You can’t really see it, driving south along Highway 12 near Glen Ellen, unless you’re looking — and sometimes not even then. It appears and disappears like a shy bird, or the name of a song you can’t quite forget, or quite remember.
What it looks like is an 18th century Spanish mission, hiding in the oaks in the Sonoma Valley, with only the bell tower visible. But if you ever find out where it is, and manage to get through the locked gate of the Bouverie Preserve you find that’s all it is — just the bell tower, or campanile, rising 35 feet above the grounds of the nature sanctuary.
And rather than centuries old, it’s only a few decades — built by David Playdell Bouverie himself (or more likely a team of laborers) when he lived at the 535-acre estate, and wanted his very own bell to ring, 21 times, every day when “the sun was two fingers above Sonoma Mountain,” said John Petersen, the current executive director of Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve. The possibility that such a caroling signaled the end of the work day, or the beginning of cocktail hour, is not to be discounted.
As Petersen said, “He was a really interesting guy, very friendly and somewhat eccentric. The way he spoke was sort of aristocratic, I guess, he had a British accent.” He was also “the second son of a second son. Which means when it came to inheriting his family’s wealth, or titles, he was out of luck.”
Bouverie’s uncle was William Playdell-Bouverie, the seventh Earl of Radnor, a peerage that dates from the 17th century and has included various Conservative members of Parliament, at least one Keeper of the Privy Seal and a viscount or two. But as “the second son of the second son,” little lord David got squat.
Born in 1912, this second son nonetheless took advantage of family wealth and position to become an architect, a practice he pursued in England and, in 1933, brought to the U.S. with a scheme to sell designs for prefabricated houses. “Then, in 1938,” he wrote in a brief memoir, “I found the Sonoma Valley and knew it was a part of my destiny to save and nurture this land.” He cited the Radnor’s tradition of protecting vast land holdings since 1530, saying “the stewardship of land is in my blood.”
He purchased the 140-acre property that lined the highway for $8,500 where at one time stood the Warfield Station, the end-of-the-line for a two competing steam trains, one from San Rafael and one from Santa Rosa. He added to the property several times in the following years, until it reached the current 535 acres of the preserve that bears his name.
He liked to tell tales of his colorful predecessors on the property and nearby, and in his memoirs – elicited from questions the Bouverie Preserve Docent Council asked him in October 1988, six years before he died — recalled that when he bought the property, “there was a barely livable house made of rubble with weeds … a mountain of abandoned cars and junk by the front door, that is all.”
But the industrious architect added a series of cottages, including a very solid main house that is even now packed with huge family portraits, baronial furnishings and idiosyncratic touches. “He liked to entertain a lot,” said Petersen. “He was a really interesting guy, he was very friendly and somewhat eccentric.”
Bouverie Preserve Open House
When: Saturday, Oct. 8, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Bouverie Preserve, 13935 Sonoma Highway 12, Glen Ellen CA
What: Join Audubon Canyon Ranch staff and volunteers for an open house at the 535-acre Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen.
Discover the hills, habitats, and hidden treasures of this protected woodlands landscape with trained docents on a guided hike, and learn more about the preserve with nature activities in Gilman Hall. Sorry, the on-site homes and the belltower are not open for to the public.
Scheduled hike times: 10 a.m., 12 noon and 2 p.m.
Visitors of all ages are welcome. Minors (under the age of 18) must be accompanied by their parent or legal guardian.
No RSVP necessary. Donations greatly appreciated. For more information, call 415-868-9244 or visit egret.org/preserves_bouverie