The Congdon House, aka Glensheen

Glensheen’s front elevation in 1909, photographer unknown. [Image: Glensheen Historic Estate]

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

IIn late July 1901, Clara Hesperia Bannister Congdon was dreaming about a new home. Clara’s diary entry for July 28, 1903, reads “Chester and I went to Tischer’s Creek to measure the place for a home” and days later she began a list that was titled “first plans of the new house.” Two years later she and her husband, Chester Adgate Congdon, were ready to break ground on the former Tischer family farm immediately east of Tischer Creek. The property stretched from the lakeshore north about a quarter of a mile—London Road sliced right through it. Chester even 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.

Clara and Chester first met as students at Syracuse University in 1871. Chester had gone to work in a lumberyard when he was fifteen in Corning, New York, to support his mother and younger brother after his father’s death. Clara had been born in San Francisco, and both of their fathers were Methodist ministers. In the 1880s Chester began working as an attorney in St. Paul, and in 1892 his former boss William Billson asked Chester to move his growing family to Duluth and become his law partner. Later that year while working with Billson, Congdon met with Pittsburgh steelmaker Henry Oliver and together they created the Oliver Mining Company. In 1900 Oliver Mining was absorbed by United States Steel, and together with other investments the Congdons became incredibly wealthy—some say the wealthiest in Minnesota next to James J. Hill. By then the Congdons had seven children, one who had died in infancy.

The Congdons hired renowned architect Clarence H. Johnston Sr., named Minnesota’s state architect in 1901, to design the family estate. Johnston, steeped in classical training, drew up the four-story main house in the Jacobean Revival Style, sometimes referred to as Jacobethan. Built of steel beams and reinforced concrete and faced with red brick trimmed with Vermont granite, the Congdon house features two grand entryways for the family and their guests and a smaller front entry for servants and deliveries—but even the servants passed through a granite portico containing a recessed Roman-arch doorway topped with a pediment supported by corbels. The house’s slate-covered, cross-gabled roof includes three large gables along the north elevation, two triangular and a third with a Flemish gable centered over the main entrance; three more large triangular gables and four small hipped dormers emerge from the back. Every terrace, veranda, and balcony, including a large porch off the western side of the house, is protected by urn-shaped granite balustrades.

Johnston’s interior layout for the main house’s twenty-nine rooms reflects sensibilities of the Beaux Arts school of design, which emphasizes a balance: public rooms occupied the first floor and lower level/basement) private rooms for family members and guests were on the second and third floors, and service rooms and servants’ quarters were concentrated on the mansion’s east end. The William A. French Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, and interior designer John S. Bradstreet were called upon to decorate the rooms. The French Company not only created and built the home’s custom furniture and woodwork, but also spanned the globe to chase down furnishings, building materials, and objets d’art that came from Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, Algeria, the Middle East, and Asia. French focused on the Beaux Arts rooms—the living room, library, dining room, and second floor bedrooms used by the Congdons, their daughters, and female house guests. Bradstreet executed the Arts & Crafts decor of the den, sun-room, and third-floor bedrooms occupied by the Congdons’ sons and visiting married couples. The grand staircase includes pierced-oak panels, one of Johnston’s hallmarks. 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.

Glensheen is not the only building on the estate grounds. The Congdons also built four connected greenhouses (dismantled in 1971), a Jacobean Revival gardener’s cottage, a Tudor Revival carriage house and garage, and a boathouse for the Congdons’ yacht, Hesperia. (In 1927 architects Harold Starin and A. Reinhold Melander gave the gardener’s cottage a Tudor Revival makeover.) To design the grounds of their twenty-two-acre estate, the Congdons hired arguably the best landscape architect in the nation, Charles W. Leavitt. His plans included a formal garden with pool and fountain, a flower garden, a large vegetable garden, a clay tennis court, a bowling lawn, and a rustic trail system along Tischer Creek, which was crossed by a rustic stone-arch bridge. Leavitt’s protégés Anthony U. Morell and Arthur R. Nichols were sent to Duluth to execute his plans.

The Congdons moved into their house in February 1909. By then Chester had retired as an attorney and had entered politics, serving for two sessions as the Republican representative from Minnesota’s Fifty-First Congressional District and helped Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes win the Republican nomination for president in 1916. Congdon died of a heart attack shortly after Hughes lost to Woodrow Wilson. Clara remained in the house until she died in 1950. The Congdon’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, served as the home’s matriarch until her death in 1977, after which a provision in Chester’s will gave the estate to the University of Minnesota Duluth. The school found the house relatively untouched by renovations: it still contains nearly all of the furniture, furnishings, and artwork designed or purchased for the house at the time it was built. In 1979 UMD’s School of Fine Art opened the estate as a museum, and today Glensheen is the most-visited house museum in the state of Minnesota.

NOTE: This home’s story in the book Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture contains more exterior and  interior photographs of the house.

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