Glensheen Mansion

It sits on 22 acres of Lake Superior front parcel of land in Duluth, has 39 rooms, and is an incredible 27,000 square feet.  It sounds like this might be describing a luxury Lake Superior resort, but it’s actually a single-family home.  By far, the Glensheen Mansion is the most widely recognized home on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

Chester Congdon spared no expense when constructing his family’s home and landscaping beginning in 1905.  Renowned architect Clarence H. Johnson and landscape architect Charles W. Leavitt took Chester Congdon’s ideas and turned them into his and his wife Clara’s beautiful dream home.  William A. French was hired to do the interior design and in 1908, 3 years and 9 months after construction began, the family moved in.  Construction on the home was completed a few months later in 1909.  The final price tag came in at over $850,000, which is roughly $21-22 million in today’s dollar.  The mansion featured several amenities not widely available in private homes in 1908, including electricity and hot water.  When visitors talk of some of the features of the home the green breakfast room is often a highlight.  The grounds boasted several gardens, both decorative and food-producing, as Chester wanted the mansion to be as self-sufficient as possible, a boathouse, a stone bridge, and several walking paths.

Sadly, Chester was only able to enjoy living in the mansion he put his heart and soul into for 8 years as he passed away in 1916.  Clara, however, continued to call the mansion “home”, along with a couple of her children, for another 34 years until her death in 1950.  In 1968 the mansion was handed over to the University of Minnesota Duluth, an institution greatly supported by Chester and Clara during their lifetimes.  Their youngest daughter, Elisabeth, continued to live in the home until her tragic death in 1977.  In 1979 the University of Minnesota Duluth opened the doors of the Congdon home to the public.

The home has been meticulously kept with much of the original furnishings and artwork still in place.  A few modern touches, such as bathroom fixtures, were added by the family after initial construction, but for the most part, you can walk through the mansion today and get a feel for what life was like for the Congdon family back at the turn of the century.

The five-level mansion features the main living areas, sleeping areas, and even an infirmary used by the family and their employees.  There’s also servants quarters and an attic that are included in some of the tours offered by UMD.  During the winter months, a 21+ Flashlight Tour gives adult visitors a unique opportunity to see the mansion after dark, a tour which definitely shines the massive home in a different light.

Initially, Glensheen Mansion was on our list of “spooky” places to visit on the North Shore.  A very well-known double murder occurred in the mansion in the 1970’s and there are several rumors of Chester Congdon still sometimes seen wandering the mansion.  I once read a story of an unusual encounter with a wardrobe during a flashlight tour that might imply that a member (or two) of the Congdon family stuck around after death.  The grounds are actually adjacent to a very old cemetery,  It seems like a perfect recipe for a “haunted house”.  However, upon visiting the mansion as a child and more recently as an adult, I never got the impression that the mansion was spooky.  And, if indeed “haunted” by the spirits of the Congdon family, definitely not in a malicious way.  Instead, as I wandered the grounds early one fall morning, I was more overcome with a feeling of peace and serenity.  The sun was shining through the trees and waves lapped against the Lake Superior shoreline as I strolled around admiring the landscaping and carefully planned layout of the mansion grounds.  You get the feeling that this was a home that was deeply loved by those who lived in it, and that the mansion is visited by so many from all over the world is exactly what the family wanted.

By far, my favorite stories of the mansion are those of the family and of their time spent there.  Children roller skating through the rooms and Chester Congdon’s love of apples.  Clara describing the cemetery next door as “quiet neighbors”, something I frequently do myself (yes, I live next to an old cemetery, too). I found those stories to be far more interesting to the history of the mansion than what occurred at the end of the Congdon’s time living in Glensheen.  The murders obviously intrigue many visitors, but the mansion truly is so much more than that.  It has a rich history, amazing architecture and design, and some fun family stories that make you realize that the Congdon’s, despite their immense wealth, were just another turn-of-the-century family living out their dreams.

Open year-round, Glensheen is a great place to visit in every season.  UMD offers a variety of tours, including a Full Mansion Tour, a Nooks and Crannies Tour, the previously mentioned 21+ Flashlight Tour, and one called the Best Damn Tour, as well as several others.  Even if you’ve been to the mansion before, there’s probably a tour that will take you to places you’ve never seen, or allow you to hear stories you haven’t heard.

This week’s video brings us to Glensheen Mansion along with Marketing Director Jane Pederson.  Get the basics on the home, learn about some of the available tours, and hear one of my favorite Clara Congdon stories (next to the quiet neighbors story).