The New Glensheen

Dan Hartman
Jan 23, 2016 · 6 min read

How we got to “the new mission statement”

For two years, I have thought about what the purpose of Glensheen is. Why is it that so many of us give so much time to this place? Why does it attract over 100,000 people a year? What is Glensheen?

It is easy to go to the usual museum route. Speak in vague terms. Inspiring. Space matters. Continue the legacy. Tell the story. Connect with the past. The buzzwords of the field.

But truly. Why is Glensheen unique? Why are each of our house museums unique, what important “Soft Power” do we possess that we should be focusing on. (Soft Power is the idea that through education, museums propel a soft power of influence on its audiences). This concept is important for us as museums to understand. Whether intentional or not, we propel this influence on our communities and visitors. What are we pushing?

Here is what we thought was unique about Glensheen.

  1. intact collection of artifacts and fairly preserved estate.
  2. collection and estate built by some of the best
  3. at least… The Murder

In the end, none of those are unique to Glensheen. In fact, many historic homes have intact collections. Maybe unique to Minnesota? Well it turns out the Lindbergh House has an intact collection. So no. Glensheen was built by some of the best, but so were most of the grand historic homes of the country. Oddly. Even the murder isn’t that rare. There are multiple influential families with mysterious and scandalous events whose homes are historic house museums (Winchester Mansion).

As usual, the answer lies in the details.

But as I looked and studied, something started to arise. Our famous architect is Clarence Johnston, who built many of the homes on Summit Ave in St. Paul and was a rival with Cass Gilbert (designed many state capitols), was a Minnesotan. The interior designers, William A. French, and John Bradstreet are two of the best interior designers ever from guess where… Minnesota. They are nationally famous. In fact, recently, I was at a National Museum conference in Atlanta, a fellow house museum director, asked if I was from the home with John Bradstreet’s work. I said proudly, “Absolutely”.

Then there is the landscape designer, Charles Leavitt, who is from New York, but his two leads on the Glensheen project, were Anthony Morrell and Arthur Nichols. Glensheen would be their last project under, Leavitt, they would form their company and take on projects such as Lester Park and Morgan Park in Duluth, but would design University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus’s main area which includes Northrop and the Wilson Library. They would go down as two of the best landscape designers in Minnesota History.

Then there is the home. Inside one of Glensheen’s most famous rooms, the Breakfast Room, the walls are lined with Rookwood Pottery tile from Ohio, and considered one of the best of the time. But the center feature of the room, is the light above the table. Which was created by the Minneapolis Handicraft Guild. Later, the Handicraft Guild was made part of the new University of Minnesota’s art education department. Once again that Minnesota connection, almost a showcase.

Something else, while studying historic photos of the grounds, there was something interesting about the grounds. Their design was unique. It wasn’t your typical open lot, it wasn’t really a total english design. Sure there are strong elements, (Formal Garden), but overall it had more of a northern Minnesota feel. Almost a north shore camping trip feel. In fact, that may have been the intent. Chester had built a hiking trail that started at Lake Superior and went up Tischer Creek. The trail even went under London Road and continued till it connected with Congdon Park. The park Chester Congdon helped design and pay for. The trail feels similar to many of the grand state parks up the North Shore.

Guests to Glensheen in 1910 left with an impression. Minnesota had amazing artisans. And Minnesota had a beautiful outdoor environment.

Keep in mind, that at this time, Chester will soon be elected to the state legislature (1909). His political ambitions, were alive and well when this house was constructed. It is a natural tendency of an elected official to want to celebrate his state’s achievements. Also, the people Chester were trying to influence were from out east. To do what? To typically invest in Minnesota. Whether that be by building a finished steel factory in West Duluth (Morgan Park). Or developing mining property in Northern Minnesota. He needed to convince them how skilled the people were and how beautiful it was.

This home was used to sell Minnesota.

More and more, Glensheen seems to be built to impress how great Minnesota was, but also it was a place to bring about positive change in Northern Minnesota. It was a catalyst for Northern Minnesota.

The James J. Hill House entertained a president, but Glensheen’s purpose may have been to show how great and up and coming Minnesota was.

Which led me to my “lightbulb” moment. Glensheen’s modern day purpose could be that again. Should be.

We could use the collection and the estate to focus on the great talents of Minnesotans, from the Masons who built the house itself, to the artisans who created the stain glass of the landing, to great outdoor heritage and landscape that is northern Minnesota.

In addition, we could use Chester’s legacy as a pro-active leader for northern Minnesota to use Glensheen as a space for promoting positive change in the future for Northern Minnesota.

Oddly, our tour and educational programs have been doing this already to some extent, but now this brings it all together. Our tour already includes much about the artisans of Minnesota. Our educational programs are already about community engagement such as our Chester Chats series.

So what would that mission statement sound like?

Well, as of 2016 we approved a new mission statement.

“To inspire a pride in Minnesota by the preserving and sharing of the legacy of Glensheen and to use Glensheen as an incubator for positive change in Northern Minnesota.”

What does that mean? How will Glensheen change?

Once again, indirectly we have already been doing this. When we compare a David Ericson painting to national painter — when we compare Rookwood pottery to the Minneapolis Handicraft Guild. Those all show off Minnesota Artisans. But also when we have our Concerts on the Pier series, we are showing off great Minnesota musical artists of today.

Now it will have a focus. Now we will deliberately review our tour narrative to better align with this mission. Every tour will celebrate Minnesota. This will mean talking more about the Minneapolis Handicraft Guild, but also when we create the Servants Tour, we will discuss the challenges of being a domestic servant in Northern Minnesota.

This also means we will look for ways to be a direct agent of positive change in our region. This could be simple. For example this could be us giving free tour passes to the Boys and Girls Club. Or hosting a fundraiser for a local non-profit.

This could also mean that we pro-actively engage in our community discussion. For example we could annually take on an issue and work with stakeholders to bring about a resolution to the issue. Say, the issue was homelessness in northern Minnesota. We would provide the space to convene the stakeholders and maybe hire the facilitators to move the discussion along, until a resolution was completed. We are an ideal place for this because of our smaller intimate settings such as the Formal Dining Room to our Winter Garden, but also because of our surrounding estate to step out to relax. Sometimes tough subjects need room to breath and to be enclosed. We have both when needed. We could become the Camp David of the North.

Just like Chester may have done for state issues a hundred years ago.

That is our soft power.

We will become pro-active change agents for Minnesota, especially the arts and the natural environment. It will build pride in our citizens, but also convince outsiders of our talents. We will change from indirectly inspiring to directly trying to inspire an appreciation for Minnesota. It will lead us to see ourselves as change agents.

In closing.

This provides us as staff with a more specific mission. A more fulfilling purpose. One that connects. One that feels genuine. One that leads to making a difference in our region. One that fits Glensheen.

The Glensheen Collection

Anything and Everything related to Glensheen, the historic Congdon Estate. ~Duluth, MN

    Dan Hartman

    Written by

    Love the outdoors, good museums, good movies and oh yeah...good public policy.

    The Glensheen Collection

    Anything and Everything related to Glensheen, the historic Congdon Estate. ~Duluth, MN

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