Glensheen, a mansion and grounds completed in 1908 on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, was built by Chester and Clara Congdon. It is famous for its beauty inside and out, and as the site of one of Minnesota’s most notorious murders.
Chester Congdon and Clara Bannister, children of Methodist ministers, met at Syracuse University in New York in 1871. They married and moved to St. Paul ten years later. After a slow start, Chester prospered in the law and took to real estate speculation, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Overall, he lost money on his investments.
The family moved to Duluth in 1892 when Chester saw opportunity in the booming city and the newly discovered Mesabi Iron Range. As a lawyer for the Oliver Mining Company, he grappled with Andrew Carnegie and J. D. Rockefeller—a competition that drew national attention to Minnesota—and made millions of dollars. In 1901, he formed the Chemung Iron Company and made millions more.
In 1903, the Congdons chose land three miles from downtown Duluth, facing Lake Superior, for a new residence. To design the house and grounds they selected Clarence H. Johnston (1859–1936), Charles Wellford Leavitt (1871–1928), and William A. French (1863–1942.)
Johnston, designer of many Summit Avenue mansions, produced a thirty-nine-room giant in the Jacobean Revival style that mimicked English country houses from four centuries earlier. The outside appearance is elegant: an asymmetrical mass of brick, with granite trim and prominent gables. Johnston and the Congdons paid close attention to infrastructure; the estate had its own reservoir, a coal delivery system, and central humidification.
Leavitt, from New York City, designed the grounds. He included formal gardens, lakeside terraces, a bowling green, walking paths and footbridges, more than thirty species of trees, and thousands of shrubs.
The name “Glensheen” reflects the site. Glen, a Scots word for a narrow valley, refers to the ravines of Tischer Creek and Bent Brook, which frame the estate; “sheen” either comes from Sheen, the Congdons’ ancestral village in England, or from the reflection of light off the lake.
Glensheen’s design star is French, a St. Paul interior decorator and designer. With the Congdons, he chose fine materials: silver for light fixtures, gold leaf for ceilings, oak and walnut woodwork, and Algerian marble. He used both art nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles, which were lighter and more elegant than the busy interiors of late-nineteenth-century mansions.
The interior features hand-carved railings and art-glass windows. The dining room and library overlook the terrace and garden below and Lake Superior beyond. The breakfast room, designed by John Bradstreet of Minneapolis, is considered a highlight for its green tiled walls and floors, as well as for its lake views.
Despite Glensheen’s luxury and size, architectural historian Larry Millett finds it “warm and livable,” with “a surprising sense of intimacy.” Because the house remained in the Congdon family until 1978, little has changed over time. Millett calls it the most intact house of its kind in Minnesota.
Chester Congdon died in 1916, without completing his vision for a highway linking Duluth to Canada; it opened in 1923 as North Shore Scenic Drive. Clara lived in Glensheen until her death in 1950. Their daughter Elisabeth, the last of their seven children to die, lived there for the rest of her life. She never married but adopted two daughters, Marjorie and Jennifer, in 1932.
On the night of June 26, 1977, Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse, Velma Pietila, were murdered by an intruder. Suspicion fell on Marjorie and her husband, Roger Caldwell. Marjorie had lived a troubled life and, before the murder, demanded money from Elisabeth. Caldwell was convicted of the murder in 1978; Marjorie was acquitted in 1979.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Caldwell’s conviction in 1983. In return for a sentence of time served, Caldwell admitted to the murders but refused to implicate his then ex-wife, Marjorie. He took his own life in 1988. Though Marjorie inherited part of the Congdon fortune, her life remained troubled. Her third husband died a suspicious death, and she served time in an Arizona prison for arson.
Prior to the murder in 1969, the Congdon family willed Glensheen to the University of Minnesota–Duluth. It opened as a museum in 1979 and has become one of Minnesota’s top historic tourist attractions.
Berini, Nancy. “Glensheen in a New Light.” Lake Superior Port Cities 4, no. 1 (1982): 29–44.
Dierckins, Tony. “Building the Fortune That Built Glensheen: Chester Congdon and America’s Robber Barons.” Zenith City, May 1, 2015.
Hartman, Dan. “A Legacy Forgotten: Chester Congdon and the North Shore Drive.” The Glensheen Collection.
Hoover, Roy O. A Lake Superior Lawyer: A Biography of Chester Adgate Congdon. Duluth: Superior Partners, 1997.
Kimball, Joe. Secrets of the Congdon Mansion. Minneapolis: Jackay Publishing, 1991.
Larson, Paul Clifford. Minnesota Architect: The Life and Work of Clarence H. Johnston. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 1996.
Millett, Larry. Minnesota’s Own: Preserving Our Grand Homes. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014.
Tenuta, James A. “Glensheen Opens Its Doors to the Past.” Lake Superior Port Cities 1, no. 3 (1979): 6–13.
In 1903, Clara and Chester Congdon decide to build a new house overlooking Lake Superior in Duluth.
Congdon and Clara Bannister meet at Syracuse University.
Congdon moves to St. Paul, where he joins the law firm of Pierce, Stephenson, and Mainzer.
Chester and Clara are married in Syracuse on September 29 and immediately return to St. Paul.
Congdon moves his law practice to Duluth. The next year he meets iron ore entrepreneur Henry Oliver, marking the beginning of a long partnership.
Elisabeth Congdon, the sixth of seven Congdon children, is born in Duluth.
Chester and Clara Congdon choose a site overlooking Lake Superior, between Tischer Creek and Bent Brook, for a new house.
The family moves in late November.
Construction of Glensheen is completed for a total cost of $864,000 (about $22 million in 2016 currency).
Chester Congdon dies of a pulmonary embolism November 21, in St. Paul.
Elisabeth Congdon adopts two daughters, Marjorie and Jennifer.
Clara Congdon dies; Elisabeth Congdon inherits Glensheen and the Congdon fortune.
On June 27, Elisabeth Congdon and a nurse, Velma Pietila, are murdered in Glensheen. By the terms of Congdon’s will, the University of Minnesota–Duluth acquires Glensheen.
Marjorie Congdon Caldwell’s husband, Roger Caldwell, is convicted of the murders.
Marjorie Caldwell is acquitted of the murders. Glensheen opens as a museum in the summer.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reverses Roger Caldwell’s conviction. Caldwell later admits to the murders in return for a sentence of time served. He commits suicide five years later.
The Minnesota History Theatre in St. Paul debuts Glensheen, a musical about the Congdon–Pietila murders.