Glensheen, the historic Congdon estate, is a mansion in Duluth on the shore of Lake Superior. Chester and Clara Congdon had their home built between 1905 and 1908, and they lived in the 39-room mansion with their seven children.
A Family Home
Chester and Clara met while they both attending Syracuse University. After they graduated from college, they were engaged for six years until Chester felt financially secure enough to support a family. Once married, the newlyweds moved to St. Paul, Minn., where Chester worked as an assistant U. S. district attorney.
Their first child, Walter Bannister, was born in 1882. Five more children followed throughout the next 16 years: Edward Chester in 1885; Marjorie in 1887; Helen Clara in 1889; John in 1891; Elisabeth Mannering in 1894; and Robert in 1898. In the same year that Robert was born, Alfred Bannister, Clara’s nephew, became part of the family.
In 1892, the Congdons moved to Duluth. Before building the mansion, the Congdons lived in two other homes in Duluth: one on 1530 East First Street and the other on 1509 East Superior Street—moving closer to the lake with each relocation.
Eventually the family built the Glensheen mansion on London Road and in 1908 moved in.
Around the time the Congdon family moved into their home, Chester served two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1909 to 1913.
The mansion has been called Glensheen since as long as the house has existed. “The Congdons actually named it Glensheen,” said Lori Melton, the marketing director at Glensheen. She explained the two theories as to why Congdons called it Glensheen.
“One is the physical space, the glen of the woods and the sheen of the water. And the other theory is that it is rooted in their English ancestry,” Melton said. “There is an area of England named Glensheen that their ancestors came from so we don’t actually know what is the true reason.”
A Historical Estate
As a designated historical estate, the mansion is preserved and exhibited to show the Congdons’ rich and famous lifestyle during the early 20th century. At the time of his death, Chester was considered the wealthiest man in Minnesota, with an estate valued at approximately $40 million. In 1900, Duluth had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation, according to Tony Dierckins’ book “Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth.”
The Congdons’ wealth allowed the estate to be built with the latest features available at that time including running hot water and electricity. Additionally, the grounds were irrigated from nearby Tischer Creek.
The estate’s 7.6 wooded acres include the mansion, carriage house, gardener’s house with a greenhouse, and flower and vegetable gardens where they grew their own produce. To this day, volunteers and UMD students maintain the mansion’s gardens, and Glensheen is kept in the same condition as it was when the family lived there.
The mansion has been showcased in a movie, numerous television programs, and books have been written about it. The movie, “You’ll Like My Mother,” starring Patty Duke, was filmed in the mansion. It became even more famous after being showcased on television shows for both the architecture and the murder that occurred at the mansion.
“A&E featured Glensheen on a show called ‘America’s Castles’ and ‘True Crime’ came about four years ago or so and did a story about the murders,” Melton said. “Dominick Dunne used to have a show called ‘Power, Privilege, and Justice’ and it was on that show.”
The Glensheen estate, which is registered on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Partner Place of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will also be featured on Twin Cities Public Television,as p[art of a documentary about Clarence Johnston, the architect who built Glensheen, .
An Architectural Keepsake
In 1905, Chester and Clara hired Clarence H. Johnston, Sr., an architect for the state of Minnesota, who also took on a few select private contracts. He chose a Jacobean Revival style for the mansion because of its elegant exterior lines and created a family-friendly interior, pleasing the Congdon couple.
The main house has 15 bedrooms and 15 fireplaces. The Glensheen mansion cost them $854,000 to build. William A. French Co. of St. Paul designed the interior and was responsible for the furnishings from around the world. The interiors of Glensheen feature almost all of the same furnishings and décor that adorned the rooms when the mansion was first built.
“Each room is a museum and art gallery in itself, enhanced with works of art by prominent period artists,” Melton said.
Charles Wellford Leavitt Jr. was the civil and landscape engineer of the Congdon estate. When the engineer began the project, he was instructed by the Congdons to preserve as much of the property’s natural beauty as possible.
The mansion is located on Lake Superior, and Bent Brook and Tischer Creek run through the estate as well. He designed the Congdon estate to include: a large vegetable garden, a greenhouse, a flower garden, a tennis court, a cow barn, and a water reservoir from Tischer Creek.
The cow barn is in the two-story carriage house which also includes apartments, horse stable, carriage room and storage and today houses the Glensheen administrative offices.
The pier off the estate was the largest private pier on Lake Superior and the only one shown on navigational maps of the great lake.
The landscaping was designed to withstand Duluth’s rugged winters. The preservation of Glensheen mansion and estate is evidence of the excellent craftsmanship and skills offered to the elite Duluth residents over 100 years ago, Melton said.
A Community Attraction and Treasure
The Congdons donated 13 miles of their lakeshore property northeast of the Glensheen in order to preserve the scenic shoreline of Lake Superior. This donation is now a part of the historic Highway 61.
The mansion was deeded to the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1968 by heirs of the family. UMD uses Glensheen to give tours of the mansion and tell the rich history of the family who once lived in the home.
It was a family home for 70 years before it was a museum,” said Melton. UMD opened the mansion to the public on July 28, 1979, as an opportunity and venue for an educational and cultural resource and a historic preservation.
Since UMD opened the mansion to the public, it has hosted more than 2 million guests. Glensheen welcomes visitors and tours in and around the historic estate. UMD students as well as volunteers give tours of the mansion—detailing the lives the family and the time period in which they lived there. Many tour guides at Glensheen are volunteers who actually knew Elisabeth and the family, Melton noted.
In its present, preserved condition Glensheen hosts holiday events. “Holiday Tea for Dolly and Me,” is an annual event for children to bring their special dolls to the mansion that includes an elegant tea, a holiday program, and a condensed tour of Glensheen, focusing on the Congdon children.
“In the past we’ve also done, ‘Holiday Living Literature,’ where we did ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ last year and had wine and h’orderves and had some actors perform that story,” said Melton. The revenue from these holiday events helps pay the expenses to keep the mansion open.
“Especially this time of year, we’re doing several holiday events,” Melton said. There are also several events in the summertime and private events that bring in revenue for the mansion. Weddings and receptions are popular private events that grace the presence at this gorgeous estate throughout the summer season.
The mansion also depends on their “Friends of the Glensheen” program, which solicits donations and cultivates donors for revenue.
With the history of the mansion and the many events that occur there, it attracts both tourists and locals as well.
“Tours are our main source of revenue,” Melton said. “We have between 60,000 and 70,000 visitors a year who come through, which is great!”
Duluth’s revitalized tourism industry over the past decade has spurred interest in the mansion.
“A big part of our success is because Duluth is doing so great. Duluth’s tourism is just phenomenal and keeps on improving,” said Melton. “VisitDuluth does a great job getting people here and once they’re here, they hear about Glensheen and come visit.”
The Congdons’ youngest daughter Elisabeth continued to occupy the home after her father died. She remained single but adopted a daughter and named her Marjorie. She was soon labeled a sociopath and nothing was done because of the feared publicity.
In 1977, Elisabeth and her nurse, Velma Pietila, were found murdered in the mansion. Marjorie’s second husband Roger Caldwell was convicted of murder and Marjorie was tried and acquitted of conspiring with Roger to murder her mother.
Tours of the mansion do not focus on the murders; rather, the beauty and family history of Glensheen are the main attractions. Ghost hunters and mystery seekers occasionally pay a visit to the mansion and are enticed by the family murder story. The murder that ended the Congdon family residing in the mansion is only a sidebar to the mansion’s past and rich family history.
“It costs $30,000 a year for the utilities for Glensheen,” Melton said. “It is very, very expensive to maintain a huge mansion. There are other huge mansions in Duluth that have been torn down just because the family has decided it was too pricy to maintain it.”
Yet the mansion remains open year round thanks to the support of UMD in order to remember the family and showcase the beauty of one of Duluth’s most impressive mansions.
During the winter, the snow decorates the landscape around the mansion—making it picturesque. The holiday season is the perfect time to bring your family to this historic family mansion.
“We decorate the whole mansion,” Melton said. Candles are displayed in the windows and lights and wreaths embellish the gates. “I think we have 17 trees this year, so it’s a pretty time to come and see it”
The former Congdon family home is now Duluth’s family home. The Glensheen is also a historical estate, an architectural keepsake, and a community attraction and treasure. The Congdon family legacy lives on in the Duluth community through their historical estate and their gift of lakeshore property to the city of Duluth.
Click here to listen to an intrerview with Glensheen Marketing Director Lori Melton.
Click here to watch a video touring the grounds of the mansion.
Want to read more about Northland museums? Click here!