Burlingame's beautiful Kohl Mansion has been among the Peninsula's most treasured landmarks for more than eight decades. It also hosts one of the region's most enduring and notorious legends. This legend has been a mixed blessing for the Sisters of Mercy, whose Mercy High School has operated here since 1931.
Originally known as "The Oaks," the red-brick, 63-room Tudor mansion stands on forty acres along Adeline Drive in north Burlingame. When first constructed in 1915, the estate included beautiful, rolling landscapes, a sunken English rose garden, tennis courts, green houses, large carriage house, and a 150,000 gallon reservoir. At the time, its value stood at $525,000.
The Sisters of Mercy bought the mansion in 1924, using it as the order's mother house until 1931. When the Sisters built another convent on the same acreage in 1932, the mansion became the campus for Mercy High School, which it remains to this day.
One source, who has been associated with Mercy High School for sixty years, says attitudes of young women toward education seem to have taken an about-face over the years. In the sixties and seventies, young women moved away from single-gender education, seeking coed schools. But studies have shown that young women actually perform better in an all-girl setting. Students grow more confident, with less distractions to their education and career planning, without boys around. Although Mercy High School shares many programs and functions with San Mateo's all-male Serra High School, educators are able to more successfully "divulge the abilities of the students" in the all-female setting. Correspondingly, enrollment at Mercy High School is at an all-time high.
Despite its success as an institution, the true center of attention remains Mercy's celebrated resident ghost. As students and visitors stroll among the manicured lawns and peaceful flower beds, little evidence remains of the tragic episode which culminated eighty years ago this November, bringing the legend to life.
The original building and owner of Kohl Mansion was Charles Frederick "Freddie" Kohl, born 1863 in San Jose. His father, William H. Kohl was a pioneer Alaskan ship builder and fur trader, who in 1874 bought property once owned by William Polhemus, the father of San Mateo. Schooled at prestigious Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Freddie Kohl returned to the Peninsula, quickly becoming a debonair and popular figure about San Francisco high society.
In 1896, Freddie Kohl married Elizabeth Dunlop, who died of appendicitis in 1900. Freddie wed again in 1904, this time to singer Mary Elizabeth "Bessie" Godly. Freddie's father Kohl died the same year, bequeathing to his son the famous Kohl Estate, which stood on sixteen acres, which became San Mateo's Central Park in 1922. The life of Freddie and Bessie seemed to sail blissfully along until 1909, when a scandal commenced which would ultimately destroy their lives.
The previous year, Freddie had hired an erratic young French maid named Adele Verge. While accompanying the family on a trip to Southern California, Verge apparently became embroiled in a physical altercation with the family chauffeur. Freddie had Verge arrested and evaluated psychiatrically. Upon her release, Verge sued Kohl for slander, false arrest and imprisonment.
The well-publicized trial took place in 1911, at the Grant Building at 7th and Market in San Francisco. The court dismissed the charges in favor of the renowned Kohl. Almost immediately following the ruling, the outraged Verge found Freddie outside the courthouse, shooting him with a nickel-plated revolver. The bullet lodged in his chest, too close to his heart to risk surgery. He recovered, but the wound caused great physical and mental suffering the rest of Freddie's brief life. Meanwhile, Adele Verge was deported to France and committed to a mental institution, where she vowed vengence upon the Peninsula millionaire.
Freddie and Bessie returned to San Mateo's Kohl Estate until 1914, when they moved to the newly created Oaks mansion in Burlingame. The Oaks rapidly took its place as the center of high society on the Peninsula. Meanwhile, Freddie's physical injuries and mental stresses continued to fester. By 1916, feelings of physical inadequacy tortured the 53-year-old Freddie, who grew depressed, paranoid, and extremely jealous of Bessie. Unable to tolerate his outbursts, Bessie moved out, traveling to Europe with the Red Cross to entertain World War I troops. Freddie and Bessie never actually divorced, but Freddie reportedly moved into St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco with his mistress, Marion Louderback Lord.
By 1921, Freddie's mental instability reached a deadly peak. As he heard rumors that Adele Verge had been released from the French asylum, fears of her revenge terrified Kohl. On the morning of November 23, 1921, at the Del Montel Lodge near Pebble Beach, California, Freddie shot himself in the head. Most of his huge estate -- $5.5 million including the mansion -- went to his mistress. Bessie received only $250,000. Marion Lord sold the house in 1924 to the Sisters of Mercy for $230,000.
At the beginning, the Sisters seemed to experience nothing but trouble in their new home. In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan -- in full hooded regalia -- besieged the convent. Shouting and honking their cars, the Klansmen reportedly burned a cross on a hill above the mother house.
In the meantime, many of the novice nuns -- learning of the mansion's tragic original owner -- begin reporting a mysterious presence in the mother house. An odd white starchy powder began appearing in shoes, on stair railings, and other odd locations throughout the house. One novice reported one morning finding the starch at the top of the west reception room's ceiling-to-floor drapes, which reportedly would have been impossible for a human to reach. Lights and elevators powered on and off by themselves. Loud, disembodied footsteps could be heard in the upper rooms.
Although some of the olders nuns attributed the phenomena to playful novitiate pranks, others remained unconvinced. Finally in 1927, under a veil of secrecy, the nuns conducted a ritual blessing, in hopes of quieting the mysterious occurences. Two priests apparently led a procession through the estate, blessing every room, closet, and tree with "holy water." Reflecting the more conservative and cautious era, superiors admonished novices and nuns to refrain from mentioning the ghost or the ceremony. Only years later, at a reunion of the 1927 novices, did the sisters begin to openly discuss the "Freddie's ghost " phenomenon.
Since that time, the sisters seem to have settled into the mansion. Every once in while, however, new tales of spectral occurrences emerge. Rather than a detriment, however, Freddie seems to provide an additional enchantment to the former Kohl home, which is regularly rented for weddings, concerts, and other gatherings.
Kohl Mansion has long been a gathering place of the celebratory. In July of 1921, the mansion served as the setting for Mary Pickford's United Artist film "Little Lord Fauntleroy." Robin Williams starred in the 1996 film "Flubber," also filmed partially at the Kohl Mansion.
Perhaps Mercy High School's most famous student was television star Suzanne Somers. Under her given name of Suzanne Mahoney, Somers attended between 1960 and 1962, until she was expelled under somewhat murky circumstances. California Senator Jackie Speier graduated from Mercy in 1968. Doctors, attorneys, and even a judge have all graduated from the venerable school halls.
Kohl Mansion became a State Historic Landmark in 1981, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As for Freddie, he seems to have been relegated to the role of Friendly Ghost, Scapegoat (when things go wrong around the campus), and Enduring Attraction. As long as the legend is perpetuated, it seems a peculiar fascination will remain for historic Kohl Mansion.<