholder, died shortly after the first water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir officially flowed to the Bay Area in 1934, which was marked by the Pulgas Water Temple down the street from Filoli.
A Fortune from Shipping
The Roth family purchased Filoli in 1937 after William and Agnes Bourn passed away. Lurline Roth was the daughter of Captain William Matson, who founded the Matson Navigation Company in 1882, and her husband, Bill Roth, eventually became the company’s president. Matson’s fleet of ships sailed the Pacific Ocean trade route from California to Hawaii, carrying goods—and later wealthy passengers—to the islands.
In the 1950s, during Bill Roth’s time as Board chairman, the Matson Navigation Company pioneered the use of containers to transport goods across the Pacific Ocean. These big steel boxes required less loading time and enabled complex international supply chains; their standard size made them easy to crane from ship to train to truck. By the 1980s, around 90 percent of manufactured goods worldwide were transported via containers. The efficiency of container shipping, however, conceals a devastating environmental cost. Just one mega ship can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars.
The Privilege of Water
Designed by architect Willis Polk, the Filoli House took three years to construct and cost $425,000 (more than $10 million in 2022 currency). At 54,256 square feet, it features 56 rooms in total—including an entire wing for the many staff members who cared for the estate and lived on site.
At the turn of the century, many San Francisco households only had one full bathroom. Filoli has 15! While indoor plumbing was first developed in the 1840s, it remained a luxury when the Bourns built Filoli. Even today, almost 15,000 San Francisco families live in substandard homes without proper plumbing— the highest percentage of the population in any U.S. city. Renters and people of color are more likely to be affected.
Outside, Filoli’s Garden features lush lawns, a common sight at many early-1900s estates on the San Francisco Peninsula. They were a status symbol for the elite, given the amount of water and care they required to thrive in California’s climate.
The 8,000-gallon Sunken Garden pond was also meant to impress. Water can transform a garden space—drawing birds and bees to the fresh water and filling the air with the sounds of a fountain. However, when the Bourns designed Filoli, this water feature also made a statement about the family’s wealth. In 1914, William Bourn’s Spring Valley Water Company charged San Franciscans a monthly rate of a half-cent per square yard to irrigate a private garden. If the Bourns paid the same rate for Filoli’s 16 acres, the monthly bill would have been $387—more than $10,000 in today’s money.
Sustainable Garden Makeover
Today, Filoli is preserving its garden with the challenges of water in mind.
When creating this Garden a century ago, Agnes and William Bourn were inspired by classic English plantings—not necessarily ones that thrive in California’s climate. Some of their plant choices were drought-tolerant, but most were not. In the current climate, trying to plant a garden like Filoli’s would be too water-intensive, while Filoli’s historic plants don’t require as much irrigation since their roots are already established
“With water usage and conservation on the minds of many California visitors and locals alike, one of our frequently asked questions has become ‘What is Filoli doing about the drought?’” says Jim Salyards, Filoli’s director of horticulture. “As we look to the future of sustainable gardening at Filoli, we consider climates from around the globe, including our own California native plants.”
The centerpiece Sunken Garden now displays succulents, salvias, and South African restio grasses—drought-tolerant choices that are more appropriate for California’s Mediterranean climate. The many colors and textures of these low-water plants create a new vibrancy for the space.
“Filoli visitors will see that you don’t have to compromise beauty to use water-conscious plants,” says Salyards. “We hope our visitors will be inspired and excited to do the same in their own homes and gardens.”
The changing climate and landscape is one that any Californian can relate to, and our most valuable resource is at the heart of it. The "Blue Gold" exhibition is one for the past, present, and future that Filoli is eager to share with the Bay Area and beyond.
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