Homegazing: Park Avenue's Venetian palace

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2013 - 12:49 PM

A lumber baron’s 1907 dream home awaits a 21st-century owner, with help from a neighborhood history buff.

The Anson Brooks mansion has no servants or aristocrats currently living inside its mahogany paneled rooms.

Still, Park Avenue historian Ryan Knoke affectionately refers to it as Minneapolis’ own “Downton Abbey.”

“Architecturally, it has a similar flavor to the Gothic Highclere Castle where the series is filmed,” said Knoke, who is a huge fan of the PBS British period drama. “And when Paul Brooks lived there, he had 10 servants. He really enjoyed the good life.”

The Venetian Gothic home at 2445 Park Avenue has its own storied past. In 1907, lumber baron Anson Brooks hired the architectural firm Long and Long (which also designed Minneapolis City Hall and the Lumber Exchange Building) to design a 15,000-square-foot dream home for his family. He chose a large city lot on prestigious Park Avenue, a stylish boulevard lined with architect-designed residences. The house cost $58,335, with a whopping $12,000 just for utilities. Brooks’ budget was quite extravagant, considering the average home cost $3,000 in the early 1900s.

“It had five bathrooms on the second floor, at a time when many homes didn’t even have plumbing,” said Knoke, who researched the mansion’s history for his popular Park Avenue summer walking tours. As one of the city’s first automobile owners, Brooks built a garage instead of a carriage house in the back. “It had a state-of-the-art car turntable so the chauffeur could pull out nose first,” said Knoke.

The head-turning limestone exterior is a “rare example of the Venetian Gothic style in the Twin Cities,” wrote architectural historian Larry Millett in “AIA Guide to the Twn Cities.” In fact, it was modeled after Doge’s Palace, a magnificent landmark in Venice, said Knoke.“It looks like a little piece of Italy plopped down on Park Avenue.”

With the mansion’s sandstone quoins, elaborate parapets and lancet windows, it’s easy to mistake it for a church rather than the former home of a rich businessman. “The third-floor Gothic arched colonnades are just fabulous,” said Knoke. “Sitting on the veranda, you feel like you’re in Venice.”

Many servants

The urban estate remained in the Brooks family for nearly 30 years. In 1924, Anson and his wife, Georgiana, downsized to a 12,000-square-foot house they built a block away, which is now the Thomson-Dougherty Funeral Home. Their son Paul moved into the Brooks mansion, living there with his children and many servants until the late 1930s.

Over the years, the sprawling three-story home has housed a business school, a Lutheran church and a law firm. In 1999, current owner Lemna Technologies relocated its offices inside the 106-year-old Park Avenue landmark.

“Our company was expanding … and wanted an elegant building for our international clients,” said Poldi Gerard, vice president of marketing for the Minneapolis-based wastewater-treatment company.

Elegant is an understatement. After Gerard walked through the original glass-and-wrought iron door, she was transfixed by the home’s well-preserved, early 1900s features, from the grand barrel-vaulted hallway to the two-story Art Nouveau stained-glass window above the landing of the mahogany staircase. The interiors are a showplace for a lumber baron who had access to and appreciation for the finest hardwoods, said Knoke.

Lemna has held countless receptions for foreign dignitaries, ministers of the environment and government officials in the distinctive library, which is paneled with Circassian walnut. “We created a British club atmosphere with club chairs in front of the fireplace,” said Gerard.

The company made only minor interior modifications, such as putting up walls in the third-floor ballroom to create a conference room and boardroom. Bedrooms were used for offices. “It was absolutely perfect,” she said. “Visitors were impressed.”

Today, Lemna is downsizing and focusing on domestic operations, and the mansion is far too big, said Gerard. “It’s a magnificent space, and the main floor is so beautiful and livable. I hope no one will chop it up and paint the wood.”

When the company decided to sell, Gerard called Knoke, who last summer asked her to open the mansion’s main floor for one of his Park Avenue walking tours. “He’s Mr. Park Avenue,” she said. “I wanted his advice on marketing the home’s beauty and history.”

Knoke has taken a personal interest in helping find the right owner for the mansion. He’s hosted several events and teamed up with Preserve Minneapolis and other local preservation advocates, including Nicole Curtis from the DIY Network show “Rehab Addict,” to help educate the public about the architectural and social history of Park Avenue. “A positive public perception is the key to getting people to want to preserve and restore these beautiful old homes,” he said.

  • HISTORIC PARK AVENUE TOURS

    What: Ryan Knoke will narrate two walking tours highlighting homes along Park Avenue in Minneapolis.

    When: Part 1: “Mansion District, the Age of Opulence,” 6- 8 p.m. Aug. 27. Part 2: “Southern District — Queen Annes, Classical Revivals and Stories of Their People,” 6-8 p.m. Sept. 3.

    Tickets: $8. Register at www.preserveminneapolis.org.

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