Filoli estate’s ties to the Japanese American experience

Filoli — photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

The Filoli Historic House and Garden is beautiful year-round, but spring — with its flowering cherry blossoms, wisterias, peonies and azaleas — attracts the most visitors each year.

The estate in the San Mateo County town of Woodside, Calif., a Georgian-style house with an attached garden covering 16 acres of the 654-acre property, has a number of ties to Japanese Americans throughout its century-long history. Willa Brock, interpretation manager at Filoli, said the estate, built in 1917 and donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975, had several intersections with Japanese Americans, primarily through its years under the ownership of the Roth family.

Most recently, the renowned landscape architect Mai Kitazawa Arbegast played a major role in Filoli’s transformation from private estate to a public venue. Arbegast, who according to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, built numerous gardens, including one for Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, was the daughter of the original owners of the Kitazawa Seed Company. According to Brock, Arbegast, who passed away in 2012, helped convince Lurline Roth, heiress to the Matson shipping company, to donate her estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“She knew Lurline Roth and, over many years, it seems, was working on Lurline and helping her, helping to convince her to donate Filoli to the National Trust for Historic Places,” Brock said. “Kind of giving her an idea that it could become the Wisley Gardens of the West.”

Once Roth donated the estate, Arbegast temporarily took over the garden as head gardener and served on the board of trustees.

Before Arbegast, however, other Japanese Americans also played a role within the mansion. The Roth family employed Issei Teikichi Taga as their butler at the estate. Not much is known about Taga, but Brock said Filoli pieced together some details about his life from the historical documents that were available to them. They gave a presentation on him and other former staff at the estate several years ago in an exhibit called “The People of Filoli.”

Brock said Taga was first employed under Lillie Low Matson, Lurline Roth’s mother, in 1917. Census data from 1930 shows he lived with his employer then in San Francisco. Brock said he then came to work for the Roth family at Filoli sometime after they purchased the estate from the Bourn family in 1937. Taga worked as a butler for the Roth family through 1959, save for the time he was incarcerated along with some 120,000 other people of Japanese descent in U.S. concentration camps during World War II.

Brock said Filoli has only one photo of Taga, featuring the butler holding a flower arrangement in the mansion’s reception room.

“We were able to find records of when they were interned during the war. We have census data, but it’s a little confusing,” she said. “We have not been able to find an official marriage record for (Taga and his wife Haruko) and so there’s some uncertainty about when they got married, and then when Nobuko (Taga’s daughter) was born. So there’s a lot of gaps, and we’re just trying to kind of tell the story as much as we can from the information we’ve been able to find so far.”

Toichi Domoto, however, made a noteworthy impact on Filoli as a Japanese American. Domoto, one of the Domoto brothers and owner of the Domoto Nursery, sold many of the plants now flowering in the gardens on the property.

Wisterias are among the many colorful plants available for viewing throughout the year.
photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

John Chau, plant records specialist at Filoli, said several of their plants originate from Domoto, including Japanese maples, tree peonies and Japanese irises. Domoto, who was also known for his bonsai, donated a handful of plants from his collection to Filoli’s collection of around 120 plants.

Brock said Roth relied on Domoto extensively during her ownership of Filoli.

“He was originally linked to Filoli through a woman named Isabella Worn, who was one of the original garden designers,” Brock said. “Eventually, it became a more personal relationship when Toichi Domoto met Lurline, and he later ended up donating a lot of his tree peony collection to Filoli.”

Roth mentioned Domoto in an oral history she conducted with the University of California, Berkeley’s Suzanne Riess in 1981. She said she always knew of Domoto since her mother also kept a garden, and wished she could have contracted the Nikkei nurseryman as her private gardener after Worn retired.

“Most of the material in the garden that Miss Worn brought came from Toichi Domoto. … The big things, the trees and the camellias and the azaleas, most of these things came from Toichi Domoto, who has been for years one of our greatest horticulturists,” Roth said. “After Miss Worn left, I would like to have gotten Domoto. But he had his own place and he made a lot of money and was well off. He wasn’t interested. He loves Filoli though.”

The gardens at Filoli are beautiful year-round thanks to plants from Toichi Domoto and his nursery. On display are bonsai by the late nurseryman, among other plants available for viewing throughout the year. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

Many of those plants from Domoto’s nursery are currently in bloom at Filoli. Chau said the azaleas and peonies have just started to bloom, along with the cherry blossoms and wisteria, which are currently at full bloom. He also said the camellias, which start blooming in the winter, are “still going.” Some of the bonsai from Domoto’s collection are also on display after a larger bonsai exhibit held earlier this year.

“The bonsai and cypress have year-round interest. In early summer, there are peonies and azaleas. In autumn, the maple and ginkgo leaves have fall color. The camellias flower from winter to spring,” Chau told the Nichi Bei Weekly via e-mail.

Along with the flowers, Brock encouraged visitors to see their historical exhibits. Their current one, “Stories of Resilience,” focuses on individuals and identity groups “that were connected to Filoli or historically excluded from … Filoli,” including how the wartime incarceration affected Taga and the Domoto family.

“We’re really trying to tell the stories of these ways that people experienced injustice in the broader California history,” Brock said. “It’s an important story to be telling right now, especially with the rise of (anti-)Asian American and Pacific Islander bigotry in our area.”

On top of the historical lessons to glean, Brock said spring is the best time to check out the gardens.

“Right now, we’re basically at our busiest, because it’s spring and we are having peak bloom for tulips, and a lot of the other flowering spring plants in the garden,” Brock said. “But we always say that Filoli is beautiful year round. There’s always something new to be seeing.”

The The Filoli Historic House and Garden is located at 86 Cañada Road in Woodside, Calif. For more information, including to purchase tickets, call (650) 364-8300 or visit https://filoli.org.

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