DULUTH — Exhilaration and vibrancy is how JoAnn and John Congdon, the great grandson of Chester and Clara Congdon, describe the feeling of entering the green Breakfast Room at Glensheen Mansion.
“The motif of acorns and oak leaves, the exquisite tiles, the continuous flow water fountain, and the pervasive cool green color makes us feel as though we've just entered a shaded English garden, no matter what time of year it is,” commented JoAnn Congdon. “We can certainly understand why it's a favorite.”
Entering the Breakfast Room, you stand a little straighter. Green tiles and stained glass oak leaves filter the light through the intimate room which manifests elegance and clarity.
Serenity and peace is how area native Deb Busker Patrick describes the feeling of stepping into the room while visiting the museum home in Duluth.
It is easy to imagine this room starting your day: It’s refreshing and brings the soul closer to nature. It is an easy life to live in the Breakfast Room and it is easy to imagine yourself as a member of the Congdon family, circa 1915, as you tour their mansion.
The Glensheen mansion is a 39-room, 27,000 square-foot house situated on a 12-acre (originally 22-acre) estate, which includes several other buildings and structures on Lake Superior in the heart of Duluth. Glensheen was built between 1905 and 1908 by Chester and Clara Congdon after making their fortune through iron mining on the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. Later the family donated the property to the University of Minnesota and it was opened as a historic house museum by the college in 1979.
Glensheen tells the story of the Congdon family, iron mining and the state of Minnesota.
Glensheen exists because of the Northland’s Iron Range, dating back to steel magnates the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who coveted the mineral-rich region and formed its present day.
Congdon starts a fight
Chester Congdon started his career as an attorney in the Twin Cities. The Congdons moved their family from St. Paul to Duluth when he became a partner in the law firm Billson & Congdon.
The same time as Congdon was settling into Duluth, the Merritt Brothers discovered merchantable ore and opened the Mesabi range to the mining industry.
It was the 1890s and iron mining on the Iron Range was picking up as technology and investments hit the region and attention from national business leaders increased.
The Iron Range had the attention of Henry Oliver, a steel producer from out east, and brought him to northeastern Minnesota.
As a steel producer, Oliver was interested in investing in the region and needed an attorney to facilitate a local land purchase. Oliver was to meet with another attorney, who happened to be unavailable at the time, when Congdon stepped up to assist Oliver.
Oliver and Congdon became friends and Congdon became Oliver’s local businessman, as well as an investor in the Oliver Mining Company.
“The Mesabi’s and Duluth’s early mining history was a dynamic period in which Minnesota iron ore became an important natural resource for the national economy that was made available for the benefit of the entire country,” explained JoAnn and John Congdon. “We believe Chester enjoyed being involved in the development of that enterprising era.”
Chester Congdon was not new to investing and had participated in multiple failed side projects before finding his success in iron mining.
By 1894, the Merritt family owned several mines and a railroad to transport their minerals. Then industrialist John D. Rockefeller squeezed the Merritts out of business.
Congdon saw what Rockefeller had done to the Merritts and contacted a rival national figure Andrew Carnegie.
This lead to a seven-year battle between Carnegie and Rockefeller.
“It greatly destabilized the country,” explained Glensheen Director Dan Hartman. “It was one of the largest battles in United States corporate history and it only took place because of northern Minnesota.”
In 1900, J.P. Morgan came into the picture and bought everyone out on the Iron Range and created U.S. Steel, which still calls the region home.
When J.P. Morgan bought area mining interests, Carnegie was made the wealthiest man in the world and Congdon the wealthiest man in Minnesota. Congdon’s stocks went from $16 to $9,250 per share.
“It was all because Congdon picked a fight with Rockefeller,” chuckled Hartman as he sat on the shore of Lake Superior.
A humble start
On a picturesque Monday morning in June, Hartman sat at the base of the Congdon estate. Behind him a rock bridge led a path over a manicured stream. To his side the stream lead to Lake Superior. In front of him, an iron ore ship entered the Port of Duluth.
Families toured the estate and relaxed into the view of the Great Lake and the sound of history whispering through the foliage surrounding the great house.
A group of women walked past the boathouse and onto Glensheen’s pier. This privately owned pier has appeared for over 100 years on maps sailors have used to navigate the area.
Chester and Clara Congdon both grew up low income and worked their way up to middle during their adult lives. That was until Morgan.
“Overnight, Chester became crazy wealthy,” said Hartman through his sunglasses.
Between 1905 and 1909, the Congdon’s built Glensheen with the wealth they made through iron mining investments. The property became a testament to the American dream and highlights artists primarily from Minnesota.
Glensheen is located at 3300 London Road, Duluth and was built for the Congdon’s by Clarence H. Johnston Sr. Johnston had been named Minnesota’s state architect in 1901.
The William A. French Company of St. Paul was hired as the interior designer for Glensheen. Custom furniture and woodwork as well as international pieces were incorporated throughout the house. French used the Beaux Arts- style design to highlight the architecture by Johnston.
Several of the rooms throughout the house were designed by Minneapolis designer John S. Bradstreet who used Arts and Crafts-style designs. These rooms are recognizable by the one-of-a-kind custom matching furnishing sets.
Charles W. Leavitt was Glensheen’s landscape architect. At the time, he was the best in the nation. Leavitt along with his former protégés Anthony U. Morell and Arthur R. Nichols, created the remarkable landscape of the original 22-acre estate.
Leavitt’s work at the property increased his popularity. Throughout Duluth are stone-arch bridges which were either created or inspired by Leavitt’s bridge constructed over Tischer Creek on the Glensheen estate.
The Congdon’s named their estate Glensheen. There were two streams on the property which had cut ravines into the property and provided “glen.” The shimmering glimmer off the water of these streams and Lake Superior as well as the family’s ancestral home of Sheen, England provided “sheen.”
Construction of Glensheen was finished on Feb. 1, 1909 at a total cost of $854,000 — equivalent to more than $22 million today with inflation considered. Hartman said the artwork and other valuables are evaluated much higher, and the cost to rebuild the mansion with the same quality is more than $100 million today.
As was to be expected, the main house of Glensheen was outfitted with every modern convenience. Along with central heating and humidification, vacuuming, intercoms and telephone systems both gas and electric lighting were installed throughout.
Besides the main house, Glensheen also had upon completion: 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 stone boathouse and concrete 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.
Glensheen was built to last.
Steel and cement were used to construct the thick walls and floors of the house. Although it is now over 100 years old, the hardwood floors are so supported they do not creak or make a sound.
“The cost per square foot is amazing,” explains Hartman. Not only did the family purchase and build the property they also landscaped and furnished with the best the times had to offer.
“We understand that Chester and Clara Congdon built Glensheen because they dreamed of designing and building their own home when they had the resources to do it,” explained JoAnn and John Congdon. “After years of living modestly and with a certain amount of uncertainty they pursued their dream of building a grand house.”
While touring the house it is possible to see the magnificence of their later life alongside artifacts from their more reserved upbringings. As the library and formal dining room shows their extravagant wealth, the master bedroom displays their humble comfort.
The furniture of the master bedroom is beautifully detailed but not as opulent as other rooms of the house. It shows simple comforts they had loved throughout their lives. This is the room in the house they were most alone and able to be themselves.
In 1916, the Condon’s built a castle in Washington state called Westhome. It was made twice the size of Glensheen and at one-eighth the cost. — $185,000 at the time.
“Glensheen was meant to be a show piece for Chester and possibly all of Minnesota,” said Hartman. “At the time the rest of the country thought we were backwoods and flat.”
Admiring the scenery of Lake Superior, a sly smile spread across Hartman’s face acknowledging the absurdity of that perception.
When the Congdon family moved into Glensheen in 1909 they had seven children, plus Clara’s adopted nephew. They were all older, some already into adulthood, but all were provided with a special place at the family house.
Hartman said to think of the popular BBC show “Downton Abbey” to imagine not only the lavishness and time, but also the ages of the children.
After his success in the mining, Chester Congdon became interested in politics. From 1909 until 1913 he served as the Republican Representative from Minnesota’s 51 Congressional district that covered parts of the Iron Range.
In 1916, Chester died, leaving Clara the house until she passed in 1950. Their youngest daughter, Elisabeth, lived in the house with her mother. Elisabeth called Glensheen home from the age of 14 to 83. She was killed in 1977.
“We understand that Glensheen was gifted to the University of Minnesota because the family believed that the university was in a good position to operate and maintain such a large complex estate,” said JoAnn and John Congdon. “The move was congruent with Chester’s early preservation efforts and his history of gifting land and funds for the public benefit.”
Before her death, the Congdon family had decided in the late 1960s to donate Glensheen to the University of Minnesota upon Elisabeth’s death in 1977.
“There was no longer a transitional period of changing ownership,” said Hartman. “In part because of the murder, a lot of the furnishing are still here.”
On July 28, 1979, it was opened to the public as a house museum. Glensheen was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
In 1981, the family did retrieve some personal and sentimental items, but the vast majority of the mansion’s belongings have stayed with the property.
“This property has been an awesome educational resource for Minnesota,” said Hartman.
Glensheen is the most visited house museum in the Midwest and employs mainly students of the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“We are pleased and encouraged with the efforts and progress made by the current director, Dan Hartman and his staff, and the University of Minnesota Duluth’s School of Fine Arts for their persistent efforts to maintain, restore and tell the story of Glensheen and the family who lived within its walls,” said JoAnn and John Congdon of the transfer of ownership. “We, also, very much appreciate the greater university and their regents for their continued and renewed support of UMD’s efforts to preserve the legacy.”
There are several types of tours available throughout the year to the public who visit Glensheen, the most popular of which is the self-guided walking tour of the main floors of the house. College students are stationed throughout the house and are there to tell the story of the Congdon family and answer questions.
Mikayla Allison, a junior at UMD, answers questions in the women’s guest bedroom. Two twin beds sit in the room as she explains that women of the time traveled in pairs, for safety and decorum.
“I started working here because of the history,” said the undergrad, “it is amazing and a great way to get to know the area and understand what is special about the region.”
A sense of lives lived by the residents fill the rooms. A quiet, relaxed, peace washes over a visitor as they walk through the servants’ dining room. One is easily intimidated in the butler’s pantry which leads into the green Breakfast Room — designed to feel as if you were eating beneath an oak tree.
At the bottom of an intricately detailed staircase stood Katie Keller, UMD sophomore. Keller said she is not from the area but spent time in Duluth as a child visiting her grandparents. While on a trip her family toured this family home of the Congdon’s. She answers questions as the laughing shadow of her childhood self dances down the hallway toward the game room.
“I’ve learned so much about Duluth, the Congdons and the area by working here,” said Keller. “I love it all so much.”
Glensheen not only offers tours of the property but also is a popular event venue.
Iron Range resident Mary Hooper recalls attending high tea at Glensheen.
“The home is very lovely and has a lot of history,” Hooper said. “It does show the money that the mine barons had.”
Another area resident, Debra Meyer, recalls touring the estate during the Christmas season.
“Christmas at Glensheen. It's really pretty, especially then…,” commented Meyer.
Just as Carnegie’s lasting legacy were the Carnegie Library’s, Congdon’s lasting legacy of mining is Glensheen and the North Shore highway.
Congdon was focused on the region and his community. He bought land and donated it as a park for Duluth It is now known as Congdon Park.
Chester’s dream was to build what he called Lake Superior International Highway from Duluth to the Canadian border. He announced this plan in 1913, but died before it was completed.
On May 17, 1915, the Duluth City Council accepted a donation of land from Congdon which was to be used in the highway project. Today, this section of road is known as Congdon Boulevard and on Highway 61 or Old Highway 1.
Chester Congdon suffered from a blood clot on a lung and died on Nov. 21, 1916, at the age of 63, from a pulmonary embolism.
Before passing, Chester Congdon had said he would donate $1 million to funding to the highway project. After his death, the family funded one-third of the highway between Duluth and Two Harbors.
“Chester’s interest and determination to preserve the environment expanded while working on Glensheen,” commented JoAnn and John Congdon. “He took active steps to preserve the natural beauty along the north shore of Lake Superior, acquiring shoreline property that he donated to the city of Duluth along with funds to build a highway so that the public would continue to enjoy some of Lake Superior’s most picturesque scenery. His gift of Congdon Park within the city of Duluth was in similar style.”