Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bourn Cottage & Garden

This is the third and final post in a series about the California Preservation Foundation conference in Grass Valley and Nevada City that took place May 12 – 15. The finale of the conference for me was the last stop on a tour of Historic Foothill Estates – the Bourn Cottage and Garden, built in 1878-79. The cottage which some might call a mansion was designed by San Francisco architect Willis Polk for the Bourn family and is now part of an 800 acre State Park that includes the Empire Mine.

The Empire Mine was one of the oldest, largest and richest mines in California. It was in operation for 107 years and produced $960 million worth of gold, making William Bourn one of the wealthiest men of his time. Bay Area natives may be familiar with that name and associate it with “Filoli”, another of the Bourn family estates located in San Mateo County. Or their country home “Madrono” in St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Bourn was also associated with the Imperial Silver Mine of Virginia City and Hidden Treasure mine in Nevada according to Charles C. Steinfeld in his book, “The Bourn Dynasty”. Left: Me standing at a mine building entry stairs with bouldar capped rail.

Grass Valley is in the foothills – a part of California that gets pretty hot in summer and fall, so walking from the gravel parking lot, through the massive stone walls, and then seeing the expansive view of a lush lawn surrounded by tall coniferous trees, pink dogwood, beds of flowering plants including 8” diameter white peonies, pink and yellow Exbury azaleas, pink bleeding heart, and a bounty of salmon color climbing roses truly gave the impression of an oasis. Fortunately, we were able to wander along the brick pathways without the constant noise of the mine stamp machine in the background, that apparently ran 24 hours a day 365 days of the year, while the mine was in operation.

At the front of the cottage there are a symmetrical pair of low, circular pools and each has a gentle umbrella-shaped fountain that moistens and cools the air and injects a soft sound as droplets fall into the pool. These are set in a level lawn that is surrounded by a stone and ornamental iron wall. Steps lead down from the level of the lawn through brick terraces to a dark, rectangular pool planted with yellow flag iris. From there, a narrow cascade steps down brick steps to a long, rectangular reflecting pool set perpendicular to the cascade. The steps are lined with trimmed star jasmine and four, very tall Italian cypress anchor the corners of a lawn above the lower pool.

From the house and upper lawn the cascade and lower pool are not seen at all. It is not until you start down the steps that you discover this part of this formal garden – a common gesture to reveal and surprise and thus enhance one’s experience. Well, it worked for me.

One of the other features of the garden is a brick, stone and metal trellis structure that steps down a slope and is covered in small, lightly-fragrant, salmon-colored roses. There are terraced beds of roses and perennials to the sides as one walks under the roses. It is know that Agnus Bourn, wife of William Bourn Jr., enjoyed gardening and worked with Miss Isabella Worn, a gardener and floral decorator. Docents at the Bourn cottage suggested that Miss Worn likely helped design of the cottage garden.


  1. This looks like an amazing place. I write historical fiction and am looking for estates in California for a new book and this cottage is amazing. Love the post.

    1. Stephanie,

      I'm flattered that a "real" writing enjoyed my post. The Bourne Cottage would make a fabulous setting for your writing - the grounds are gorgeous and the property has a fascinating history. Thanks for the comment


  2. Stephanie,

    I am flattered that a "real" writer enjoyed my post. The Bourne Cottage would provide an ideal setting for your writing. The grounds are beautiful and the history is fascinating. Thanks for the comment.