Glensheen’s Construction Years

Historic Photos of the historic Congdon estate as it was being built

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Coming up the serpentine drive from the western entrance to Glensheen in 1909, a few months after the Congdon family moved in. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

“February 1, 1909—end of house work.” With that final entry John C. Bush, building construction supervisor for Glensheen, ended a project that had started in May 1905. It took three years and nine months to complete the estate of Chester and Clara Congdon. In that time, a heavily wooded section of land along the shore of Lake Superior was transformed into a well-conceived country estate.

1905: Work Begins

In order to bring building materials on to the property, a roadway had to be constructed. Most of the building materials were shipped by train to Howard’s Crossing, a railroad siding located east of 36 Avenue East—approximately four blocks from the estate’s western border. Wagons hauled bricks, sand, cement, cinders, lumber, granite, iron beams, trees, and other materials to the site.

Grounds: The west entry, which was also to be the main approach, was built starting in May. The curving drive is a raised road constructed on fill. The brick retaining wall on the west side measures 14 feet from ground level to the top of its granite coping. This building method did not require carving the roadway out of the slope and was thus able to preserve the existing trees directly along the edges of the road. This action allowed the site to retain a natural and undisturbed appearance.

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The first project in the construction of the Congdon estate in the spring of 1905 was creating the western entrance so that building materials could be hauled to the site. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

Digging trenches for drain pipes was done in the area where the house and formal garden were to be situated. The drainage from eaves and ground runoff was directed south and east towards Bent Brook, which runs through the estate on the east side of the main house. Evidence of these drains can still be seen along the small creek. A trench for water, gas, electric, and telephone lines was dug between the northeast corner of the house and London Road. All utilities were located underground with accessibility for repair through several manholes which are still visible on the property.

The area for the fountain and gardens behind the house was staked out and soil from the house excavation was deposited there. Two brick retaining walls were built in this area to create a terraced effect. When the lower terrace section was filled in, the fountain was excavated, plumbed, and the bottom concreted before cold weather stopped work.

The bridge by the boat house was begun and the lining of Bent Brook with stones concreted in place was done. The bridge was necessary to allow materials to be brought to the site of the boat house for construction of that building. These projects were started late in the summer and had to be completed the following year.

Construction began June 15, 1905. The work during that summer focused on the grounds, raising road beds, digging drainage trenches, and laying lines for water, electricity, gas, and telephone. The workers shown in the photograph are preparing the site for the foundation of the main house. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
Construction began June 15, 1905. The work during that summer focused on the grounds, raising road beds, digging drainage trenches, and laying lines for water, electricity, gas, and telephone. The workers shown in the photograph are preparing the site for the foundation of the main house. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

Main House: The first entry in the day book about excavating the house foundation was on June 15. The excavation cut into the crest of the ridge to allow the main floor (on the London Road side) to appear at ground level. The foundation also had to be graded to allow sufficient area to accommodate a building 42-feet wide and 140-feet long. The excavated dirt was used to build up the terrace/fountain area behind the house and to fill under the sidewalk on London Road.

The house’s cornerstone is located at the northeast corner just below the kitchen porch. It is inscribed “A.D. 1905.” The north wall of the ground floor was completed first because it also acted as a retaining wall to keep the cut slope from collapsing. The remaining exterior walls and select interior walls of the house were built to support the iron I-beams that span the first floor. Then ceiling supports called “centers” were put into place to allow the 16-inch thick ceiling to be built. The ceiling contains large hollow tiles made of fire-retardant material. Their purpose was to prevent fire from burning upwards or downwards. By the end of 1905, the exterior walls of the ground floor were finished and those of the first floor were underway. Work ceased with the onset of cold weather and snow.

Looking south toward Lake Superior, 1905: the property was completely cleared of vegetation; all of the trees and plants on the estate today were planted while the house was being constructed. Worker in this photo are excavating for the carriage house foundation. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
Looking south toward Lake Superior, 1905: the property was completely cleared of vegetation; all of the trees and plants on the estate today were planted while the house was being constructed. Worker in this photo are excavating for the carriage house foundation. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

Carriage House: Work on the carriage house started on July 19 when the outline of the building was staked out. Five days later excavation was started. Until cold weather stopped construction, the work was mostly preparing the foundation and building up the garage end (nearest the lake) to meet grade.

1906: Taking Shape

Grounds: Work on the grounds began again in May when the weather was milder and the ground was dry enough for crews to begin jobs. The sides of the fountain were being concreted and backfilling was begun. More work was done on the brick retaining walls in the terrace/fountain area. Excavation for the bridge [over Bent Brook] east of the kitchen court area was underway in August. Construction of this bridge may have been necessary as a way of bringing additional building materials to the carriage and boat houses where work was progressing rapidly.

By the end of 1905, the ground floor’s exterior walls were in place when work stopped due to cold and snow. From April to October 1906, the estate’s main house, carriage house, and gardener’s cottage were framed. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
By the end of 1905, the ground floor’s exterior walls were in place when work stopped due to cold and snow. From April to October 1906, the estate’s main house, carriage house, and gardener’s cottage were framed. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

Main House: Construction on the main house was not resumed until April. Weather was too cold before then for bricklaying, and snow would not have melted sufficiently to allow work to continue. Minor tasks like hauling gravel or other supplies had been done sporadically in February and March.

The first, second, and third floors and attic were completed by the end of October. Bush noted that three days of work had been lost while waiting for I-beams to arrive. Strategic interior walls for supporting floor beams were built and the floors installed.

Bricks await installation in 1906. The short concrete walls are the foundations of the main house, and the ground shown in the photo is the mansion’s basement floor. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
Bricks await installation in 1906. The short concrete walls are the foundations of the main house, and the ground shown in the photo is the mansion’s basement floor. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
Progress on the south façade can be seen in 1906. That is likely nine-year-old Robert Congdon and one of his sisters with their backs to the camera. His brother Edward may have taken this and other construction photos. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
Progress on the south façade can be seen in 1906. That is likely nine-year-old Robert Congdon and one of his sisters with their backs to the camera. His brother Edward may have taken this and other construction photos. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

The iron beams for the roof arrived on November 15 and work began immediately. Installation of the roof and of the interior roof tiles was completed by December 12. Weather precluded any further exterior work. However, the house was enclosed and more interior work could be done.

[Editor’s Note: The laborers who built Glensheen earned between $.20 and $.75 an hour—roughly between $5 and $18.75 an hour in today’s dollars. Click here for a chart showing how much different contractors were paid.]

Salamanders (portable heaters) arrived at Glensheen on November 19. These were used to heat the interior areas until boilers could be installed at a later date.

A rare look at Glensheen’s steel framework, shown here in the roof supports, 1906. The roof was installed in March 1907. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
A rare look at Glensheen’s steel framework, shown here in the roof supports, 1906. The roof was installed in March 1907. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

Carriage House: The cow stanchion and horse stable areas were started on April 30. The remainder of the carriage house was worked on through the summer. As in the case of the main house, the exterior walls and floors are reinforced concrete. On July 11, Bush wrote that glazed brick was being applied to the interior walls of the stanchion area. The roof construction was begun on August 4. Unlike the iron-beam construction of the main house, the carriage house roof was built of wood. The roof was tiled by September 12 and the cupolas were being coppered on September 28. From the end of September through December, partition walls were built and interiors were finished. By the end of 1906, the carriage house was also enclosed, and finishing the interior was underway.

The carriage house under construction in the summer of 1906. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
The carriage house under construction in the summer of 1906. (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
The eastern façade of the carriage house under construction in the summer of 1906 (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)
The eastern façade of the carriage house under construction in the summer of 1906 (Image: Glensheen Historic Estate)

Boathouse & Pier: The first day book entry for the boat house construction appears on September 6 and states that there were men working on the boat house wall. Two other entries note that the rock used was from [Ingall’s quarry in Fond du Lac] and that men were also working on the dock. The entries for work on the boat house in 1906 are few.

Click on “2”at right to read the second half of this story…

Historic Photos of the historic Congdon estate as it was being built

3 Responses to Glensheen’s Construction Years

  1. What a great piece of history and to know how the construction all happened at Glensheen! It amazes me how the quality of construction at that time, seems to be much better, more long standing, much stronger, with the little or lack of power equipment, compared to what is in use today.

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