Sunday, January 22, 2012

Kohl Mansion "The Oaks" - Burlingame

Terrace on the south side of the mansion
 For anyone who ever thought history was dull how is this for a headline: “How Two Beauties Are Spending “King Kohl’s” Hoodooed Millions - Plutocrat’s Suicide with his Widow Engaged to a Count and His Heart Mate Leasing A Mansion in Paris”? I found this story complete with provocative sketches while researching the Kohl Mansion in Burlingame for the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). It was published by the Port Arthur News on November 4, 1925.


Three weeks ago my partner, pups and I set off on another HALS adventure and discovered the Kohl Mansion also known as “The Oaks” because the 40-acre property is covered with many old live oak trees. It is a beautiful campus now occupied by the Sisters of Mercy High School.

The Kohl Mansion was built for Charles Frederick “Freddie” Kohl and his wife Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Godley. The 53-room Tudor- style brick structure was designed by architects George Howard and John White of Hillsborough and was planned to closely resemble Somerset House, the residence of the Duke of Surrey in England.

40' wide steps from the terrace onto the lawn

Frederick Kohl was born in 1863, the son of William H. Kohl who was a pioneer ship builder and co-founder of the Alaska Commercial Company. Kohl was one of the richest men in the San Francisco “Gold Belt”. In addition to the Burlingame estate Kohl owned property in downtown San Mateo that is now Central Park, the Kohl office building in downtown San Francisco and a “castle” at California’s Lake Tahoe.


He married Ms. Godley in 1904 and acquired the 40-acre Burlingame property in order to build a home where they could entertain and where Bessie, who had a beautiful contralto voice, could perform for their guests. In 1916 Bessie left Frederick for Europe and never returned. For a time Frederick lived at the St. Fransis Hotel in San Francisco. He began a relationship with Marion Louderback Lord and left her the bulk of his $5 million estate when died by suicide November 23, 1921. Mss Lord sold the property to The Sisters of Mercy who initially used the mansion as a convent then converted it to Mercy High School for girls in 1931, which is the current use of the property.


Concrete steps and walls made to look like stone as seen in  a 1916 photo
 In 1921 the Kohl Mansion was leased to United Artists and the movie “Little Lord Fauntleroy” was filmed in the house. In 1996, “Flubber” starring Robin Williams was filmed there.

The article in the Port Arthur News referred to the Kohl Mansion as “the greatest palace ever built in the West.” The grand terrace on the south side of the house extends the full width of the mansion and measures 215’ by 50 – 85’. A wall at the perimeter of the terrace is concrete with a concrete cap. It was built to emulate a massive stone wall. Weathering and the presence of lichen enhance the finish and increase the illusion that it is a stone wall.

South of the terrace a lawn extends beyond the width of the terrace and is 295’ wide and 87’ deep. The east edge of the lawn has a planting bed that includes three historic lemon trees and a border of new, white shrub roses. Mature evergreen live oaks / Quercus agrifolia and coniferous trees including Deodar cedar / Cedrus deodara and blue atlas cedar /Cedrus atlantica `glauca’ fill the space beyond the south edge of the lawn.

Much of the original sunken rose garden is present. It is set 5’ lower than the terrace and consists of brick paths set in a basket weave pattern, and small rose beds bordered with sheared boxwood hedges. Overall the rose garden measures 48’ by 54’ and is made up of 25 rose beds in a symmetrical pattern of round and rectangular beds. Two sets of brick steps with wing walls lead down into the rose garden from the south side. The surface between the rose garden and the terrace is pea gravel.

Sunken rose garden on the east side of the mansion

Foundation plantings all appear to be new with the exception of a few hybrid roses with gnarled trunks. A 1916 photograph of the mansion shows only low boxwood hedges at foundations. There are also two sculpted boxwood hedges in the shape of a script “E” and two boxwood plants trimmed into three-sided pyramids.

Overall the integrity of the garden is good. The Mercy High School campus occupies similar size acreage as the original Kohl property. Changes to the grounds necessitated by the change in use are obvious but generally have been handled appropriately. Where original historic fabric was too deteriorated to be retained replacements have been executed in a sensitive manner and in such a way that the viewer can easily understand what is original.

The Kohl Mansion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 No. 2750.

Decoratively trimmed boxwood near the front door

Sisters of Mercy History

The Sisters of Mercy was founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley, a wealthy Irish heiress, who wanted to care for poor women and children in Ireland. The sisters arrived in San Francisco prior to 1855 and established St. Mary’s Hospital, retirement facilities and four schools in San Francisco and Oakland. They purchased the Kohl Mansion in 1924 and used it as the Motherhouse for the region. By 1952 they ran a high school in San Francisco and 25 elementary schools throughout California. In 1989 they became co-sponsors of Mercy Housing, Inc. Their mission is to provide quality, affordable, housing for the poor, to strengthen families, and to promote healthy communities.

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