The Roth Era

William Matson & Lillie Low Matson

Lurline Berenice Matson Roth was the only child of Captain William Matson, founder and President of the Matson Navigation Company, and Lillie Low Matson. William Matson, born in Sweden, came to New York in 1863 as a cabin boy at age 14. Working his way up in the maritime world, he arrived in San Francisco after a trip around Cape Horn in 1867. His first job in this area was on a two-masted coal scow. During this time he sailed and, later, piloted ships on the West Coast.

In 1882 he bought his first ship called Emma Claudina, named for the daughter of Claus Spreckles who loaned his part of the finances for the ship. William Matson, now a Master Mariner, built his first ship in 1887, the 400-ton brigantine he named Lurline (the name comes from Lorelei, a mythical siren who lured sailors to their deaths), and sailed it as a supply ship between San Francisco and Hilo, Hawaii.
In 1888 Lillie Low, traveling to Hilo to teach in the missionary school, sailed on the Lurline and met the ship’s captain, William Matson. After teaching a year in Hawaii, Lillie married Captain Matson in Hawaii in May, 1889. In September, 1890, Lurline Berenice, named for her father’s ship, was born in San Francisco.


Lurline Matson Roth & William P. Roth

After Lurline was born, Captain Matson did not command a ship again, but the family often traveled on the Matson ships to Hawaii, staying there for a month or more at a time. During one of these trips, Lillie and Lurline created the Matson Navigation Company flag from old signal flag pieces; the design is a circle with a large M surrounded by seven stars depicting the seven ships then in the fleet.

Captain Matson continued to expand the Matson Navigation Company, initiating the first ship with electricity, the first with cold storage, the first with a radio, and the first powered by steam. He was one of the founders of the Honolulu Oil Corporation.
The family bought a house near Mills College where they spent summers, and they would rent a house in San Francisco for the winter months. Lurline commuted to the city with her father to attend Miss Hamlin’s, a private girl’s school, studying music and art. Captain Matson valued Lurline as a companion and confidante even when she was a child. He loved horses, was an accomplished rider, and often took Lurline to horse auctions and amateur trotting races.

Although indulgent, Lurline remembers her father as strict and straight-laced. In 1913 when Lurline met Bill Roth, a young stockbroker in Honolulu, Captain Matson was very much against the match and delayed the engagement, sending Lurline and Lillie abroad. But Lurline persisted, and she and William Roth were married in 1914. Bill Roth sold his brokerage business and went to work as a secretary for Matson Navigation Company in San Francisco. He worked to advance and was named secretary-treasurer in 1916.
In October 1916, Captain William Matson died at age 67. After his death, Bill Roth was named general manager and vice president of Matson Navigation Company.

Bill and Lurline lived in San Francisco. Their son, William Matson Roth, was born in September 1916. Identical twins, Lurline and Berenice, named for their mother’s first and middle names, were born in 1921.

In 1924 Lillie Low Matson purchased Why Worry Farm in Woodside for her daughter’s family as a summer home and lived with them until her death. Why Worry Farm was a comfortable place for the family and had ample acreage and stabling for Mrs. Roth’s horses.
Mrs. Roth started a show stable buying a five-gaited horse, a three-gaited horse, a Standardbred road horse, a Hackney horse, a Hackney pony and a jumper and hired a trainer. She competed her horses nationally every year, except during World War II when she devoted most of her time to Red Cross work. Lurline’s favorites were the stallion Chief of Longview, a gift from her mother in 1925 and considered the greatest show horse of all time, and Sweetheart on Parade, a mare who was the winner of two consecutive world championships, purchased a few years later. Both were five-gaited American Saddlebred horses.

During the 1920s, the Matson Navigation Company, under Edward Tenney as President and Bill Roth as Vice President, expanded significantly, acquiring subsidiary companies, building super-freighters and building the 16-story Matson Building in San Francisco. The first of the Matson’s hotels was built in 1927 – The Royal Hawaiian.

After Tenney’s death in 1927, Bill Roth was named President. In the 1930s, under Roth’s leadership, the Company built its fleet of luxury cruise ships and expanded into the hotel business in Hawaii. Four luxury passenger ships – the Malolo (later christened the Matsonia), Mariposa, Monterey and Lurline – were added to the fleet. New hotels – the Surfrider, Moana and the Princess Kailani – were built by the Matson Company. (These hotels were sold to the Sheraton Corporation in 1955.)

In 1937 the Roths purchased Filoli and its furnishings from the Bourn estate, selling excess furnishings at auction in San Francisco. Keeping Why Worry Farm for the stabling and tending of the horses, the family moved in to Filoli. At age 19, young Bill, although already at college, had the suite of rooms off the main staircase landing. The twins’ bedroom had an adjoining sitting room. Because the twins had a wonderful screened-in sleeping porch at Why Worry Farm, Mrs. Roth had an upstairs porch at Filoli enclosed for them. However, because it was directly over the noisy kitchen and overlooked the garage, the sleeping porch was rarely used. It later was used as an aviary for Mrs. Roth’s many caged birds. (The porch enclosure has since been removed.)

Filoli was very much a family home for the Roths and their three children. The debut party of the twins on their eighteenth birthday in September 1939 was one of many memorable balls at Filoli. Other grand occasions included Berenice’s wedding and reception in September 1941 (Filoli’s only wedding), and Lurline’s wedding reception in November 1943.
At Filoli Mrs. Roth took a great interest in her garden. She ordered seeds, kept records of everything she planted and began adding new plants to the gardens. Bella Worn, who worked with the Bourns on the original selection of plants for the gardens, came out of semi-retirement to work with Mrs. Roth and continued to come to Filoli weekly until just before her death at age 81 in 1950. Some of Mrs. Roth’s favorite new acquisitions were magnolias, maples, roses, rhododendrons and camellias. She filled the house with arrangements of flowers from the gardens and plants from the greenhouses, a tradition that continues today.

Mr. Roth loved walking through the garden each morning before work, talking with Louis Mariconi, the head gardener, and getting the first bloom for his lapel. He loved to cook and especially to barbecue for the family.
Roth had a minor stroke in 1943. In 1946 the swimming pool was added for his exercise and rehabilitation, and quickly became a favorite summer gathering spot. Designed and developed by Mrs. Roth and Bella Worn to fit into the overall garden plan, the pool and its surrounding plantings seem today to have been part of the original design.

Bill Roth continued to have small strokes. In 1945 he was named Chairman of the Board of Matson Navigation Company. He retired from the company in 1962 and died in 1963 at age 83.
During these years the twins would come to Filoli with their own families on Thursdays and Sundays for dinner and to stay the night. Grandchildren played in the upstairs hall, using bolsters for horse jumps and the basement and attic for hide-and-seek.
All of the Roth family rode, and the children had horses from the time they were very young. At Filoli each member of the family had a trail horse or pony (often a Christmas present from Mrs. Roth) for local riding.
Mrs. Roth made the Filoli Garden known worldwide and hosted many distinguished visitors, including botanical and horticultural societies, garden clubs and other organizations. In 1973 Mrs. Roth was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal of the Garden Clubs of America for her achievements as a collector.

In the 1970s Mrs. Roth, with the encouragement and support of her family, made the decision to leave Filoli and to move to a smaller home in Hillsborough. There was an offer to purchase Filoli; however, the prospective buyer would not agree to open the garden to the public and had little interest or commitment in its maintenance. This caused Mrs. Roth to change her mind and to explore other alternatives culminating in 1975 with the gift of the House and Garden to the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with an endowment to support the maintenance of the property.
At Mrs. Roth’s request, a local board was formed to manage and promote the enhancement of the estate; Filoli Center, a non-profit corporation, was established in February 1976 with a board of directors and an executive director. Later, Mrs. Roth sold 528 acres of the original property to Filoli Center. In 1978, the volunteer organization known as the Friends of Filoli was established. The volunteers led tours of the property, raised funds for the support of the estate and provided other support.


A Gift to the Community

Leaving Filoli was very difficult for Mrs. Roth and she continued to visit often, walking in the garden and visiting with the gardeners. With the permission of Filoli’s board, Mrs. Roth celebrated her 90th birthday at Filoli with family and friends.
Lurline Berenice Roth died on September 5, 1985, two days after her 95th birthday. Upon her death, the original Bourn furnishings from Filoli that Mrs. Roth used in her Hillsborough home were returned to Filoli.

The Roth family continues to be involved in Filoli. The twins, Lurline and Berenice, were part of the Friends of Filoli as tour guides for many years and often returned to Filoli to speak to new volunteer trainees. In 2006, the Roth Family, in particular, Bill Roth, Jr. and his wife, Lurline and Berenice and their families, were the honored guests at the Filoli Flower Show, celebrating 30 years that the property has been enjoyed by so many visitors.