The Congdon House, aka Glensheen

A view of Glensheen from the Lake Superior shore photographed by Dennis O’Hara in 2015. (Image: Northern Images)

3300 London Road | Architect: Clarence Johnston | b. 1905–1909 | Extant

In August 1901, Clara Congdon was dreaming about a new home. Her journal entry is marked “first plans of the new house,” but this was more of a wish list, not an architect’s drawing. Two years later, Chester started buying up land along the Lake Superior shore just east of tiny Scandia Cemetery off London Road, about two miles east of downtown roughly between 33rd and 35th Avenues East. Two streams ran through the property, Tischer Creek (then called “Tischer’s Creek”) near its western border and Bent Brook roughly at the center. The property stretched from the lake shore north about a quarter of a mile—London Road sliced right through it. If living so close to a cemetery bothered Clara, she didn’t show it; family members have often repeated the anecdote that the Congdon matriarch reportedly said, “At least I’ll have quiet neighbors.”

Clara’s diary entry for July 28, 1903, reads “Chester and I went to Tischer’s Creek to measure the place for a home.” They planned to ask the architect to place the house between the creeks, with views of the much larger Tischer a priority. Chester had a name in mind for the estate: Glensheen. The first half was for the deep ravines Tischer Creek had carved along its shores, the second half for the sheen of its glimmering waters and, as many have suggested, perhaps for his family’s ancestral home of Sheen, England.

Recently retired as a mining company attorney, and with most of his investments paying off, Chester spent a lot of time making sure the entire property would match his and Clara’s expectations. First, he hired Clarence H. Johnston Sr., named Minnesota’s state architect in 1901, to build the family home. A few years earlier, Johnston had been appointed architect to the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, and he is credited with designing many of the university’s buildings on all its campuses. Johnston, steeped in classical training, designed an Edwardian manor that would have looked right at home in the English
countryside. Glensheen’s Jacobean Revival design mimics aspects of buildings from the late English Renaissance (circa 1603 to 1650; some consider Glensheen’s design Jacobethan Revival, a hybrid of Elizabethan and Jacobean). Not only was the style then a current architectural trend, but it reflected Clara and Chester’s English heritage. Johnston’s interior layout for Glensheen reflects sensibilities of the Beaux Arts school of design, which emphasizes a balance of public rooms (first floor and lower level), private rooms (second and third floors), and service rooms (concentrated on the mansion’s east end).

To design the grounds of their twenty-two-acre estate, the Congdons hired arguably the best landscape architect in the nation, Charles W. Leavitt. Described by a New York publisher as a “rare combination of engineer, artist, and diplomat,” Leavitt founded the first landscape architecture program at Columbia University. At Glensheen he would transform the property’s clay-packed soil into a fully functioning, nearly self-sustaining estate.

Leavitt had help from his former protégés Anthony U. Morell and Arthur R. Nichols, who came to Duluth to execute Leavitt’s plans. They plotted the locations of the outbuildings and pasture land for the Congdons’ horses and dairy cows; created a long, formal tree-lined entry on the east side of the estate and a short winding driveway that leads from the west side to the house’s front door; plotted formal, flower, and vegetable gardens; and oversaw the construction of rustic foot bridges over Bent Brook, a stone-arched bridge over Tischer Creek, and a trail system along the creek that stretched into what later became Congdon Park.

Thanks to the journals of building construction supervisor John C. Bush, condensed in former Glensheen Historic Estate director Michael Lane’s Glensheen: The Construction Years, we can follow the estate’s three-year, nine-month construction process. In May 1905 workers first started creating a road from the site to Howard’s Crossing, a railroad stop east of 36th Avenue East where trains dropped off building materials that were hauled to the site in wagons. Work that first summer focused on the grounds, raising road beds, digging drainage trenches, laying lines for water, electric, gas, and telephone service, marking out locations for the various gardens, and excavating the house’s basement. As the year closed, the ground floor’s exterior walls were standing.

At the same time the house was under construction, four other major building projects took place on the property. Workers built a gardener’s cottage, a carriage house, a stone boathouse and concrete pier, and a reservoir above London Road along Tischer Creek that was used to provide water for the greenhouses, gardens, and lawn. The stone-arch bridge was constructed over Tischer Creek, and smaller wooden bridges over Bent Brook.

The following year saw much more progress, and the house began to take shape. Johnston took advantage of modern technology, framing the house with steel beams rather than wood, which helped make it both stronger and more fire resistant. Builders went back to work in April 1906, and by October the house was framed to the attic. As the year ended both the mansion and carriage house were enclosed. The house was faced with red brick trimmed with Vermont granite. Radiators were brought in, and interior work continued into 1907. When it warmed up in March, the roofers came to work, installing terra-cotta tile shingles. As the year ended, the carriage house interior was complete and the main house’s interior ready for finishing.

With the interior, Clara—herself a trained artist—became as deeply involved with the project as Chester. They hired the renowned William A. French Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, interior designers that not only created and built custom furniture and woodwork, but also spanned the globe to chase down furnishings and building materials. Glensheen would be decorated with objets d’art that came from Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, Algeria, the Middle East, and Asia.

Chester invested in William A. French and served as its vice president, perhaps, it has been speculated, because the company didn’t have enough capital to purchase the materials needed for their contract with the Congdons. In keeping with Johnston’s layout, French and his team executed a Beaux Arts–style design throughout much of the house. Celebrated Minneapolis designer John S. Bradstreet also made major contributions to the interior design, using Arts and Crafts–style elements within the first floor’s smoking room and sun room and each room on the southerly side of the third floor. This rare marriage of styles reflected a changing sensibility in American design at the turn of the century.

In February 1908 an agent from William A. French arrived in Duluth to oversee the installation of the woodwork. In July more employees of William A. French began installing wall and ceiling treatments. The furniture began arriving a few days before Christmas.

On February 1, 1909, Bush made his last entry: “end of house work.” Total cost, $864,000—more than $22 million today. When complete, the estate included the main house, a cottage for the gardener, four greenhouses, a vegetable garden and a flower garden, a formal garden complete with pool and fountain, a carriage house, a tennis court, a bowling lawn, a boathouse and pier, and two trail systems, one of which led up Tischer Creek above London Road to a chalet, a water reservoir, and an apple orchard.

The house also held modern amenities, such as central heating, humidification, and vacuuming systems as well as intercoms and telephones. Glensheen was rigged with both gas and electric lighting, a common practice at the time because delivery of electricity was still unreliable.

The Congdons could not wait to move into their new home—and they didn’t. On November 23, 1908, Edward—twenty-three years old and home from Yale for Thanksgiving—spent the night in his new room. Three days later the rest of the family moved in. The house became a social focal point. The Congdons entertained dinner guests often, especially when Chester was not off on business, and the summers were filled with visitors, some of whom stayed weeks at a time. That first year Glensheen hosted a Bannister family reunion.

Since then Glensheen has remained relatively untouched—the house still contains nearly all of the furniture, furnishings, and artwork designed or purchased for the house at the time it was built.

On July 28, 1979, the University of Minnesota Duluth’s School of Fine Arts opened Glensheen’s doors to the public. In 1991 the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the Glensheen Historic Estate is the most-visited house museum in the state of Minnesota.