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Volunteers help keep grand historic estate in top shape

Are you the sort of friend who enjoys weeding another person's garden or trimming his trees? Or polishing his floors or showing people around his property?

If so, you are the sort of "friend" that Filoli, a great California house belonging to the National Trust, is looking for. The house, which is managed and funded locally, already has 2,200 "friends" who volunteer all kinds of services and donate thousands of dollars for its maintenance each year.

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But an enormous estate, open to the public, needs a lot of helping hands around the place as well as generous gifts of money. So numerous great houses around the country are turning increasingly to "friends" organizations, not only for support and funding but for tender, loving care from people in the surrounding communities.

Filoli, located 25 miles south of San Francisco, was completed in 1919 for Mr. and Mrs. William B. Bourn II. The estate was designed by the great California architect Willis Polk and took three years to construct. It has 43 rooms, excluding baths, closets, and storage rooms. The modified Georgian style reflects Mr. Bourn's admiration for the life and architecture of the British Isles, although its tile roof is in the Spanish tradition. Seventeen acres of formal gardens were laid out by landscape architect Bruce Porter, and the 500 roses and 20,000 plants follow his original plan.

Filoli is considered an outstanding example of "country house architecture" in the United States and is one of the few in California that remain in their original settings, in this case a 654-acre tract. It is a registered California state landmark and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Certainly it depicts a facet of a sumptuous life style that the economy, inflation, and staff shortages are rapidly diminishing.

The last owners of the estate, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth, lived in the house for 40 years and achieved world renown for their gardens. They deeded the estate to the National Trust in 1975 with an additional $2.5 million endowment. The trust accepted the gift only on the condition that the property be self- supporting. It was immediately leased to Filoli Center to be managed locally.

The support and fund-raising group called "Friends of Filoli" was established at the same time, and the house and its gardens were opened to the public in 1976. About 25,000 visitors a year from all over the world now pay a modest fee to visit the house and its grounds.

Apparently a lot of people want to be friends with a great house. Volunteers have come from everywhere, though most live within a hundred-mile radius of the estate. That means they can come often and do much. Mrs. Paul Reimer, president this year of Friends of Filoli, has worked to put the big house into the mainstream of peninsula community life. Everyone now knows and enjoys Filoli, not just the elite. Anyone can become a "friend" and anyone can volunteer to help.

Two hundred docents have taken the 10- week training program and are regularly scheduled to guide groups through the property. Thirty-two volunteer gardeners, including a retired admiral, work on Mondays and Thursdays under the guidance of the paid professional gardeners. They don't mind doing the "scrubby" work such as weeding, raking, picking pansies, and deadheading the camellias, roses, and rhododendrons.

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Other volunteers staff the garden shop and make items to be sold in the shop. Another committee compiled recipes for the Filoli cookbook that is sold there. Others write newsletters, arrange special tours, and plan benefits such as tea dances, bridge parties, concerts in the courtyard, Sunday chorales, workshops and lectures, and the annual gala.

Others give classes in special subjects. A Fine Arts Committee is seeking appropriate furnishings for Filoli that will suit its grand style and scale. Another committee regularly polishes 36,000 square feet of hardwood floors. Annual membership dues range from $10 to $25 for individuals and families, up to

The last fund-raising event sponsored by the "Friends" was to pay for a new $ 250,000 water system for the garden and to buy the head gardener $2,000 worth of new tools. "Besides these special outlays, our financial commitment to Filoli this year is $11,750 per month," Kathryn Reimer says. That is a lot of money for a group of volunteers to raise, but it gets easier as the grand estate is more and more melded into the social and volunteer activities of the entire area.

The Friends also raise money to benefit the Student Intern Program, which each year brings students from the major universities and colleges in California to learn horticultural techniques through caring for the garden.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, appreciative of Filoli's success with its Friends program, is now encouraging similar support groups for other great National Trust properties around the country. Charter membership programs to gain Friends have been launched recently to benefit Woodlawn in Virginia, Lyndhurst near Tarrytown, N.Y., Shadows-on-the-Teche, in New Iberia, La., and Cliveden, in Germantown, Pa.

The theory is that the people who live in the vicinity of a grand house are those most likely to love and value it and to work to preserve it as an asset to the community and the country. Since many mansions can no longer be maintained by private wealth, those of rich historical and architectural value must be kept alive by other means. Admissions and property endowments do not provide sufficient means for maintenance and restoration of the properties. Lots of good "friends" -- such as those who find great satisfaction in working at and for Filoli -- now assist the National Trust in its effort to keep some fine American houses open to the public as educational and cultural landmarks.

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