Discovering the 'invisible' faces of Filoli

Willow Dome was created with steel rings from Filoli's inoperative 100-year-old redwood water tanks and Arroyo willow branches. Photo by Sinead Chang.

By Sheryl Nonnenberg/Special to The Almanac

Filoli House and Garden's current exhibition, "Nest: Creating Home," is a multilayered, three-part look at the people who have staffed the mansion over the years, as well as the flora and fauna that have called this majestic Woodside estate home.

"We have been trying to do more thematic exhibitions that encompass the entire property, instead of just the garden or the house," head curator Julie Bly DeVere explained.

Filoli is one of the last still-working country estates from an era when San Francisco industrialists sought refuge from the city by building homes on the Peninsula. It consists of a 54,000-square-foot Georgian revival mansion and 654 acres of land, some of which has been turned into formal gardens. There is also a nature preserve and more than seven miles of hiking trails.

There is no doubt that one of the many reasons people enjoy visiting historic sites like Filoli is a chance to live vicariously — imagining what it would have been like to be enormously wealthy and live amid such splendor. While previous exhibitions have focused on the lavish lifestyles and interests of the Bourn family (who built the estate in 1917) and the Roths (who bought it in 1937 and donated it to National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975), DeVere said that the emphasis of "The People of Filoli" section of the exhibition is on the people who were "invisible" but integral to the day-to-day operation of the household.

"This style of life takes a huge staff to make happen," she said. But telling their stories proved to be more challenging than anticipated.

While the Bourns and the Roths had good relations with their employees, they (like many wealthy employers) did not keep detailed records about their staff. DeVere pointed out that, for the most part, employees were called only by their last names. She was unable to locate any written records regarding payroll, inventories or even correspondence relating to the service staff.

So how was she able to find so much information about them? Luckily, the census records for 1920, 1930 and 1940 proved to be a rich source of information. Also, searching websites like resulted in leads to living descendants who were a goldmine of information. Their photographs and oral histories helped in creating a fuller picture of those who worked both in the house and out on the grounds.

Like many of the estates on the Peninsula, Filoli was manned by a widely diverse staff. There were Swedish and Asian cooks, a Russian chauffeur, French maids and Italian gardeners. Overseeing them all, during the Bourn years, was a very proper English butler named Woods. DeVere said that, in spite of the many cultural and language differences, the staff "somehow made it work and everyone understood everyone." It was not uncommon for employees to stay 15 or 20 years and, in some cases, to return again long after their days in service had ended.

DeVere spoke fondly of David Patterson, who started as a pantry boy during the Roth years, then worked his way to butler, then head butler after returning from war. Many years later, he returned to Filoli as a volunteer and enjoyed sharing his memories of his time on the estate. While doing research for the exhibition, DeVere contacted his family and learned that Patterson had written an autobiography.

"Filoli had an impact on every aspect of his life," she explained. "And now we have all these new stories to share."

Research also revealed that the estate, while safely nestled in the California coastal range, was not immune to the events occurring in the outside world. During World War II, the staff was greatly reduced and, according to DeVere, "everyone just had to do more."

One of the more somber stories uncovered was that of Japanese butler Teikichi Taga. He, his wife and his American-born daughter were sent to internment camps for the duration of the war. Lurline Roth drove them to the camps and picked them up following their release. "These are sad stories," noted DeVere, "but I think they are important to remember."

Families have been the source of new and enlightening information. Alma Johnson, a Swedish immigrant, was the head cook during the Bourn years. Known for her coffee ice cream and delicious pastries, Johnson worked instinctually, using recipes from her homeland. Stina Ekberg, a kitchen maid, carefully wrote down all of Alma's recipes in a composition notebook.

Her family recently brought the notebook to DeVere. "My jaw dropped, and I held it like it was a little baby," she said. "It's a real cook's cookbook no instructions, just a list of ingredients."

Information like this has been reproduced and presented, in the form of display placards, in the areas of the house where the individual worked. In the teal-colored ballroom, visitors can learn about Ernest Peixotto, son of Jewish immigrants and the artist who created the enormous murals depicting the Muckross Estate in Ireland. In the library, Mr. Bourn's wheelchair is on display, next to a mannequin wearing a uniform like the one worn by Marie, his longtime nurse.

DeVere explained: "In the past, we might have been more inclined to tell the traditional family story and not that of the staff, who were meant to disappear and not be seen. It has been really powerful to have her standing in the room."

When asked if there were any surprises uncovered during her research, DeVere cited the mobility of the service staff. According to ship manifests, many Filoli staff members traveled to and from their countries of origin fairly frequently. There is also the story of Henriette, a French immigrant and lady's maid to Lurline Roth, who left the country, via ship, 35 times with her employer. There is also record of her joining Roth on an early Pan Am flight.

DeVere noted that researching the staff is an ongoing, continuing effort. "We have had about 10 families who have reached out to share their stories. We continue to get pictures and want to hear from more families. All of the material received will go into our archive and will be used in the development of future tours and programming."

There are also monthly lectures on topics relating to the exhibition, and in addition to "The People of Filoli," there are two related exhibits: "American Women: Birds of Im/Migration," and "Nests: Patterns from Nature."

Santa Cruz artist Sarah Friedlander's mixed-media panels pay homage to women who left their homelands for America, as did her own grandmother. Outside, landscape architect W. Gary Smith has created site-specific installations using natural materials gathered from the gardens.

In an alcove off the main hallway, there is a display of old steamer trunks. The top trunk is open and visitors are invited to fill out and leave a label, telling their own immigration stories. The trunk is overflowing with handwritten accounts of hopeful journeys undertaken in order to find a new and better life.

While immigration is currently a hot-button topic, the exhibition succeeds in personalizing the issue. DeVere noted: "This is what migration and immigration stories look like. And what it means to be home."

Sheryl Nonnenberg is a freelance writer.

If you go

What: "Nest: Creating Home."

Where: Filoli Historic House & Garden, 86 Canada Road, Woodside.

When: Through Nov. 10. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost:Filoli admission is $22 general admission; discounts available.


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