In the mid-19th century a private company, the Spring Valley Water Company (SVWC), owned much of the Alameda Creek Watershed and had held a monopoly on water service to San Francisco. In 1906, William Bowers Bourn II, a major stockholder in the SVWC, and owner of the giant Empire gold mine, hired Willis Polk to design a "water temple" atop the spot where three subterranean water sources converge (a pipe from the Arroyo de la Laguna, Alameda Creek, through the Sunol infiltration galleries, and a 30-inch pipeline from the artesian well field of Pleasanton.
Polk's design, modeled after the ancient Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, was constructed in 1910 (Tivoli is where much of the waters that fed Rome converged in the foothills of the Apennines). Prior to the construction to the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, half of San Francisco's water supply (6 million gallons a day)passed through the Sunol temple. The SVWC, including the temple, was purchased by San Francisco in 1930 for $40 million.
For decades the Water Temple received many visitors and was a popular location for picnickers. By the 1980s the water temple had badly deteriorated, and was severely damaged in 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake. The site was closed to the public because of safety concerns. A community effort led to the temple's restoration from 1997 to 2001, at a cost of $1.2 million, including seismic and accessibility upgrades. Following its restoration the temple opened again to the public. Today any water that flows through the temple is not part of the potable water supply.
Fields adjacent to the temple belong to the city of San Francisco which has authorized the digging of a gravel quarry on the site. Local residents concerned about the temple's future brought a lawsuit to attempt block the quarry project, but eventually ran out of funds and dropped the suit.
In June 2006, a new facility named the Sunol Water Temple Agricultural Park was opened on a site adjacent to the temple. The park provides space for small businesses and nonprofit groups to grow produce. The park serves a platform for service and educational programs related to sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation.
Architect Polk also designed the fabulous Filoli Estate for Bourne and is responsible for several of the mansions on San Francisco's Nob Hill. He also designed the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1915 Exposition,and the Pacific Union Club among other buildings and homes in San Francisco and around the Bay Area.
Bourn was born in San Francisco, California, the second child of mining entrepreneur William Bowers Bourn I and Sarah Esther Chase. His classical education at Cambridge University was interrupted by his taking over the family businesses upon his father's accidental death by firearm discharge in July 1874, whereupon he was given charge of the Empire Mine, other mining interests, and significant real estate holdings. He significantly improved operations at the mine and used the resulting cashflow to initiate or expand other ventures.
In the 1890s Bourne spearheaded the merger of electricity and gas companies in San Francisco, which would later become the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and in 1890 began significant investments in the Spring Valley Water Company, which would be bought by the city government of San Francisco in February 1929 and, with the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir expansion which Bourn had opposed, become its water supplier.
Bourn and his wife, Agnes Moody, built their country estate Filoli beginning in 1915, which became one of the best-known examples of an American country estate. The name of the estate is an acronym formed by combining the first two letters from the key words of William Bourn's credo: "Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life." Filoli is set in 16 acres of formal gardens surrounded by 654 acres belonging to the estate, located in Woodside, California, about 25 miles (40 km) south of San Francisco, at the southern end of Crystal Springs Lake, on the eastern slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Crystal Springs Lake was also owned by Bourne and part of the San Francisco water supply.
William Bowers Bourn II died at Filoli in 1936 at the age of 79. He was buried with his wife and daughter on the property. Filoli was sold to William Roth and his wife Lurline Matson Roth, heir of the Matson Navigation Company. The Roth family built Filoli's botanic collections of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas, notably in the woodland garden, and added the serene swimming pool and the screened-in teahouse. In 1975, Mrs. Roth donated the estate in its entirety to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with an endowment that meets a third of the operating expenses.