Introduction to Kohl Mansion – 1914

The 100 Year Old Kohl Mansion, with a view of the San Francisco Bay and the Burlingame hills, has had many identities from sophisticated to sacred, always with a touch of mystery. Born in 1863 in San Jose, Charles Frederick Kohl grew up in another mansion on an estate in San Mateo, now known as Central Park. His father William Kohl had made his fortune as a founder of the Alaska Commercial Company, and the son was accustomed to an opulent and fashionable life style. After Frederick married Mary Elizabeth Godey (Bessie) in 1904 and the two had traveled to Europe, they built the mansion they named “The Oaks” in what is now Burlingame between 1912 and 1914.

The four-story Tudor became the site of lavish parties the couple gave for the “smart set,” and the Great Hall’s fluted wood paneling set off Bessie’s singing. The changes in the Great Hall over the years reflect life in the building around it. The Hall became the chapel for the Sisters of Mercy who bought the house in 1924 for use as motherhouse and novitiate. When the sisters moved down the hill to a new building, Mercy High School opened in the mansion in 1932. The hall with its soaring ceiling was transformed into an assembly hall for students, offering reverberant acoustics for plays and choral performances. The high school opened the building to the public in 1982, offering it for rent for parties, weddings and celebrations. Music at Kohl Mansion has brought chamber music to the Great Hall’s intimate setting beginning in 1984.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

Designed for an Elegant Lifestyle

Frederick and Bessie Kohl were central members of the “Smart Set” in San Francisco during the first years of the century. They entertained at their San Mateo estate and also at a summer home they had purchased from the Crockers in what is now Tahoe Pines called Idelwilde and on their yacht there.

The Kohls had their Burlingame red brick mansion designed by local architects Howard and White to resemble Somerset House, seat of the Duke of Surrey in England. The first floor was made for entertaining in its light filled dining room and in the Great Hall patterned after Arlington Hall in Essex, England– a perfect setting for Bessie’s singing. The mansion’s 63 rooms included, beside the public rooms and the bedrooms, a billiard room, organ and echo organ rooms; a china room, a scullery; cold room and store room; two steel-lined fireproof vaults; sewing, linen, cedar and brushing rooms; a wine cellar; a trunk room and a laundry. A chapel was built off the master bedroom on the second floor for Bessie, who was a Catholic.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

A truly “GREAT” Hall

The impressive Great Hall (27’ x 60’ x 40’h) takes the visitor’s breath away with the height of its ceiling and the elegance of its dark oak walls. Sunlight pours in through the wall of mullioned windows. The Hall housed both an Aeolian organ and a small echo organ installed hidden behind the oak walls. The mantle of its imposing Belgian marble fireplace large enough to stand in is decorated with choir boys holding music sheets.

The large painting of a knight on horseback above the fireplace is by artist Emile Mazy. He included a portrait of his daughter Lucia who entered the Sisters of Mercy in October 1915. Later, when the mansion became the Mercy Motherhouse, Lucia, now Sister Mary Genevieve, could see herself in the painting. (d. 12/8/70)
In the main stairwell of the mansion hangs a charming oil painting of Freddie at about the age of three (app. 1866). His face and his haircut are all boy, however his off the shoulder gown, usual for a fashionable young child at that time, surprises our modern eyes.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

Details Reflect European Style

The house has many careful architectural details. The ancient oak trees surrounding the house are reflected in the oak leaves and acorns carved into the wood, especially in the entry and the library. The Kohls brought artisans from Europe to do plaster detailing. They created Pompeiian “grotesque” panels in the Library, Robert Adam-style relief work in the dining room, and also ram’s heads in the corners of the billiard room ceiling. The sisters had these shaved off as inappropriate for a convent when they bought the mansion in 1924. Plaster experts restored the ram’s heads after the ’89 earthquake.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

A Sad Drama

The elegant style did not last. After Frederick’s sister Mary died October 3, 1908, the family traveled to Europe. Adele Verge was hired to work as a lady’s maid for Frederick’s mother, but her actions became increasingly hostile. After Frederick had Adele arrested for her irregular and bizarre behavior, Adele sued him. Leaving a San Francisco court after she lost her case, Adele shot Frederick as he emerged from the elevator on June 8, 1911. Fortunately, the bullet just missed his heart. Although she was deported to France, she was determined to get revenge. Frederick was haunted for the rest of his life by the fear that Adele would return to finish the job.

The marriage suffered, and the Kohls separated in 1916. Bessie went to France to sing for the troops and Frederick moved to the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. After suffering a stroke, he and his mistress Marion Louderback Lord went to the Del Monte Lodge on the Monterey Peninsula. His convalescence seemed to be going well. Yet a scant month later, on Nov. 23, 1921 he shot himself.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

Dignified Manor House for Sale

Frederick had left his mansion to Marion Louderback Lord who wanted only to sell it. The 1924 real estate booklet described the property: “On a sheltered eminence, half-hidden by its guardian trees, is the Kohl residence – a dignified manor house, typical of the Tudor days, mature and venerable as its surroundings. “The seasoned reds of the old brick walls, the mullioned windows in their settings of stone, the rambling gables, the slated roofs – all blend in mellow harmony with the patriarch oaks, the well-kept lawns, the broad terraces, the comely parterres, and the quaint tiled walks of the summer rose-garden.”

During that time the mansion was used for exterior shots for the Mary Pickford silent movie “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

A Fortunate Sale

On January 24, 1924, the Sisters of Mercy of California and Arizona purchased the Kohl Mansion, furnishings, and 40 acre grounds from Marian gamf.net Louderback Lord, inheritor of The Oaks estate, for $230,000. This newly formed community of five formerly independent groups of Sisters of Mercy from San Francisco, Rio Vista, Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix that united in 1922, was encouraged by Archbishop Hanna of San Francisco to acquire the property and building for a Motherhouse (administrative center) and Novitiate (formation program for women entering the order.)

Carriage house was Frederick Kohl’s and an original part of the property that was kept for many years and used as a gym for the students when the high school was founded.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

Turning a Mansion into a Convent

The Sisters of Mercy administration (the Superior General and her council), community sisters, and novitiate sisters moved in to the mansion one month after the January 1924 purchase. They were delighted with the adaptability of the mansion to a convent. From the Sisters of Mercy Annals:

“Much time was consumed for a satisfactory arrangement. The music hall seemed planned for a chapel…the library has become a reception room for the sisters’ visitors; the dining room is now the novitiate common room; the breakfast room makes a wonderfully bright and cheery refectory; the billiard room is the professed sisters common room; all the guest rooms on the third floor have become dormitories for the novices and postulants, a novitiate study room, and an office for the Mistress of Novices. The servants’ quarters on the fourth floor serve as cells for the professed sisters. Commodious closets, baths, lavatories are numerous throughout the house and the plumbing is excellent.(!)”

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

Sisters Connect with the Community

On January 9, 1927, Capuchin Franciscan Fathers of Our Lady of Angels Parish, founded the previous November, become chaplains and confessors to the sisters, and began saying the daily Mass in the convent chapel. Previously, Mass was celebrated by the priests from St. Catherine’s Parish, founded in 1908, which was the only parish in Burlingame and was founded the same year the City of Burlingame was incorporated.

Our Lady of Angels School opened August 27, 1927, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. Professed Sister Sister Mary Rosarii Wood was appointed principal. The four original teachers were novices: Sisters Mary Euphrasia Butler, Mary Clarence Norton, Mary Petronilla Gaul, and Mary Ernestine Schafer. These novices professed their vows in 1928.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson

Sisters Celebrate and Open Mercy High School

More than 150 sisters came together at the Motherhouse on December 8, 1929, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Sister Mary Baptist Russell and seven Sisters of Mercy from Kinsale, Ireland, landing in San Francisco in 1854. The sisters immediately began ministry to the residents of California in health care, education, and social services.

The sisters brought the charism of education to the campus beginning with a groundbreaking ceremony on April 16, 1931, for a four-classroom wing to be added to the Kohl Mansion for the new Mercy High School. A month later prospective pupils of the high school enjoyed a picnic on the grounds. Our Lady of Angels eighth grade girls and girls from Millbrae, San Mateo and Burlingame were present. A tempting lunch was served under the trees near the green.

Mercy High School, Burlingame, opened on August 10, 1931, with 14 students from Our Lady of Angels School and 22 other students from the north Peninsula. The teaching staff included Sister Mary Lorenzo Murphy, principal, and Sisters Mary Angela Huber, Mary de Chantal Perz, and Mary Marcella Burke.

Written by: Liz Dossa, Sister Marilyn Gouailhardou, RSM and Catherine Wilkinson