1618 Vermilion Road | Architect: Frederick German | Built: 1912 | Extant
After a Duluth News Tribune reporter caught a glimpse of Frederick German’s plans for a house along Vermilion Road on a six-acre lot between Hawthorne Road and Tischer Creek, the newspaper announced that the “residence is regarded as the forerunner of other pretentious piles in [Congdon Park].” A year later the paper added that “the house will be of unique construction, after a pattern entirely new in this city. Lake County red stone boulders in their natural state will be used in the first story. The upper portion is to be of tapestry brick, half timbered.”
That half-timbering indicates the two-and-a-half-story house’s Tudor Revival roots, also shown in the three-story turret along the front façade and the Tudor arches of both the front- and read-entry portico and two windows along the first floor in back of the house. The front-entrance portico is topped with a flared gable with eaves carved with a grapevine motif. Tudor arches also support a second-floor wing along the western side of the house, creating covered patio space below. The multigabled roof—with a jerkinhead design atop the rear eastern wing—was originally covered with mottled red and olive-green tiles, and the red stone referred to by the newspaper is actually granite in shades ranging from light pink to purple. The stonework extends beyond the house and into a backyard landscaped with a multi-leveled terrace, tying the house to the surrounding grounds, making the structure more of a Tudor-Picturesque hybrid than a pure Tudor Revival. By 1912 Duluth had dozens of Tudor Revival homes and several Picturesque homes. Perhaps this hybridization—call it “Picturesque Tudor”—is what made the newspaper consider the house unique.
Tudor elements continue inside the house, including many of the doorway arches. The master suite includes a combination bathroom/dressing room originally intended for use by the lady of the house and a private sun-room in the house’s western wing. Fireplaces in the dining room and library are faced with marble, and another in the sun-room is faced with rough brick inset with decorative tiles, a nod to the Arts & Crafts movement. The interior walls are trimmed with a variety of woods including English oak, American walnut, mahogany, and curly southern pine, while the living-room floor is made of teak laid in a herringbone pattern. Early photos indicate that much of the original interior decor was executed in the Beaux Arts school. German also designed a gate lodge designed to match the house that stands at the estate’s border along Hawthorne Road and is connected to a covered entrance gate over the driveway.
On the front of the house, the rake of the entry portico’s gable carries a carved, highly stylized M for John W. and Luella Millen, the couple who commissioned the house. In 1864, when he was fifteen, John Millen began working in lumber camps. Not long before that, his family had immigrated from Ontario and settled in St. Clair, Michigan. He rose from bull cook to lumberjack to lumber camp manager and eventually vice-president and general manager of Alger, Smith & Co., one of the state’s most prominent lumber companies. In 1872 he had married Nellie Allison, who died in 1898. A year later he married Luella J. Fiske of Detroit, whose husband Louis had died in 1895. During this period Alger-Smith began moving its operations to Duluth, and Millen was sent west to manage operations in the Zenith City. He also serve as president of the Manistique and Alger-Sullivan Lumber companies and president and general manager of the Duluth & Northern Minnesota Railway, a logging railroad often called the Alger Line. Unfortunately Millen didn’t get to spend much time in his new house, as he died in 1916.
Luella sold the house to Ward Ames Jr. and his second wife, Helen. Son of Ward Ames Sr. and business partner with Julius Barnes, Ames had made his fortune as a grain trader and at the time was helping Barnes and Alexander McDougall develop the McDougall-Duluth Shipyards and its surrounding community of Riverside. Ames, born in 1873, had gone through a lot in the previous nine years. He had married Maude White in 1908, the same year he hired Bray & Nystrom to design a Prairie Style home for the couple at 2216 East Second; the next year they welcomed a daughter, Margaret. Ames’s father passed away in 1910 and in 1915 Maude died from complications following emergency surgery while visiting Pasadena, California. Two years later he married Helen Spencer Miller and purchased the Millen house. The couple stayed in the home until 1943; Ward Ames Jr. passed away in 1962, Helen in 1974.
Joseph G. Sellwood, son of Richard and Ella Sellwood and therefore Captain Joseph Sellwood’s grandson, moved in with his wife Juanita, and son Raymond, in 1944 and stayed until 1961, when the house became the property of Dr. Joseph (1923–2017) and Frances Leek (1928–2013). In 2021 the house is still a private residence. The gate house became a separate property ca. 1990.
NOTE: This home’s story in the book Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture contains more exterior and interior photographs of the house.