Vanished grandeur of Twin Cities mansions

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2011 - 6:00 PM

Long-ago mansions - and the titans who built them - are brought back to life in a new book by historian/novelist Larry Millett.

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Author Larry Millett in St. Paul’s Lowertown. Today it’s a nondescript commercial area. But in the 19th century, it was the Lafayette Park mansion district, where banker Horace Thompson built his Italianate villa.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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There's nothing gracious or elegant about the busy Lowertown intersection where Larry Millett stands marooned on a concrete traffic median. Cars whiz by in both directions; behind him looms the Ramsey County jail, behind that the downtown St. Paul skyline.

Not a trace remains of Lafayette Park, a long-ago enclave of 19th-century mansions. Their parlors, port cocheres and carriage houses have been replaced by freeways, parking lots and nondescript buildings.

"The whole character of this neighborhood has changed," Millett mused, as a truck rumbled past.

Lowertown is just one of the "graveyards of sumptuous dreams" that Millett, an architectural historian and novelist, chronicles in his new book, "Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities" (University of Minnesota Press, $39.95).

The book is a eulogy for landmarks lost and the "poetry" that is sacrificed when a city's historic homes are destroyed. "The simple truth is that large sections of both Minneapolis and St. Paul were once far more urbane and beautiful than they are today or ever will be again," he writes.

But it's also a lively history, loaded with archival photos and personal glimpses of well known Minnesota families, their fortunes and how they lived in their stately abodes.

You might know that Henry Sibley was Minnesota's first governor, for example. But you probably didn't know that he sired a daughter by a Dakota Indian woman and was haunted by memories of a kerosene-lamp explosion that burned him, his wife and teenage daughter and turned their servant into "a human torch."

Reared on teardowns

Millett's interest in bygone buildings springs from his youth. As a De La Salle High School student, "I walked through the destruction of the Gateway District [near Hennepin and Washington Avenues]," he recalled. "Every day on the way to school, I saw buildings go down."

He grew up in Minneapolis, "but being an adventurous soul, I went to St. Paul," he laughed, where he now lives in "the oldest rowhouse in the Twin Cities" (Burbank Flats, built in 1871).

Millett excavated some stories of lost mansions and the families that inhabited them while researching his 1992 book, "Lost Twin Cities." But while that book focused on the two downtowns and included many commercial buildings, "Castles" covers the entire metro area, from Stillwater to Lake Minnetonka, and focuses exclusively on lost mansions, about 100 of the more than 600 that fell to the wrecking ball or other disaster.

One of the most devastated areas was Lafayette Park. Back in the mid-1800s, around the time Minnesota became a state, Lowertown was becoming the Bearpath of its day, with its scenic Trout Brook stream that attracted wealthy residents.

Tycoons Amherst Wilder and James J. Hill built their first mansions there, before building grander ones on Summit Avenue. The neighborhood's heyday was relatively short-lived. "By the 1890s, it had already lost its cachet," Millett said. The expanding railroads brought noise, smoke and soot to Lafayette Park, and soon the genteel oasis was no more.

It's a scenario that played out, in various forms, all around the Twin Cities, especially during the boom years of the early 1900s.

"Even the most magnificent mansions sometimes had shockingly brief lives," Millett writes. The luxurious 40,000-square-foot Gates mansion on Lake of the Isles, for example, was finished in 1914 and demolished less than 20 years later.

Once a mansion -- or a whole district -- gets in the way of "progress," the process is almost impossible to stop, Millett said. "You need a special designation, like the French Quarter in New Orleans."

Most missed

Which mansion does Millett consider the greatest loss? In Minneapolis, that would be Fairoaks, the Washburn Mansion that once occupied 10 acres near today's Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "They had an enormous carriage house with 12 different carriages, their own little lake and pond, with grounds landscaped by the same firm that designed [New York City's] Central Park," Millett said.

In St. Paul, he mourns the John Merriam house that stood near today's State Capitol -- "a white marble missile shot into the core of that mansion district," he said. Merriam's Richardsonian Romanesque house, built of Lake Superior sandstone, was "a very romantic thing with a giant entry guarded by gargoyles and stone dogs." His widow offered it to the state as a governor's mansion in 1905, but the state declined. The mansion housed what later became the Science Museum of Minnesota, but was razed in 1964 when the museum outgrew it.

While many names in the book are familiar to Minnesotans, Millett also unearthed tales of tycoons who later faded into obscurity. One of the oddest was Olaf Searle, a Norwegian immigrant who arrived penniless, then made a fortune selling steamship tickets and farmland to other immigrants.

In 1891 Searle built a 21-room Colonial Revival mansion on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka, where his "most audacious 'improvement'" involved dredging a channel that essentially cut the island in two. But his fortunes declined dramatically. By 1920, he was listed as a "lodger" in a boardinghouse, and his island paradise went up in flames a few years later.

Millett, who also writes mystery novels in between his nonfiction books, made his name chronicling the distant past. "On my tombstone, it'll say 'Lost Larry,'" he said.

But he's mulling the more recent past for his next subject. "I'm thinking about a book on midcentury-modern architecture," he said. "I grew up then. We're always interested in the world we grew up in. It was a great age of architecture, come and gone in this city."

Today's McMansions can't compare to the homes of earlier eras, according to Millett. "We went so awry. Most things built today are junk. That's why I'm attracted to the past."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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  • "Once There Were Castles," by Larry Millett

  • LOST MANSIONS

    "Once There Were Castles" author Larry Millett will appear at several events, including free presentations (with slide show and book-signing) in St. Paul (7 p.m. Tue., James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Av.) and Minneapolis (7 p.m. Oct. 6, Mill City Museum, 704 S. 2nd St.). On Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m., Millett will appear in a "conversation" with Garrison Keillor at the Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. Tickets are available at www.ticketmaster.com.

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