A historic mansion, the Minnesota Legislature, and the politics of the 2016 bonding bill

Creative Commons/University of M
In 2015, Duluth's Glensheen Mansion had more than 100,000 visitors.

When you get a tour of the Glensheen Mansion, a Beaux-Arts style home perched on the rocky shores of Lake Superior just past downtown Duluth, the guides don’t like to talk about the horror that unfolded there.

First, they want to show off the early 20th-century home to guests, from the Minnesota-made lighting fixtures and the lush, green-tiled breakfast room to the library, filled with mahogany furniture and books, all original to the home. They want to take guests up to the third floor, only recently re-opened to the public, and out through the gardens and trails on the sprawling seven-acre estate. They want to talk about the home’s original owner, Chester Congdon, a lawyer from New York who moved to Minnesota and helped develop North Shore Drive and the Mesabi Iron Range.

Then, near the very end of the tour, guides take guests into a room and answer all their questions about June 27, 1977, when the heiress to the estate, Elisabeth Congdon, was found suffocated by a satin pillow in her bedroom. The body of her night nurse was lying in the grand staircase, where she was beaten to death with a candlestick.

“It’s a sad reality for Glensheen, really,” said Dan Hartman, the Duluth City Councilor-turned director of the Glensheen estate. “The murder put it on the map originally, but had that never happened, this would be a much more famous national house museum, because the decor inside and its longer history is far greater than a lot the things we have in Minnesota.”

Whatever it is that draws people to Glensheen, things are going well these days. In 2015, the estate had more than 100,000 visitors, easily making it the top-visited historic home in the state and third most-visited historic site overall (the James J. Hill House in St. Paul had just more than 50,000 visitors last year). The number of visitors is nearly double what the museum saw just three years ago.

But the estate has another not-so-hidden secret: Parts of it are literally falling down. A quick jaunt around the brick mansion shows abundant cracks in retaining walls and around the garden. Some bricks are so loose Hartman plucks them out of the wall to demonstrate, before gently putting them back in their place. The family’s historic boathouse is being ravaged by waves from Lake Superior.

Crumbling brickwork at Glensheen Mansion.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Crumbling brickwork at Glensheen Mansion.

But the bigger problem is the weak points in the 108-year-old home’s foundation and a bowing brick wall by the kitchen, which is attached to the home’s chimney. It has the potential to come tumbling down. And, depending on which way it falls, it could destroy the interior of Glensheen. “This is a really scary part,” Hartman said.

To fix the problem, Hartman and the rest of the staff at Glensheen are putting their hopes in state legislators this year. They’re asking for an attention-grabbing $26 million from the state’s bonding bill to tackle the deferred maintenance — $8 million of which is needed immediately to deal with the dangerous structural issues, said Hartman. 

That is, if legislators even pass a bonding bill this year.

From murder to historic mansion

Long before Elisabeth Congdon’s murder, she paved the way for Glensheen to become a historic site. In the 1968, she donated the Congdon estate to the University of Minnesota Duluth. The understanding was she would live there until her death and the school would take over afterward.

No one was anticipating Elisabeth’s untimely death in 1977, save for maybe her adopted daughter, Marjorie, along with Marjorie’s husband, Roger Caldwell, who were charged with murdering Elisabeth in an attempt to inherit her fortune (Marjorie was later acquitted). By 1979, the university had fully taken over the home and began offering tours of the estate, initially prohibiting guides from speaking of Elisabeth’s murder.

The rules were loosened over time to draw more people to the museum, especially as visitor numbers declined steadily from a high water mark of nearly 140,000 in 1981. In 2007, fewer than 58,000 people visited the estate. Hartman, a Duluth City Councilor who worked as a tour guide at Glensheen in college, was appointed director of the estate in 2013 and immediately started making changes.

The mansion added new tours, like the flashlight tour and the nooks and crannies tour, and opened spaces like Clara Congdon’s balcony to visitors for the first time. They broke old rules of historic mansions, taking down velvet ropes and allowing visitors to take pictures.

Photos of Clara and Chester Congdon on display in the master bedroom.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Photos of Clara and Chester Congdon on display in the master bedroom.

Hartman, himself a student of the Congdon family, quickly darts around the mansion and takes liberties to touch and show off Chester’s rare book editions in his library, which are being cataloged for the first time ever, or his old hat in his bedroom on the second floor. The new approach has dramatically increased the number of visitors to the site in just two years, bringing the home’s numbers back up to 101,000 last year. Adult ticket prices range from $15 for a classic tour to $35 for the nooks and crannies tour.

The largest demographic of visitors to the mansion is young women, Hartman said, who are curious to know more about lifestyle of the Congdons and the era, not necessarily about the murders. “People really come here because they want to see the big and beautiful,” Hartman said. “They’ve heard this is something they need to see.”

The struggle for bonding

The spike in visitors hasn’t been enough to cover the costs of the major structural problems at Glensheen, however. In 2012, flooding ripped through the property, allowing the estate to collect some insurance money to clear trees and brush and bring the landscaping back to what it was when the home was originally constructed in 1908. But the structural problems are far too expensive for the university alone, which has put about $12 million into the home over the years, Hartman said. 

“It’s about figuring out how do you advance a project like Glensheen, that is at once a University of Minnesota asset but is never going to score well when you put it up against classrooms and laboratories and things like that,” said Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, who authored the $26 million bonding request for Glensheen.

Most legislators are already familiar with the historic mansion, but Reinert suggested Hartman give members of the traveling House and Senate capital investment committees a more intimate tour when they visited last summer. So Hartman gave legislators free rein to check out the estate. They had dinner there later in the evening and enjoyed bonfires out by Lake Superior.

Glensheen's lush, green-tiled breakfast room.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Glensheen’s lush, green-tiled breakfast room.

House Capital Investment Committee Chair Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, was impressed by the access to the mansion and is keenly interested in the project, especially after seeing a musical version of the murders at the History Theater in St. Paul last fall. “Parts of Glensheen have been pretty well taken care of, but other parts need a lot more work,” he said. “It’s challenging, but I think it rings with a lot of folks that this is something important to our state.”

But there are complicating political factors. Legislators usually pass a large bonding bill in even-numbered years, a process that involves complex debates over billions of dollars worth of projects across the state. Legislators must balance regional and political interests in order to get a 60 percent majority to pass the bill, a requirement etched in the state’s constitution. Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats set the bar high, with both calling for a package of projects that’s as large as $1.4 billion. Though Dayton didn’t include the project in his list, it could pop up in the Senate or House bonding bills, which committees are starting to craft.

The bonding target of House Republicans is much lower, however, coming in at around $600 million. Torkelson said much of that total could go toward road and bridge projects. That leaves just a few hundred million for the hundreds of other projects angling to get into the bill.

There’s also fear that the bonding debate will implode this year, with House Republicans tying other contentious issues, like taxes and transportation, to the fate of the bonding bill.

“It seems like there are several dominos that tip into each other,” Reinert said. “I’m optimistic, but [a bonding bill] is not a given.”

Who should run Glensheen? 

For Torkelson, the estate’s construction struggles should spark a different conversation: What’s the best organization to run a major historic estate like Glensheen? Should it be run by UMD, which has a bigger priority in educating students, or should a local or statewide historical society take over task? He wants the city of Duluth and St. Louis County Historical society to get involved in the funding conversation. “Bonding is not the only answer,” he said.

Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, has introduced a bill that would transfer the estate from the university to the Minnesota Historical Society, the state’s largest private nonprofit set up to preserve and display Minnesota history. David Kelliher, public policy director with the historical society, said Glensheen is in good hands with Hartman, and the state program has its hands full. “We can’t run every historic building in the state,” he said. “There are just too many of them.”

But Kelliher is confident the idea of preserving historical structures will be a big part of the conversation in this year’s bonding debate. “I’ve heard both of the current bonding committee chairs saying we want to focus on preserving what we have, and certainly preserving historic structures fits right within that goal.”

‘Minnesota’s house’

For his part, Hartman is staying out of that debate and focusing on securing the bonding dollars this session. If they don’t materialize, he doesn’t see any other viable options for the university and Glensheen in the short term. They would simply continue on and hope certain pieces of the structure do not fall down.

Near the end of the tour, Hartman walks out toward the back of the home. One part of the bonding proposal would fix up the Congdon’s old boathouse, the only one like it along the waters of Lake Superior.

The family’s historic boathouse is being ravaged by waves from Lake Superior.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
The family’s historic boathouse is being ravaged by waves from Lake Superior.

The pier that offered the structure some cover from Superior powerful waves broke off more than 50 years ago, and the water has been creeping in ever since. The bonding would restore the old building to what it looked like in the early 1900s, when the Congdons held parties out on the lake and used the roof of the boathouse for orchestra performances.

He emphasizes that the request isn’t to create a new Glensheen — or even to renovate the entire structure. It’s just to keep Glensheen standing. Bonding bills were created back in the 1970s to maintain the state’s vast infrastructure, especially those of regional significance. 

“It doesn’t get more bricks and mortar than this,” Hartman said. “This is Minnesota’s house.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/25/2016 - 11:01 am.

    “attention-grabbing $26 million”

    Got that right.

    “It’s a sad reality for Glensheen, really,” and I’m not talking about the murder here.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/25/2016 - 01:25 pm.

    Sell it….now…seller market

    Why should the taxpayers pay for this “historic building”?

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 04/25/2016 - 01:28 pm.

    I have a few questions…that’s a lot of bucks …

    That’s a lot of funds and how does neglect over time blur this picture?

    This is a mansion that was built on the slave labor of artisans,…brick layers, carpenters with wages unacceptably low even then? So it was work back then; honest labor without question?

    And if so funded. who will to the highest bidder for all the designated neglected spaces in need of repairs. It can’t be just a simple issue ?

    Who neglected the water frontage, landing, whatever, that water flooded in in the first place?

    What is UMD’s responsibility if accountability becomes part of the funding process?..

    Seems like a lot more questions than clarification or basic answers here?

    Then again, who knows?

    • Submitted by Lynn VanDervort on 04/28/2016 - 02:37 pm.

      UMD is part of the University of Minnesota, and if any specific institution is to be held accountable, it is the main body – not just a specific campus.

      I worked at Glensheen for 6 years as staff (not student staff…) There is a lot I could say (and will be saying to my elected officials), but I have to correct one item in this comment that is dead wrong.

      Glensheen is one of Duluth’s first documented building projects that was built by UNION labor. I know this because during an initial restoration project, the name of an individual was found under wallpaper being replaced. We couldn’t find a record of this person and put out a call for help in the Duluth News Tribune. The daughter of this person responded with a phone call and ultimately a family reunion of sorts was held when the new wall paper was hung — and the son of this man who worked with his father and learned the craft – hung the first new sheet of wall paper — and signed his name next to his father’s. We couldn’t find the name of original wallpaper hanger in the local union records because he was a member of a union in the Twin Cities – not Duluth.

      Wages were obviously, a lot less at the turn of the 20th century, but wages were at union rates — which was a lot more than the average person was making at that time. Artisans were well rewarded.

      The building records of Glensheen are part of the estate, as well as a vast treasure trove of information — some of which has never been truly studied.

      Glensheen Historic Estate deserves the support of this state.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/25/2016 - 03:28 pm.

    No, it’s not “Minnesota’s house” – as proof, check out

    …the MN Historical Society’s leadership view of this thing:

    “We can’t run every historic building in the state,” he said. “There are just too many of them.” He seems to have an awareness of just how much of a burden this thing is now, and will be in future. We should listen to this advice.

    I’m with him, ESPECIALLY IF the whole idea here is “It’s just to keep Glensheen standing.”

    Does anyone have the slightest doubt that these advocates will come back time and time again telling us that it’s our baby now since we funded repairs this time ??

    If this place can’t stand on its own, then we should not ask all taxpayers to prop it up, no matter how many tears it brings to the eyes of the preservationists – who never pay for their projects out of their own pockets.

    Here’s an alternative and a reasonable accomodation: a ONE-TIME appropriation to fund a documentary film which can give future Minnesotans a view of what once stood on the property, including all its interior and exterior aspects as they now exist. A couple million, or a few million at most. Let all those U of M students who study film and MN History use it to establish credits in their portfolios and make a little money to support their education.

    We’ve got to let this thing go if the people don’t support it enough at present, which they obviously do not.

    • Submitted by Martin Moen on 04/25/2016 - 05:25 pm.

      preservationists contribute

      “the preservationists – who never pay for their projects out of their own pockets.”

      Last I checked, preservationists in Minnesota paid their taxes and supported historic sites with donations and entrance fees. Their behavior is very similar to sports fans, motorists, students and many other groups who recognize that a portion of the fees they pay contribute to the upkeep of places that make Minnesota our home. While I disagree with some of the projects I’ve paid for, I accept the trade.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/25/2016 - 10:00 pm.

        The Glensheen mansion does not make MN our home.

        It was the home of the super-rich, curious for all its lavish appointments, which the rest of Minnesota couldn’t afford.

        It is disturbing to hear the Twins and Vikings sports palaces now used as an example and excuse for other projects which the Public doesn’t support.

  5. Submitted by Alicia Lebens on 04/25/2016 - 04:22 pm.

    A former tour guide’s view

    About 5 years ago, I was a tour guide at Glensheen. The vast majority of people working for Glensheen are students at UMD, and mostly are from the arts departments. There is no finer collection (in my opinion) of art, furniture, architecture and other artifacts of that age of our state and of the nation that can be researched and explored in the setting that it was intended to be in. The house is spectacular, yes, but the story and the things inside the house are what truly sets Glensheen apart. It is vital that the items stay in the home and that the house can continue to be the subject of tourist interest as well as educational and professional research. The funding being asked for the project is needed.

    Being that this property is part of the University system, it is not strange to me to ask the legislature for money. Doesn’t athletics, sciences and other departments also ask the legislature to fund buildings and capitol projects? I say that Glensheen should get some matching grant dollars; allowing for continued fundraising and still get some help from the state.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/25/2016 - 04:54 pm.

      Good and Forgotten Points

      Thank you for reminding us of the value well beyond tourism. Those who know something about the estate and its furnishings know it is special in that respect. And you’re right about those other funding projects we sometimes know and often don’t. Those generally get mixed among the budget lines of various institutions.

      It’s just the sticker shock here of public disclosure that’s so disconcerting.

      • Submitted by Alicia Lebens on 04/26/2016 - 12:57 pm.

        Sticker shock

        I completely agree with the sticker shock, but having worked around the building and seen the damage of time I am surprised the cost is not higher. Either through lack of oversight or a “kick the can down the road” attitude, the building has been left in disrepair and it is a shame.

        I personally don’t think the whole $26 million ask should come out of the state’s general fund. As a recent graduate, I am drowned in student loan debt and, as much as I love Glensheen and the items in the house, I would feel it was a poor investment of my tuition dollars if UMD had to foot the bill alone. I can only hope there is some cooperation between all groups to come up with a plan that better suits the interests of everyone.

  6. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 04/25/2016 - 06:36 pm.

    26 million dollars vs

    All the money for sport stadiums? Have you complainers ever went up there? The history of this house is incredible and way before its time. Far better to upkeep this amazing place than a bs tax break for the over wealthy. As to concerns about the workers’ rights, work on strengthening unions rather than crying about that time when the unions had no choice

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/25/2016 - 09:52 pm.

      As one who complains about this particular proposal,

      …I have indeed paid my fees and toured the mansion twice over the years, and found it interesting as a way of showing the way the uber-rich (over-wealthy?) lived 100 years ago. So my objection is not because I haven’t seen it, nor because I didn’t like the tour or the place.

      If comparing it to the lunacy of many, many hundreds of millions of public money going to the professional sports franchises is not enough exaggeration, why not compare it to digging the Panama Canal ?? Then it would be an even greater bargain, by comparison.

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