Congdon Christmas Stories
As avid Methodists, the Congdons held Christmas dear. Religion was an important part of the Congdon family’s life. This may provide insight as to why Christmas was such an important time of year for the family.
When visiting Glensheen, guests would have been greeted at the main door by the Congdon’s English butler. He would take their winter coats — to be hung in a specially vented closet — along with their calling cards. These cards were printed with a person’s formal name and presented when visiting.
After making the guests comfortable in the Reception Room, the butler would then fetch the family. There was plenty to visually entertain as one waited to be received.
The reception room was built to impress with its gold-leaf ceiling, alabaster light fixture, and a souvenir display from the Congdons’ adventures.
One of the family’s traditions was to have their gardener, Bob Wyness, grow scores of Poinsettia plants in the estate’s greenhouse. These cheerful plants were displayed throughout the home to create a festive atmosphere.
Additionally, the Congdons would dispatch staff around the city delivering roughly 150 plants as gifts to friends, business associates, and their church.
Chester’s Den was created by renowned interior designer John Bradstreet. As one of the few rooms in the mansion where smoking was permitted, it features a smaller, hinged door meant to keep smoke inside.
Bradstreet selected grasscloth for the wall covering and a hand-wrought brass light fixture by the Minnesota Handicraft Guild. The designer worked to modernize the process of Jin-di-sugi on the woodwork, adding to the warmth of Chester’s personal office
The living room was mostly used for formal entertaining given its grand atmosphere. Counterintuitively, this meant it got less use during Christmastime as the holiday was celebrated as a family affair in some of the cozier spaces, such as the library and the amusement room. The living room was mostly used for formal entertaining and special occasions.
Two of Chester’s daughters — Marjorie and Helen — were married here. The room features a custom-made mahogany Steinway and a Numidian-marble faced fireplace. It also holds many treasures from the Congdons’ worldwide travels.
In this 1910 photo is a bounty of boughs and pinecones. Gardener Bob Wyness and coachman James Roper would fashion wreaths using plant material grown on the estate. Many of the Congdons’ original Christmas decorations were handmade by the family and staff.
The Christmas tree in this room is extra special. This is the only tree with Congdon original ornaments. If you look closely you can see the accession tags that indicate the ornaments as historic objects and a part of the museum’s collection.
With the exception of Chester’s room, the second floor housed the Congdon daughters, female guests, and staff members. The central staircase landing showcases the beautiful Minneapolis Handicraft Guild windows with a Tudor rose motif.
If Elsa from Frozen were to have a room in Glensheen, Marjorie’s room would be it with it’s blue ‘frosty’ theme. Marjorie was 21 years old in 1908 when she moved into the largest of the girls’ bedrooms. It is completely trimmed in mahogany wood, including the custom-made highboy dressers.
The closet’s unique ventilation system relies on cool Lake Superior wind from the bathroom window circulating through another window into the closet.
The master bedroom was designed with a simple Arts & Crafts style said to fit Clara and Chester’s humble backgrounds, based on their Methodist traditions.
One of Clara’s holiday joys was her nativity scenes. On display are several from her personal collection. On special display for Christmastime are some of the family ornaments including a wooden spinning candleholder depicting the nativity.
The room also features a pomegranate motif which runs through the room’s drapes, bedding, pillows, and fireplace tiles.
Clara’s Changing Room
In this private space, Clara changed for dinner — and likely donned her jewelry. According to 1912 financial records, Chester spent $14,378.81 on “pearls for Clara” at Christmas. (Keep in mind, this number has NOT been adjusted for inflation.) Here we can imagine Clara standing in front of the mirror admiring her new pearls from Chester.
This is the only room in the house that leads to a private balcony. It offers a superb view of Tischer Creek, the stone arch bridge, and the formal garden.
The master bathroom has the floor’s only shower, which has nine individual showerheads. How about having a bathroom with a shower like that to prep for a holiday gathering??
The “needle” knob activated the overhead shower, and the “shower” knob turned on the side heads. Only the men partook of the shower bathing experience.
The smaller tub is a sitz bath for soaking below the waist. The restorative and recuperative powers of water were greatly valued during the era.
A considerate husband, Chester used this room on nights when he arrived home late, often from St. Paul where he was a state legislator. He did not want to wake his wife, Clara.
After his death in 1916, this room was repurposed as a guest room, often occupied by Clara’s sister from New York City.
Female Guest Room
As travel was a much longer affair in the early 1900s, guests tended to enjoy lengthy visits. This double-guest room was for women visitors only.
One such guest came on a cold January day in 1912. A Vassar student named Dorothy Crawford arrived to spend winter break with her classmate, Helen Congdon. Though it was 30 below and she found the butler “imposing,” Dorothy quickly was enveloped in Glensheen’s warmth.
Dorothy wrote lengthy letters home about all the winter fun she enjoyed in Duluth including ice skating on Lake Superior, a terrifying sled ride in Chester Bowl, attending a curling bonspiel, and the joy of a full dance card at the Hotel Spalding soiree!
As the youngest Congdon daughter, Elisabeth moved into a more modest space than her sisters. She shared a bathroom with the guest room and lacked a Lake Superior view.
Elisabeth lived at Glensheen longer than any other Congdon, from ages 14 to 83, and later moved across the hall into her sister, Helen’s room.
Helen’s Art Nouveau-style room is decorated in gray and rose, the colors of Vassar College, which she attended during the mansion’s construction. These colors are featured in the fireplace’s intricate mosaic made of approximately 5,000 individual tiles.
This middle Congdon daughter was later lauded for her desegregation efforts in Arizona where she settled. There Helen was named Tucson’s Woman of the Year.
The rooms here housed the cook and both upstairs and downstairs maids. Also of note is the linen closet with its marked cabinets. These numbers correspond to each bedroom’s specific linens and hint at the organization required to run such a large household.
Another Christmas ritual was for all eleven servants to receive a $10 gold piece from Chester — which with adjusted for inflation to this decade would be over $250.
Servant Wages (per month) in 1912
Servant’s Dining Quarters
The staff played a big role in the Congdons’ Christmas traditions from decorating and creating feasts to shoveling off the ice for skating parties.
An hour before the Congdons’ mealtime, the Glensheen staff enjoyed the same menu around this table. This was not a common practice at the time, suggesting that the Congdons were considerate employers.
This room was updated by the family prior to the University taking ownership.
The kitchen is the most remodeled room in the mansion with updated flooring, cabinets, and a modern stove. This was to accommodate the family living in the home into the 70s.
The original stove filled the entire marble hood and had 10 burners and two ovens. In Glensheen’s heyday, the cook prepared three meals for 20 people daily.
On display for the holidays is the Congdon’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” cookie cutter from Germany. It cuts out 12 cookies at one time — a welcomed timesaver for such a large household.
This small room is filled with innovation, such as a narrow stained-glass window in the door. It allowed the butler to see any needs in the dining room without disturbing the family.
Also clever is the German silver sink, comprised of copper, nickel and zinc. The alloy softens in hot water so that a dropped dish dents the sink rather than chipping the china.
This beloved room, often filled with plants, was the creation of renowned interior designer John Bradstreet. Its motif of oak leaf and acorn glass is framed with Jin-di-sugi-processed Cypress wood and lit with a Minneapolis Handicraft Guild light.
The green Rookwood pottery tile adds to the lush look. The wall fountain once flowed from the Congdons’ private reservoir on Tischer Creek for watering indoor plants.
Formal Dining Room
Dinner at Glensheen was always a formal occasion — though, it may surprise you that Christmas dinner was a more playful affair held in the Amusement Room.
The dining room table itself expands from an intimate meal for four to a dinner party of 20. It also features a hidden button underneath used to call servants.
The Caldwell Company of New York created the intricate chandelier. Due to the many hours required to polish it, it’s called the “Maid’s Nightmare” — a nickname kept alive by our current historic housekeepers.
This room was prominently featured in the Congdons’ Christmas celebration. The billiards table was covered with a specially built top to serve the food buffet style. Once the family selected their favorite dishes, they would eat picnic-style on bearskin rugs on the Amusement Room floor.
This room is where the family enjoyed their Christmas celebrations. Here is where the main festivities, such as opening presents, took place. It is easy to imagine eating Christmas Dinner here while enjoying the sounds of the large, crackling fire.
Glensheen is also adding a new throwback to the Congdon Christmas era. As an ode to the Congdon family tradition of celebrating Christmas in the Amusement Room. Here we’ve added ANOTHER Christmas tree that was inspired by a historic photo. The photo recently resurfaced during lockdown collection research providing a richer picture of the Congdon family’s holiday celebrations. In a normal year at Glensheen, Christmas parties would take place in this room. This amusement room re-creation is only possible because of COVID. So this re-creation probably won’t exist next year.
See a Glensheen Christmas in person
Christmas tour offerings vary by year, check out glensheen.org for the latest Christmas tour hours and pricing.