Minnesota's most famous home is opening its doors for free this Friday. If you're heading north to the Duluth area for the long weekend, it's your chance to get an admission-free gawk at the grandeur of Glensheen, site of the state's most notorious murders.

The occasion is Glensheen's 31st anniversary as a historic house museum, operated by the University of Minnesota Duluth. Last year, on the 30th anniversary, Glensheen offered the first free tours. "We had so much fun, we wanted to do it again," said Lori Melton, director of marketing.

Visitors on Friday will get the standard tour (normally $15), which covers the first and second floors and lower level of the mansion. Most of the 39 rooms look much like they did when attorney Chester Congdon, his wife, Clara, and their six children, moved into the house in 1908. But the tours have changed significantly in recent years.

"There's been a major switch in how we tell the story," Melton said. "You learn a lot more about the family and the people who worked there, and less about the objects in the house."

Of course, the people who lived there included Elisabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila, both murdered at Glensheen in 1977. Congdon, 83, Chester and Clara's youngest daughter, was smothered in her bed; Pietila, her nurse, was bludgeoned with a candlestick.

Murder mystery

Suspicion quickly fell on Elisabeth's daughter Marjorie and her second husband, Roger Caldwell. He was convicted; she was acquitted. Then the Minnesota Supreme Court granted Caldwell a new trial, but instead he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Caldwell killed himself in 1988. Marjorie has continued to make headlines with a series of legal troubles.

For many years, if you asked about the murders while touring the mansion, you were politely but firmly told that topic was off-limits. "The policy for a long time was that we don't talk about it," Melton said. "The philosophy was that the house was such a gift to the community from the Congdons."

But a few years ago, the policy was changed. "Time has passed, and it's become a little easier," Melton said. "The house has history, some of great and some of it terrible. Part of the history, unfortunately, is the murders. Most of the tour guides bring it up in Helen's room," where the murders occurred. Helen, the bedroom's original occupant, was Elisabeth's older sister.

Even without a sensational crime, Glensheen is a tourist attraction in its own right. Designed by Clarence H. Johnston Sr., the architect for many University of Minnesota buildings, the mansion is considered one of America's finest examples of Jacobean architecture and one of the few historic mansions preserved in its original condition with original furnishings. Overlooking Lake Superior, Glensheen boasts spectacular grounds and gardens. There's also a museum shop -- which now sells books about the murders, along with more genteel memorabilia.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784