WOODSIDE -- Standing on scaffolding 10 feet above oak parquet floors, Paul Price moved cautiously closer to an elaborate French crystal chandelier. In one hand was a cotton cloth, in the other a single teardrop from the chandelier. With hands as steady and precise as those of a neurosurgeon, Price gently wiped the crystal, ever mindful that he -- or it -- might plunge to the floor at any moment.
Price was just one of many volunteers and a full-time staff of 30 who undertook spring cleaning in anticipation of the Filoli Estate and Gardens' 2000 season, which opened Tuesday. The 43-room mansion and its gardens are part of the National Trust and are only open to the public from mid-February through October.
That's why volunteers like Price were bringing single-minded dedication to tasks that -- especially when they involve scaffolding -- evoked a whiff of danger.
``My nerves got a lot better after watching films of people building Hoover Dam,'' Price said. ``If they could stand 700 feet above raging water, I can stand 10 feet above a floor.''
As Price cleaned the ornate crystal to the sounds of Tchaikovsky's ``Sleeping Beauty'' in the music room, four members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors from Walnut Creek made final adjustments to the last of four grandfather clocks in another room in the 36,000-square-foot house.
Outside, a member of the gardening staff shuffled flowerpots back and forth until she had them just right in front of Filoli's garden shop.
``There's always so much to do,'' said Tom Rogers, curator of collections at Filoli Center. ``It really is a team effort. We couldn't function without people on both the volunteer and staff side. It's that combination that makes this place so incredibly special.''
Filoli recently inherited a superb collection of antiques from a Southern California collector, Melvin Martin. Filoli's charms also include acres of manicured lawns and lavish gardens. First-time visitors will be enchanted by the Sunken Garden, with its tranquil pond, and the Rose Garden, with 500 varieties of roses.
The highlight of the house is the 70-foot by 32-foot ballroom. From its 21-foot ceiling hang newly sparkling chandeliers; original ``watergreen'' paint walls boast gold-leaf trim and custom-fitted oil paintings of Irish landscapes.
A record number of tulip bulbs, about 58,000, have been planted and are expected to burst into color come spring. Filoli recently received a donation of a thousand varieties of ivy; the director of gardening is establishing a botanical collection with tags to identify each one, according to Rogers.
In addition, Filoli's garden staff are refurbishing the orchards to save certain older varieties of apples and pears.
``There's really something for everyone's taste,'' said Price, who grew up in Los Altos and first visited in 1978. ``It has more than just fancy formal things inside. If you like flowers, if you like natural scenery, it's all here.''
Inside the house, a former waiting area has been christened the ``Ship Room.'' It recalls the heyday of Matson Navigation, the renowned San Francisco shipping company and luxury liner. It was the Matson fortune that allowed Lurline Roth, formerly Lurline Matson, and her husband, William Roth, to purchase the Filoli estate, after the original owners, William Bowers Bourn II and Agnes Bourn, died in 1936.
The Bourns had Filoli designed by their friend, the prominent architect Willis Polk. It was built between 1915 and 1917 as their retirement home. The name "Filoli" comes from the first two letters of three words in a credo Bourn followed: ``Fight for a just cause. Love your fellow man. Live a good life.'' FI-LO-LI.
New this year on the tour is a hallway display of photos and memorabilia from Why Worry Farm, a horse estate near downtown Woodside that the Roths also owned. It was Lurline Roth who gave Filoli to the National Trust in 1975. She died in 1986 at age 96.
In honor of the two women of Filoli, Bourn and Roth, Price volunteered to take on the task of cleaning the music room's two chandeliers and six wall sconces during his one-week vacation from Gump's in San Francisco, where he works in the silver department.
Price, 42, never met Bourn; she died long before he was born. But he did get to meet Roth.
``I remember when Mrs. Roth would come into Gump's,'' he said. ``She was very meticulous and very particular. She would be glad that they (her chandeliers) were clean. She definitely would have noticed if they weren't.''
Price said that he enjoyed the chance to get right up close to the chandeliers.
``Nobody cares about them as much as I do,'' he said. ``Most people who visit have no idea how special they are. They might look at them and think, `Oh, chandeliers, just like the ones I've seen in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel.' But they would be wrong.''
As proof, Price took out a thick binder and read from a letter dated March 13, 1925, and addressed to Agnes Bourn. The missive, on Bagues letterhead from Paris, mentioned that the chandeliers were the same as the ones that the company had crafted for the Hall of Mirrors at the palace of Versailles.
``You see,'' said Price, beaming, ``they're not just any chandeliers.''