Cornelia Matson, the philanthropist with an elegant southern drawl, opens up about the important milestones in her life and her insatiable passion for home remodeling.
"I grew up in Mississippi, went to school in Virginia and then I ended up in New York City for 22 years. I knew I wanted to go to New York — I was headed north — that was it. I’ve always loved fashion and the buzz of the city. I raised all of my children in Manhattan, but I also lived in Sicily, Boston and Arizona.
I became very active with Junior League — it was like a full-time job. I also went into professional fundraising and was a PR account executive. I then became the development director for the YMCA of New York. That was fun, and at that time Mary Rockefeller was on the board. It was during that time that I met Dick [Matson].
A friend from Virginia, who was marrying a friend of Dick’s from Harvard, introduced us. They arranged for us to go on a blind date, it was the 14th of July, Bastille Day, and then we married the next year. We bought a home on Longboat Key and moved to Sarasota permanently in 1983.
I interviewed a few places along the coast for fundraising positions, but it wasn’t like it was in New York, so I thought, “what can I do?” So I opened a country French antique shop — “Peak of Amouiser,” on Main Street. I would go to France and buy pieces for the shop and Dick would come with me because he likes to eat and drink wine, and we would have a wonderful time traveling all over.
In 1993, I sold my shop and we bought an apartment in Paris — in 1997, we bought a vineyard in France and just sold it this year to Mr. Wong from Hong Kong.
I really love redoing old houses. We redid a chateau in France and decorated it with all French furniture. We celebrated our 35th anniversary on that property. We flew in our entire family for the event.
I always like to have a project. I think the thing I’ve spent my most time working with is Planned Parenthood. I founded High Tide at High Noon 17 years ago — it was High Tea at High Noon until last year because it needed a refresher and nobody was wearing hats. I love hats; why don’t people wear hats anymore?
Having been a professional fundraiser, I appreciate the efforts of all the organizations that raise money for the cause. I don’t know why people shy away from it. You’re really asking someone to invest in something you believe in. When I’m raising money, I’m just asking someone to participate in something that may end up appealing to them, that I believe in. That’s what fundraising really is all about.
When it comes to philanthropy, I try to balance between the cultural activities and the human services — I try to do something whether it’s the orchestra or Ringling and the museum as well as those organizations that are directly helping people — and education, of course.
Dick and I both love cooking and wine. We are good cooks; we don’t go out as I think most people do. We cook very simple, French style, but simple and good. We like to entertain and have friends over for a good time and simple dinner. If you like to eat, you can cook what you like to eat.
We are now renovating a new home in North Carolina we bought up in Hound Ears, near Blowing Rock. “Rockwood” is the name of this new house. This is going to be “Cornelia’s last hurrah.” I like big houses. I like having the space, and I go visit the rooms — they don’t have to be occupied, I don’t have to live in all of them, but I like to visit them.
I’ve moved into my modern period. I’m selling my French furniture and buying vintage original mid-century modern and restoring it. I’m very sensitive to the architecture of a place, I think it should be decorated and used in the sense that it was meant to be — everything must be correct. I keep all of the family things though, like that great big mirror in my foyer, which is more than 200 years old. It belonged to my great-great grandparents.
With this North Carolina house, I get to go back to gardening. It’s actually more yard work than gardening. I’ve become a tree hugger, and now I’m a boulder hugger and a rock hugger. There are so many rocks on the new property and they are just gorgeous.
I really love everything that I do. And if I live as long as my Aunt Charlotte (who just celebrated her 105th birthday), I have a lot more to do."