The Jacobean Revival Glensheen Mansion on Lake Superior, designed by architect Clarence H. Johnston for Clara and Chester A. Congdon and their six children, is Minnesota’s most visited domestic building. The Congdons named the house Glensheen or “shining glen” in honor of Chester’s ancestral home in Surrey, England.
Congdon and his wife came from the east to Minnesota to seek out their fortune. He settled in St. Paul, passed the bar exam, and by 1881 had become assistant to W.W. Billson, the U.S. attorney for the state of Minnesota. The young family resided in St. Paul until 1892, when Congdon followed Billson to Duluth as a partner in their private law practice. At this time, Duluth was a bustling port city on Lake Superior, sending goods across the world, including iron and copper from the region. Congdon became legal counsel to Henry Oliver, who mined iron ore on the Mesabi Range and became an important developer of the region’s steel industry (his Oliver Mining Corporation ultimately become United States Steel). With knowledge of the industry gained in this position, Congdon purchased mining land that would help make him a millionaire. He also served as president of the Chemung Iron Corporation and the Canisteo Mining Company, as vice president of the American Exchange National Bank of Duluth, and he was directly involved in many other mining and related companies.
Congdon originally purchased twenty-two acres along Lake Superior’s northern shore on what is now London Road heading northeast from Duluth toward Two Harbors. Although this was a rugged and wooded landscape, he saw the potential in the site. The Congdons hired Minnesota architect Clarence H. Johnston to design their two-and-a-half-story brick and stone mansion. When completed, the residence contained fifteen bedrooms, fifteen fireplaces, ten bathrooms, a library, parlor, dining room, breakfast room, and grand reception room. The mansion was constructed of fire-resistant brick and includes a sixteen-inch-thick ceiling comprised of large hollow tiles that are also fire resistant, surmounted by a steel frame roof. Johnston borrowed Jacobean elements, notably his use of red brick and stone trim, to give the building a picturesque outline, with gables, chimneys, and projecting bays for windows and doors. The cost of the structure when completed was $864,000, which equals more than $22 million in today’s economy.
William French designed the interiors, including much of the custom-made furniture, with Clara Congdon actively involved in the process. The Congdons filled the rooms with collections from their travels, including European landscape paintings and oriental rugs. A striking counterpart to the heavy, formal Beaux-Arts nature of the public rooms on the first floor is the breakfast room. French hired John Bradstreet to complete the Arts and Crafts breakfast room in a matte green color, with Rookwood tile, a gilt ceiling, Japanese-inspired furniture, and lighting and other metal fixtures produced by the Women’s Handicraft Guild of Minneapolis. The second floor contained the master bedroom, along with those for the female members of the household. Men and boys were relegated to the third floor. French designed each room with the specific user in mind. Furniture in the master bedroom, for example, is scaled down because Chester and Clara were both small in stature. Throughout the interior are symbols of power (the lion) and hospitality (pineapple), a dual message the Congdons wanted to convey to everyone who entered their home.
The lower level housed both utilitarian and leisure spaces, including a milk room, laundry room, and butler’s living quarters as well as a billiard room, recreation room, and a wing off the recreation room called the “Little Museum.” Technologically, the house was up-to-date with central heating and humidifying and vacuuming systems, most of which were located on the lower level. Given the unreliability of electricity delivery at the time of the house’s construction, it was equipped with both gas and electric lights.
New York City engineer Charles W. Leavitt Jr. designed the twenty-two-acre landscape that surrounded the house at its completion. Leavitt brought the young landscape architects Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols to Duluth to supervise site construction and on-site design decisions. After Glensheen’s completion, Morell and Nichols stayed in Minnesota to found their own firm, which ultimately became one of the most influential in the state. They designed scores of public campuses, such as the University of Minnesota, Morris, frequently collaborating with architect Johnston, as they had at Glensheen.
Following the Congdons’ instructions, Leavitt worked to retain the site’s natural beauty by using much of the original vegetation, including birch, maple, and spruce trees, through which he interwove new trails and rustic bridges. He also placed the driveway within the natural contours of the land. The Congdons also charged Leavitt with making the estate self-sufficient, so he included a large vegetable garden, a green house, an orchard, a cow barn, and water reservoir. The landscape also includes terraced formal gardens, underground delivery for utilities and coal, a bowling green, a large pier on Lake Superior, clay tennis courts, a fountain, and four gardener’s cottages, including one that the gardener’s family occupied until 2004.
The Congdons lived in Glensheen until 1968, when their heirs donated the mansion to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. In 1979 the school opened it as a house museum. In the main house, the University has preserved almost all of the original furniture and possessions of the Congdons. A museum shop and administration offices now occupy the original carriage house. Glensheen is a self-sustaining museum, funded by tourists’ visits to the site and private events. The house is listed on the National Historic Register and is a partner place of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is open for public tours year round.
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