Filoli to honor longtime curator Tom Rogers | May 2, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - May 2, 2012

Filoli to honor longtime curator Tom Rogers

Tom Rogers to be honored at Filoli flower show

by Jane Knoerle

Tom Rogers, who will be honored Thursday, May 10, at the opening night reception for Filoli's flower show, retired last year after 22 years as curator of the Woodside mansion.

What is a curator? The definition is custodian of a collection. While Filoli certainly possesses a collection of fine furnishings, Tom Rogers also has his own collection, reflecting a lifelong love of objects that tell a story.

The first is a Japanese tea canister he found in a burned-out Japanese house in his hometown of Salinas. He was in the fourth grade at the time. He remembers vividly Jan. 12, 1942, the day many of his Japanese friends and classmates were taken from their homes and relocated at the rodeo grounds outside of town. The canister still sits on a shelf in his apartment at The Sequoias in Portola Valley, the reminder of a bitter time.

Another treasure in his collection is a Sung Dynasty porcelain bowl, purchased for $2 as a teenager. Its owner was Baron Gigo Ravelli, an antique collector who lived in a mansion in Pacific Grove. First, the baron asked $100 for the bowl, way beyond the teenager's means. Then he asked young Tom how much money he had in his pocket. Two dollars, he replied.

"Very well, it's yours for $2," he said. "If I just gave it to you, you would not value it as much."

Tom often visited the Ravelli house, which he recalls had a Rembrandt painting hanging next to the bathroom and immense tapestries on the wall. It was his first exposure to a grand house, but, certainly, not his last.

His long association with Filoli came years later when he was an English teacher in Mountain View. In 1976, his dentist invited him to tour Filoli, which had recently been opened to the public. "My wife and I are going tomorrow, why don't you come along?"

"Filoli just grabbed me," says Mr. Rogers about seeing the beautiful property for the first time. He became a member of the estate's first docent class and, since leading garden tours was not his thing, was asked to document all the items on the estate. Continuing to teach, he began classes in museum studies at John F. Kennedy University, and spent his weekends volunteering at Filoli.

He also enrolled in the Attingham Study Program on the great houses of England. He visited 38 major houses in England in three weeks. He says it was a life-changing program for him.

After retiring from teaching in 1985, and after being told there was no chance for him to be hired at Filoli, Mr. Rogers applied for a six-month internship at the Boston Fine Arts Museum. He was ready to leave for Boston, when new Filoli executive director Anne Taylor came aboard. She offered him the job as curator. When he hesitated, she said, "I expect you here Monday morning." He showed up.

Today the Filoli mansion possesses a collection of fine furnishings befitting its position as a great country house. There are 64 lots of the belongings of the Roth and Bourn families. Mr. and Mrs. William Bourn built the mansion from 1915 to 1917 and the William Roth family purchased it in 1937.

Lurline Matson Roth donated the house and formal gardens to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975.

The most dramatic bequest of furniture and paintings came as a surprise gift from Melville Martin of Palos Verdes.

His collection of 600 objects, including 100 pieces of furniture, 40 chairs and 27 large paintings of museum quality, was given to Filoli after he died in 1998 at age 85.

Mr. Martin made only one brief visit to Filoli, when he appeared at 4 o'clock on a winter's day without an appointment. A Southern California art collector, he had spent a lifetime collecting fine things: furniture, paintings, art objects, silver and crystal from the 17th and 18th centuries.

"I'm in love," exclaimed the old man as he toured Filoli, according to Mr. Rogers in a 1999 interview in the Almanac. "This is it. This is what I would have built."

Eventually the collection came to Filoli, but the preparations were all very hush-hush. "Five van-loads of belongings backed up here in Filoli's courtyard in the middle of tours and nobody knew what was happening," he said.

The trucking company unloaded 180 boxes and squeezed them onto Filoli's second floor. Tom Rogers unpacked every one of them himself. Today the Martin Collection blends seamlessly into Filoli.

Who decided what went where? "Mostly me, based on Mel's house and on the way things were arranged when the Bourns and then the Roths lived here," said Mr. Rogers.

Today, Filoli has a new curator, Julie deVere. However, Tom Rogers returns often to stroll the garden and have lunch with friends in the Quail Cafe.

Looking back at his years at Filoli, he says, "I was lucky enough to be there from the beginning." He's happy to see how attendance is changing, with a larger number of African-American and foreign-born families visiting. "It's what Mrs. Roth intended. It's a house to be enjoyed by everybody."


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