Larry Millett’s previous book, “Once There Were Castles,” mourned the loss of historic Twin Cities mansions that were destroyed. His new book chronicles saving architecturally significant beauties for future generations — while telling a good tale about each one.
In “Minnesota’s Own: Preserving Our Grand Homes” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $49.95), Millett gives readers a peek inside 22 residences from across the state, including Duluth, Bemidji and Red Wing.
The architectural historian dug deep to unearth detailed stories behind the moneyed moguls who originally built the finely crafted public and private dwellings — from George Draper Dayton of the famed department store to Dr. Henry Plummer, a founding partner of the Mayo Clinic.
The photos by Matt Schmitt make you feel like you can almost touch the Circassian walnut staircases, gaze out a Palladian window or lounge in front of a dramatic midcentury modern brick fireplace.
The book also celebrates the time, money and commitment that current homeowners have invested in preserving these historical treasures.
“Houses hold such deep places in our imagination,” said Millett, who was approached by the Minnesota Historical Society to do the book. “Preservation is a passion, particularly for people who are interested in historical architecture, and they enjoy the challenge. They are willing to put a lot of time and money into it — and God bless them.”
We chatted with Millett about Frank Lloyd Wright’s ego, rags-to-riches tales and which house he could call home.
Q: The book features a wide range of design styles by many acclaimed architects. What does that say about Minnesota?
A: Minnesota has a rich architectural heritage from the 1850s onward, and you can find outstanding examples of major American architectural styles. The LeDuc House, a perfect little Gothic Revival in Hastings, is rare because it was modeled after Andrew Jackson Downing’s “Cottage Residences” book. There are many Frank Lloyd Wright and John Howe houses — we are a Prairie School state. We had a lot of very wealthy people who built elaborate mansions.
Q: What are some of the fascinating back stories of these homes and the people who built them?
A: The stories are about a lot of strivers who started small and made it big. Alexander Anderson, who lived in a Georgian Revival in Red Wing, was born in a log cabin to poor Swedish immigrants. He invented the American breakfast table [cereals]. It’s an amazing estate with tunnels and laboratories where Anderson did all of his research.
Dr. Henry Plummer was a self-taught genius engineer and invented the Mayo Clinic more than the Mayo Brothers. He predicted his own death. Driving home to his estate, he realized he was having a stroke, and gathered his family before he died within 24 hours. Talk about a cool customer.
David Park was a conservative Republican businessman who decided to build this ultramodern house in Bemidji in 1937. Everyone asked, “What is that?”
Q: How did you winnow down your original list of 75 homes?
A: We looked for a mix of public and private houses, and a balance in terms of the years they were built and style, and that were historically and architecturally significant. We had to pick houses from across the state — which wasn’t easy because the biggest housing stock is in Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities. I cruised around the state on many scouting trips with Matt and my wife, Jodie Ahern. I could have picked 22 other houses that would have been just as spectacular. I’ll never make the claim that these are the best houses in Minnesota.
Q: A lot of people already are familiar with the Alexander Ramsey House, the Congdon mansion (Glensheen) and the James J. Hill House, which offer public tours. Why include them?
A: The Congdon mansion is one of the greatest estates in Minnesota — the setting on Lake Superior is so incredible, and everything in the house was done first-class. The Alexander Ramsey House is French Second Empire style, is historically significant and has incredibly intact furnishings. There’s lots of details in my essays on Glensheen and the James J. Hill mansion that are not well-known. Chester Congdon was an interesting guy — a much quieter operator than James J. Hill. In fact, Congdon and Hill died the same year within a mile of each other.
Q: You included a humorous story of Nancy Willey’s correspondence with Frank Lloyd Wright about keeping the costs down in a home she hired him to design. Was including a Wright house at the top of your list?
A: Frank Lloyd Wright was the greatest American architect, period. And an egotist. His houses are like Italian sports cars — they have issues — but when you are inside one, it’s almost magic. He was a wizard.
Q: The book is packed with facts and historical details. How did you do research?
A: It was a fast, hard slog. A Minnesota Historical Society research assistant gathered lots of materials. I also read biographies, family letters, and some households had a good deal of historical documentation. We wanted to get enough to really have an arc to each story — how the family became wealthy — and answer questions like how did George Draper Dayton end up in Worthington. The idea was to create an all-purpose book that’s not just pretty — but you can also learn something.
Q: Are there any juicy ghost stories?
A: Many big old houses have their ghost stories. But I’m not a ghost-story guy — I’m not a believer.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’m doing a book on midcentury modern homes in Minnesota, coming out next fall. There’s probably a thousand of these high-style houses in the Twin Cities alone. Modernism has never been widely popular with the general public except during the midcentury when we had the most dominant phase of modernism in housing. Modern architecture is never going to be as beloved as Victorian or Arts and Crafts styles. But people are interested again in ranch houses and ramblers, for the crisp, clean look, open floor plan and compact design. A younger group in their 20s and 30s are finding that style cool.
Q: Which house could you see yourself living in?
A: We live in a 140-year-old row house in St. Paul. But Jodie and I really like the Harry Blackmun midcentury modern home in Golden Valley for its open airiness. And it’s been beautifully restored. I’m not a handyman, and I don’t have the patience to live in a project for 10 years.