Steamship Sunday – Matson, Lurline and Filoli

Steamship Sunday

Filoli-front entrance

Filoli: Fight for a good cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life

Today’s post is only peripherally about ships. It is instead about Lurline, daughter of William Matson, the founder of Matson Lines, and about Filoli, the estate on which Lurline Matson Roth lived much of her life.

In our Steamship Sunday post about the Matson Line ships named Lurline, we learned that the daughter was named after the ship, not the other way around. Lurline Matson was born to Lillie Low Matson and her husband, Captain William Matson, in 1890.

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 in the hills above Oakland, across San Francisco Bay, where they spent summers. 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 on the Peninsula south of San Francisco 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 Lurline Roth’s horses.


Lurline and one of her horses

Lurline 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.


The Matson Building at 215 Market Street, San Francisco

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.

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 to Filoli.

Filoli, designed by noted San Francisco architect Willis Polk, had been built for Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn, prominent San Franciscans whose chief source of wealth was the Empire Mine, a hard-rock gold mine in Grass Valley, California. Mr. Bourn was also owner and president of the Spring Valley Water Company whose property comprised Crystal Springs Lake and the surrounding lands, areas that are now part of the San Francisco Water Department. He selected the southern end of Crystal Springs Lake as the site for his estate.

Construction of Filoli began in 1915 and the Bourns moved into the House in 1917. Bruce Porter, a talented painter, sculptor, muralist, landscape designer and art critic was enlisted to help the Bourns plan the layout of the extensive formal garden that was built between 1917 and 1929. Both Mr. and Mrs. Bourn died in 1936. The Roths purchased the 654 acre estate in 1937.


William Roth and Lurline Matson Roth

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.

© 2012 KR, All Rights Reserved.

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.

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.

Lurline Matson Roth died on Wednesday, 4 September 1985, in Burlingame, California.

You can visit Filoli. The estate is located at 86 Cañada Road, Woodside, CA





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