For years, tours of the Filoli estate and gardens have featured its carefully-managed gardens, 17th- and 18th-century architecture and stories of the families that once lived in the historic Woodside property south of the Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir.
To tell the stories of William and Agnes Bourn, the estate’s first owners, as well as those of William and Lurline Roth, the second family to occupy the Georgian revival style home, those who curate the estate’s history have been able to draw from photographs and written records, said Tucker Foltz, interpretation supervisor at Filoli.
But the accounts of those who traveled many miles, and sometimes, across oceans, to work at the 654-acre estate are still emerging, and are a focus of Filoli’s “Nest: Creating Home” exhibit, said Foltz. By poring over census records and interviewing family members of staff members who worked at the estate before it opened to the public in 1976, Filoli’s Head Curator Julie Bly DeVere and her team have been able to uncover more about the journeys of those who maintained the home and gardens decades ago, he said.
In telling the stories of Filoli’s former butlers, nurses, gardeners and chefs, among others, those behind Filoli’s newest exhibit are hoping unlock the immigration and migration stories of those who visit the estate this summer and fall. In a three-part exhibit, they are hoping to not only share the stories of the 30 to 40 staff members who worked for the Bourn and Roth families, but also invite others to share their stories through modern art, both in and out of the gardens.
“We’re bringing to life the story of the working class here in a way we never have before,” said Foltz. “They were working very hard and living here as well and really building a community here.”
Featuring a ballroom and several wood-paneled rooms where the Bourn and Roth families would gather, the historic house that once held each of the families and several members of their staff has long been studied for its centuries-old furniture and English and Irish architectural elements, said Foltz. But this summer, Filoli’s tour of the historic home will turn visitors’ attention to other features its staff would have been familiar with — such as the sweltering heat those preparing nine meals daily in the home’s kitchen might have felt or the close friendships that might have been formed over their long days at work.
Built in 1915 to 1917, Filoli came into existence at a time when many were moving to California for its many job opportunities, explained Foltz. Whether they were immigrants from Italy looking for farming jobs, a teamster from Kansas or a nurse from Missouri, many of Filoli’s earliest workers were searching for a new home and opportunities in California, he said.
Though they were kept busy by their many responsibilities, the estate’s workers found ways to form community, noted Foltz, who could recall the story of two Swedish immigrants who worked in the kitchen and home together for many years before retiring and living next to each other in South San Francisco.
In a hallway just outside the staff’s quarters, visitors are invited to share their own stories of immigration or migration by writing them on a luggage tag and placing them on one of several suitcases that are part of Santa Cruz-based artist Sara Friedlander’s exhibit at Filoli this summer, explained Erika Frank, Filoli’s head of education.
Titled “American Women: Birds of im/Migration,” Friedlander’s exhibit includes several mixed-media panels in the Filoli Visitor Center featuring the journeys of women who left their homelands to come to the United States, said Frank. As an artist whose work often involves photographs, Friedlander was inspired by photographs of women in her own family, who traveled across oceans to live in the United States, and became interested in featuring the narratives she saw in the eyes of other immigrant and migrant women, said Frank.
Frank said Friedlander’s exhibit is unlike any other that has been shown at Filoli because it seeks to tell a story visitors can connect with, and, in turn, encourages them to share their own stories with others.
“They’ll come here, they’ll see a story … and they’ll feel more comfortable going and sharing their own story on a luggage tag,” she said. “It’s almost like saying ‘this is a space where you can be open and you can share and this is that first step.’”
For Jim Salyards, Filoli’s head of horticulture, the experience of seeing not only visitors but also volunteers and staff interact with artist and landscape architect W. Gary Smith’s natural art forms has been a gratifying aspect of the theme Filoli chose for the summer. From the floating rings made from Arroyo willow trees gracing the estate’s entrance to a large nest form created from fallen oak trees in the meadow, the 12 nests comprising Smith’s exhibit “Nests: Patterns from Nature” also drew from the work of students in an art class at Santa Clara University, said Salyards.
Having walked around the estate grounds with Smith to determine what natural elements could be used to create nests of varying shapes and sizes, Salyards saw volunteers and staff help with the construction of the pieces at various stages.
“It actually became somewhat of a team-building exercise,” he said. “It definitely was a very enjoyable and rewarding process to be with him and working with everybody.”
Filoli’s “Nest: Creating Home” exhibit will remain available until Nov. 10 at 86 Cañada Road in Woodside. Visit filoli.org/nest for more information.
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