Good Works

Everything’s Coming Up Roses at Filoli

By Riley McDermid

David Wollenberg at Filoli Gardens in Woodside, Calif., on Friday, August 17th, 2018 by Michael Short.

Dedicated donors, an army of volunteers and a love of all things beautiful keeps this 654-acre estate in the heart of Woodside blooming.

Woodside’s historic Filoli estate is one of a kind — and the donors and supporters who tend to this beloved landmark can’t do enough for it. Indeed, David Wollenberg, a longtime Atherton resident and incoming vice president of its board, says he has a deep and abiding love for Filoli, which he refers to as his favorite place.“I have often said that the Peninsula would be unlivable if we didn’t have the west side of 280 with Crystal Springs, the watershed, open space and Filoli,” he tells the Gazette.“Filoli is truly one of the great treasures of the Bay Area.”

That love for the institution is evident throughout Filoli’s buildings and grounds, where generous donors have supported infrastructure, major new projects and renovations that are in sync with its historical significance. For Wollenberg, some of his personal support went to renovating a gorgeous new kitchen floor, which was completed this fall and now boasts a beautiful original black-and-cream checkerboard pattern.

“I have been in the commercial property-management business my entire career, so being on property was a natural fit for my personal interests and skills,” Wollenberg says. “[It is] also a growth opportunity for me to be involved with a historic property.”First created as a country estate by Agnes and William Bowers Bourn in 1917, Filoli passed into the hands of Lurline and William Roth when they purchased the home in 1937, with the Roths particularly enamored with the estate’s extensive gardens.

“Their twin daughters, Lurline and Berenice, had their debutante ball at Filoli, and Berenice was married here,” Susan O’Sullivan, director of development and external relations, says. “When Mrs. Roth was older and her husband had passed away and her children and grandchildren were living nearby, she decided it was time to leave Filoli, but she wanted it to be open for the public to enjoy.”In accordance with that wish, Filoli was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1976, and is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit welcoming around 175,000 visitors every year. Its 10,000 members help keep it in stellar shape and an oasis of nature and beauty.

Having that backbone of community support is key to Filoli, which receives around $1 million per year in donations from individuals and grants. “Donations to Filoli support Filoli’s mission, from the care of the historic house, magnificent gardens and vast nature preserve, to the events and programs that will keep Filoli culturally relevant for the next 100 years,” O’Sullivan says, adding that Filoli is hoping to grow its donor base in the coming years to keep pace with the rising costs in the Bay Area and to allow it to serve a broader audience.“I’m inspired by the importance of having a place where all are welcome to step back in time to a slower pace and feel a connection to nature, history and breathtaking beauty. For me, I feel like even after eight years there is still more for me to discover and learn here,” O’Sullivan says. “The thing I love the most is hearing what Filoli means to our visitors. Those walks through the house and gardens are often punctuated by visitors who will stop me and share some personal connection, like they came to Filoli on a field trip when they were young.”

It takes a village

Other supporters of Filoli shared their tales of adoration and devotion with the Gazette.

Suzanne Legallet

Chair of the standing committee Friends of Filoli, born and raised in San Mateo County.

“Being able to share the beauty and knowledge of Filoli with the visitors is a privilege. I love what I learn about gardening, history, event planning and the friends that I have made, and the opportunity to share knowledge and accomplishments … I visited Filoli when it first opened and wanted to be a docent because of the gardens. (The house was not open for several years). I enjoy local history and wanted to become a better home gardener myself, inspired by what I saw at Filoli. Subsequently I took horticulture classes at the junior college and have become an avid home gardener and flower arranger … The gardens are always beautiful. It is a peaceful place to visit with history, beauty and a sense of serenity. The volunteers are happy to be there and the feeling carries over to the visitors. It is easy and relaxing place to stroll and enjoy what you see and learn. It is unique in our area and includes history, education, beauty and serenity.”

Chris Keller

Co-chair of Filoli Library and Collections Committee, Belmont resident since 1975.

“What I find most rewarding about being involved with Filoli is that I have the opportunity in a small way to help perpetuate the generous gift from the Roth family so that visitors can continue to enjoy it. I got involved initially because for years I attended the Christmas Gala and often wondered whether I could volunteer when I retired. I went to a recruiting event a couple of months before I retired in 2014 and have volunteered ever since … I think Filoli is special in many ways. It’s a beautiful place and I always have a sense of calm when I am there. The acreage that is part of the estate will be protected forever, and that makes it special during these times when every available square foot seems to be overtaken by new construction. Also, it represents a way of life that is not and never has been achievable for most, and by being able to visit it, people can get a sense of what it must have been like to live there.”

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