Now and Then: The resilient heart of Glensheen Estate

June 17, 2014

 

Taylor Martin-Romme
Zenith City Weekly

Through marriage, Duluth’s Glensheen Historic Estate means something to my family and me. When she was a child, my mother-in-law attended the lavish dinners hosted by Elisabeth Congdon, the mansion’s matriarch at the time.


My mother-in-law was friends with Karen Pietila, the daughter of Miss Congdon’s nurse, Velma, who was on-duty the night of June 27, 1977, when both were brutally murdered by an intruder.


Dr. Elizabeth Bagley, Miss Congdon’s close friend and physician, was called upon to examine the bodies. That evening, the doctor had dinner with my wife’s family (all of them were part of a circle of long-time friends).


Normally reserved, “Dr. Libba-seth” (as she was known to my future wife, who is now the Zenith editor, but was then barely six) was upset at dinner, not only about what had happened, but that the local press filmed and broadcast her walking into the house to identify her friends.


Twenty-seven years later, on October 17, 2004, my wife and I were married in Glensheen’s Fireside Room, with a reception in the Winter Garden. (As a wedding venue, the estate was fantastic. I’d recommend it to anyone.)


But, of course, Glensheen wasn’t always a museum and event venue. For 70 years, it was someone’s home.


Chester Congdon was born in New York in 1853, his father a Methodist minister back when Methodism was a bit radical. They preached inclusion of marginalized people and formed congregations of former slaves. Manual laborers worshiped right alongside aristocrats.

 
After losing most of his family to scarlet fever, Chester left for Syracuse University. He was only able to attend because the brand-new school, founded by a Methodist, waived the tuition for children of Methodist ministers.


At Syracuse, he met Clara Bannister, a Methodist minister’s daughter from San Francisco. Clara was devout. “She had strict rules for how you behaved on Sunday,” her granddaughter told Lake Superior Port Cities in 1979. “But we still had a very good time.”


Chester wanted to marry Clara, but he couldn’t provide for her yet. So he left for Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, to seek his fortune, and then to St. Paul, where he was admitted to the state bar as a lawyer within a year.


But starting a law practice wasn’t any easier in 1880 than it is now. Chester was flat broke, and the love of his life was supporting herself as a schoolteacher in Canada.


“My dear Clara,” he wrote in a letter in 1876, “I am really too tired this evening to write to you, but I will because I want to. You see, I am never too tired to talk with you...You know just what I would like to do? I would like to lie down with my head in your lap and rest. But I always like to do that.”


They were apart for five years. Finally, he sent a letter asking Clara to join him in Minnesota and outlining for her every meager possession he had—right down to the crackers, meat, and a half-pound of coffee. “Maybe I’m nothing more than a second rate lawyer and certainly I should have the good sense to be a cowboy on the plains.”


But just then, his luck turned around. The US Attorney to Minnesota asked Chester to be his assistant and their wait was over. Chester and Clara were married in New York in 1881. Her brother, also a Methodist minister, performed the ceremony.


They settled in St. Paul and started a family. Their first three children were named for Chester’s siblings who’d died of scarlet fever—Walter, Edward, and a girl, Marjorie. Then came Helen and John.


When the US Attorney lost his post in 1892, he asked Chester to join him in private practice in Duluth. The Congdons started out in a small house on Fifteenth Avenue East and First Street, then moved to the Traphagen House. A year later, John died at the age of two. The year after that, Elisabeth was born.


In 1898, three things happened: In February, Elisabeth started school. In April, her orphaned cousin, Alfred, came to live with them. In September, she got a baby brother, Robert, the last of the Congdon children.


Private practice in Duluth turned out to be much, much better for Chester. One of his clients was Henry Oliver, who was purchasing leases to mine iron ore. When Andrew Carnegie bought them out and formed U.S. Steel, Chester and Oliver still held leases to most of the western Mesabi Range. Shares they had snapped up for $1.25 were now worth over $500 apiece. By 1901, Chester was possibly the richest man in Minnesota.


Their fortune secure, Chester and Clara began planning a home on Tischer Creek, in part because Chester had the idea to irrigate most of the property’s 22 acres with an elevated holding pond—an environmental method way ahead of its time (though no longer in use at the estate today).


The cornerstone was laid in 1905 for a structure built by Clarence Johnston and William French of St. Paul at a cost of nearly $900,000 ($34.2 million in today’s dollars). On November 24, 1908, Clara noted simply in her diary, “We moved in and all spent the night there.”


Named for the “glen” of Bent Brook/Tischer Creek and the “sheen” off Lake Superior in its backyard, Glensheen is a house like no other. Marble railings border two long terraces in the front. A fountain in the back can reach 75 feet. The three-dormer, four-chimney mansion is surrounded by massive gardens and, originally, an orchard.


Its 39 rooms are paneled in walnut, mahogany, cypress, and oak, with furniture made of corresponding wood. The lights are shaded by Tiffany glass; the doors adorned with silk portière and the ceilings with gold leaf. The Congdons collected art and tapestries from all over the world.


Rumors that the basement was a speakeasy are nonsense. For one thing, Chester died in 1916—four years before Prohibition—and it’s unlikely that Clara would have suddenly taken up bootleg liquor. However, in 1912, Helen threw a dance party in the basement, which may be what sparked the rumor.


The Congdons were rich, but, in the Methodist tradition, they didn’t put on airs. They traveled the world, but most commonly vacationed in Gordon, Wisconsin, Southern California, and upstate New York—all places where they had family to visit. They entertained guests with toboggan parties, boating, and games of bridge.  


The youngest daughter, Elisabeth, was 14 when they moved to Glensheen. She attended a girls’ preparatory school in Massachusetts and then Vassar College, but returned home in her second year when her father died. She would live at Glensheen for the rest of her life.


She was engaged once, to Fred Wolvin, whose father was a ship’s captain. For reasons not publicly known, they didn’t marry. Both remained single and, when Fred died, he left Elisabeth money to buy a ring—a diamond and sapphire that she cherished.


Elisabeth was a socialite, known for her extensive charity work and sumptuous dinner parties. At the age of 38, she became a mother, adopting Marjorie in 1932, and then Jennifer in 1935.


Everything known about Marjorie and Jennifer has since been interpreted through the later accusation that Marjorie conspired to kill their mother.


The smallest differences between the girls have reached mythic proportions: Marjorie’s dark hair and spoiled temper, compared to Jennifer’s fair complexion and sweetness. It may be impossible to find a pleasant anecdote about Marjorie or an unpleasant one about Jennifer.


“Marjorie was always very demanding from her mother. [She was] rather rude as a child,” Dr. Bagley later testified at the murder trial.


As young ladies, Marjorie and Jennifer attended the same Massachusetts boarding school as their mother, and both had their weddings at Glensheen. Their grandmother, Clara, died in 1950, leaving the estate to Elisabeth.


In May of that year, a flood altered the course of Bent Brook (the worst flood in Duluth history until 2012 broke the record). It flooded the basement of Glensheen, causing millions of dollars’ worth of structural damage.


By 1971, 75-year-old Elisabeth was the last living child of Chester and Clara. Knowing none of their descendants could take on its enormous upkeep, Elisabeth bequeathed Glensheen to the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1969.


Her younger brother, Robert, had lived nearby and his widow, Dorothy, stayed at Glensheen for a time. On May 29, 1970, Dorothy and a maid were the only ones home in the middle of the night, when someone broke a balcony window and tried to get in.

 

The sound woke Dorothy, who shot and killed the intruder. He turned out to be a 17-year-old local boy, unknown to the family. Seven years later, Elisabeth and her nurse, Velma Pietila, were murdered by a nighttime intruder.


Within nine days, Marjorie’s second husband, Roger Caldwell, was arrested. He was just as quickly indicted and, six weeks after it happened, he was on trial for first-degree murder. Duluthians were already so convinced Roger was the culprit that his trial was moved to Brainerd.


But prosecutor John DeSanto’s case was not without problems. Marjorie’s son from her first marriage placed Roger in Colorado at the time of the murders, and the state had no solid proof he’d been in Minnesota. Unidentified fingerprints at the scene didn’t match Roger’s, while Detective Gary Waller managed to leave his own bloody handprint in the bathroom. Hairs found at the scene, identified as Roger’s by the prosecution, turned out not to be identifiable to anyone.

 

Nevertheless, the jury convicted Roger, telling reporters afterwards that his decision not to testify made them think he must be guilty. Roger killed himself in 1988, still maintaining in his suicide note that he was innocent.


The day after Roger’s sentencing, Marjorie was charged with putting him up to the whole vicious crime. Her trial was moved to a suburb of St. Paul, where John DeSanto failed to dazzle. The Twin Cities press referred to him as “a country bumpkin,” prone to malapropisms and fumbling around for paperwork he couldn’t find.


But his case was not without merits. Two days before the murders, Marjorie had drawn up a new will, leaving her entire inheritance to Roger. Shortly after the murders, a gold coin was mysteriously mailed to Marjorie from Duluth, the handwriting on the envelope similar to Roger’s.


Considering Glensheen was Marjorie’s family home, it was difficult to prove that any items in her possession were not acquired innocently at some other time. Except that she had her mother’s ring—the diamond-and-sapphire willed to Elisabeth by her one-time fiancé, Fred Wolvin. By all accounts, Elisabeth never, ever, removed that ring.


Nevertheless, the jury acquitted Marjorie. But she never really escaped. Later in life, she was convicted of arson and check fraud, and she’s still the subject of rumors involving numerous other fires and deaths.


Now 83 years old, Marjorie is crippled by arthritis. Her third husband’s children claim she tenderly cared for their dying mother. Guilty or innocent, maybe Marjorie eventually learned the value of “honor thy mother.”


Upon Elisabeth’s death, the University of Minnesota Duluth found itself the sudden new owners of a 27,000-square-foot mansion. The University had planned to bulldoze it for either land sale or student housing.


But then they got a look at what was inside. The furnishings and décor were almost completely unchanged since 1910. Chester’s top hats were still in the closet; Clara’s letters still in the drawers. Bulldozing Glensheen was out of the question.


On July 28, 1979, Glensheen started its new life as a museum. “Doors to Glensheen opulence swing open,” the Duluth News-Tribune announced. But it turned out the public was less eager to see opulence than to look for bloodstains in the carpet.


Michael Lane, Glensheen’s first director, had already decided how to handle any mention of the murders: “We don’t discuss it.” That remained the policy for 26 years.


“Our appreciation for Glensheen is based on the aesthetic, not the sensational,” Lane told the Tribune. “Those are the house rules. If people don’t like it, they’re free to go to the library and research the murders on their own.”


One tour guide said she would quit before she’d discuss it on the tours. “Sometimes I say [to those who push the issue], ‘Well, first you should tell me what I should say to the 125 [Congdon and Pietila] descendants.’”


Such admirable sensitivity was a gamble. When accepting the estate from Elisabeth in 1969, the University stipulated that it wasn’t going to pay for a museum. Glensheen receives no government money, no recurring grants, and has no trust fund. If Lane had his way, the museum would succeed or fail, entirely on its own, without feeding one crumb to the public’s prurient interest.


This required a fundraising ingenuity that Chester might have admired. In 1983, the estate put together a book of Congdon family recipes. The next year, they hosted a tennis tournament on the grounds; a few years later, an outdoor concert. By the late ’80s, Glensheen had become a venue for performances, weddings, corporate parties, and a roster of specialized and seasonal tours.  


Viewing the mansion decked out for Christmas is a perennial favorite. You can now tour it in the dark by flashlight. This August, you’ll be able to take a “nooks and crannies” tour of all the hidey-holes usually off-limits.

 

For nearly 20 years, this approach worked, and the museum got by on ticket sales and donations. Today, almost all its revenue comes from ticket sales.


Then, in 1996, the century-old roof needed repairs. The estate held fundraisers and secured a grant, but went $200,000 in the hole and had to close for four months.


They sold some of the mansion’s rugs and parted with Chester’s beloved 10-acre orchard for $500,000. Some of the property north of London Road had already been sold in the ’80s, so selling the orchard brought Glensheen to its current 7.7 acres—a third of its original size.


Costs are amplified because repairs must meet both current codes and historical standards, a requirement to remain on the National Register of Historic Places.  


Utilities alone cost $50,000 a year and the current list of deferred maintenance totals $22 million. The garden wall, tennis court, Tischer Creek, and carriage house all need work. Repairing the boathouse—the largest private pier on Lake Superior—is still just a dream.


Glensheen has never capitalized on the murders to market the museum. But after Michael Lane’s departure in 1995, the hardline approach began to soften. Glensheen started retailing books about the murders in 2004, and then experimented with discussing it on the tour, but stopped after one summer. Now the policy is that murder-related discussion is relegated to a Q&A session after the tour where guests are encouraged to buy the books.


“Oh, it was controversial,” says current Glensheen Director Dan Hartman. “I’ve heard a lot of internal debate about it...But [the murders] happened. You can’t really hide from history,” especially not when you’re a museum.


Hartman sees the current policy as a way to clear up rampant rumors and misinformation. “I’ve heard [from guests] on the tour that Chester shot someone off the balcony. That’s not even remotely true.”


Actually, it sounds like a garbled version of the 1970 shooting, which happened on the balcony. But, because the tours focus on Chester and Clara, Hartman says people often think Chester murdered Clara, which is absurd. The new policy allows them to set the record straight.


But Hartman does get tired of the public’s preoccupation with the murders. He turns away “haunted mansion” Halloween parties and “murder mystery” types of events. When the flashlight tours began, participants showed up thinking it would be a ghost hunt. “Mostly it’s just depressing, especially after you’ve been here a while and start to learn who the Congdons really were.”


Hartman fell in love with Glensheen when he worked as a tour guide while majoring in history at UMD. He wrote his senior thesis about the landscape, which effectively became the current grounds tour. During a stint on the City Council, UMD selected him for Glensheen director and he didn’t seek reelection.


With ticket sales never certain, Hartman is looking towards civic connections. Lake Superior Honey is building a hive by the carriage house. The St. Louis County Extension Office does research in the gardens—15 varieties of tomatoes last year. The gardens yield 2,500 pounds of produce, which is donated to Second Harvest Food Bank.


Those were Clara’s gardens, documented carefully in her diaries, which fascinate Hartman. He’s found correspondence revealing Chester’s hands-on management of the grounds. Photographs the Congdons left behind create an ever-clearer image of life in Duluth at the turn of the century. “Glensheen is a place that’s very easy to be passionate about...Their story is a part of all our stories.”

 

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