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San Mateo: a mansion, a park, an old dog
April 26, 2010, 03:30 AM

Dogs aren’t usually welcomed unleashed in city parks, but San Mateo’s Central Park makes an exception for one special canine. If you enter the park at the south entrance, you will be greeted by a handsome fellow, steadfast and quiet, so mellow that children can climb onto his back, so venerable he is older than the park itself. His is a heart of gold in a body of bronze.

Some parks start out, more or less, to be parks. San Mateo’s Central Park ended up being a park. It started out as somebody’s yard, a pretty big yard, to be sure.

Charles B. Polhemus, born in New Jersey in 1817, went west as a young man and was able to amass a fortune by connecting the dots between railroads and real estate. Other wealthy San Franciscans were building vast country estates on the Peninsula: the Howards, Parrotts, Haywards and Taylors. In 1854, Polhemus bought a large tract of land and began to build his own mansion, a three-story, 13-room dwelling. He sold this property in the 1860s and by 1874, it had been re-sold to William H. Kohl. Kohl, an engineer, had worked also as a sea captain, but made his fortune as a trader in the Alaskan fur seal business.

Kohl added beautiful landscaping to the Polhemus estate and framed the extensive gardens with an iron and stone fence, some 2,000 feet long, that cost $10,000, a considerable sum at that time. A section of that fence has survived and can be seen on the El Camino Real side of the property.

William Kohl died in 1904. His son, C. Frederick Kohl, inherited the mansion and lived there with his wife May Elizabeth Godey for the next 10 years, playing host to the lavish social life of the day. They later moved to Burlingame and built an estate of their own called "The Oaks,” although it is often referred to as the Burlingame Kohl Mansion. It is the present-day location of Mercy High School.

The Kohl Mansion in San Mateo went through an evolution from a wealthy manor house to an educational institution. In 1907, the state of California had passed the Caminetti Bill which authorized high school districts to create a junior-college level of education, but it was not until 1921 that the Legislature finally passed the funding of such programs. San Mateo went into high gear and drove a ballot measure to a successful finish line, and the San Mateo Junior College District was born. The baby district grew and grew and soon out-grew its Baldwin Avenue campus. The Kohl mansion was only six blocks away and was available. Classes were held in elegant bedrooms. The kitchen doubled as a dressing room for P.E. classes, closets were turned into offices, assemblies were convened in the dining room and dances enlivened the staid old living room. By 1924, the mansion was so full of college kids that tents were set up for overflow classes. In 1927, a new high school campus opened on Delaware, and the old high school building morphed into the junior college campus. In 1928, the old Kohl mansion was demolished.

In 1922, executors of the Kohl estate had put 16 acres up for sale, the area between Fifth Avenue and El Camino Real. An $80,000 bond issue was passed by the city and the people of San Mateo became the proud owners of the first municipal park in the county, Central Park.

A half-acre parcel on Ninth Avenue was acquired later. Tom Pearson, already a city employee, became Central Park’s first staff member. Pearson removed some of the trees to install a baseball field, giving the city its first public recreation facility.

San Mateo had been a baseball town since forever. By 1924, a semi-pro league had been established with the San Mateo team called the "Blues.” A baseball legend named Justin Fitzgerald coached and managed the team for the first 10 years. His own talent had been noticed early, and by 1911, he was signed right out of high school by the New York Yankees. An early injury to his arm limited his career, but he played on for several smaller teams before going back to the big leagues. He retired after the 1924 season and began a new baseball career as manager of the "San Mateo Blues.” He was universally respected and admired.

Central Park was home to the "Blues.” In 1935, the field got night lights, and major league recognition in 1941 from the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Fitzgerald died in 1945, players and fans alike began calling the Central Park field "Fitzgerald Field” to honor this beloved man. In 1960, the city of San Mateo made the title official.

Back in 1937, a superintendent of parks, Stanley Pitcher, had been named to oversee the increased use of Central Park and other locations, such as Beresford Park. Pitcher added a playground, picnic areas, a recreation building and tennis courts. While striving to improve Central Park, Pitcher was mindful that the magnificent landscaping of the original Kohl estate needed to be respected and preserved as carefully as possible.

While Central Park may be greater than the sum of its parts, the parts are pretty important. And fun too! Take the miniature train, for example. No, I mean, really, you can take the train. Kids can, anyway. In May of 1948, Etta and Oris Latta bought a 14-passenger mini train for $10,000. Oris laid the tracks himself. Charging nine cents per ride, the Lattas moved kids around the park daily in the summer and on weekends in the winter. In 1953, the Lattas converted the smoky coal-burning engine to diesel. In 1977, Bob Bianachi bought the train and converted the power source to batteries, still providing good and (now) clean fun for the kids. Call (650) 340-1520 for hours of operation.

Also in 1977, the San Mateo Arboretum Society put down roots in the old Kohl pump house. They have since helped restore the house and have worked to improve the gardens. Check out the recreation center for aerobic classes. Rent a room for your next social event. Go on a treasure hunt with a little person in your life. See if you can find a life-size giraffe by the name of "Leon.” In 1978, metal sculptor Al Guibara presented Leon as a gift to San Mateo and the city gave the bronze beauty a home in the park.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the Japanese Tea Garden. It was designed by landscape architect Nagao Sakurai of the Imperial Palace of Tokyo. There is a tea house, a Koi pond and a bamboo grove. A pagoda graces the area. It was a gift from San Mateo’s sister city of Toyonaka. An El Camino Bell was San Mateo’s gift to the Japanese city. The exchange of gifts and respect helped to heal the deep wounds that World War II had inflicted on both sides. The San Mateo Gardeners Association had volunteered to landscape and maintain a public garden, and a one-acre site in Central Park was selected. A Japanese Garden Koen-Kai club was organized and helped raise funds. Both the Japanese and the community-at-large worked together. In August of 1966, the garden completed, a dedication ceremony took place. The mayor of Toyonaka was the guest of honor.

The past is a story told and retold, illustrated sometimes with old photos and maps, but mainly it’s words that you hope each reader will take in and then give the story new life, keep it going. Of course, it’s one thing to read about the past, about an ancient civilization, for example. It’s quite another thing to hold a shard of their pottery in your hand. So, after you’ve read these words and you decide to go to San Mateo Central Park for a picnic, for a stroll around the gardens, to pause to read the inscriptions on the memorial benches, don’t forget there’s a remnant of a wrought-iron fence along the El Camino Real side of the park, and a bronze dog waiting for you at the southern entrance, the last and most loyal resident of the Kohl mansion. This is history you can touch with your hands and, if you’re in the right frame of mind, history will touch you back.

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