If you’ve ever driven down Summit Avenue and picked out a dream house, or indeed driven down any avenue and wondered about how a fine house came to be, or the people that lived in it, then this is the book for you.
Once There Were Castles details the lives of many of the finest homes that ever existed in the Twin Cities. Many of them are gone now, but through this lovely oversized book’s many photos, you can picture where they once stood, and consider how many of the locations look today. The book covers ninety lost mansions of the Twin Cities, organized by city and neighborhoods. It’s a book of dreams, and with a comfy spot on the couch, any reader can spend many hours sharing those dreams.
There are many fascinating bits of history here. Picture Saint Paul’s Lowertown as a posh neighborhood, with the mansions of industry titans arranged on estates. Did you know that a brook actually runs through Saint Paul? It is called Trout Brook, and once was the choice place for many captains of industry to build their homes. It has actually been diverted underground now, with I-94 covering most of it.
This book is a confectionery mix of long-gone landmarks and seemingly eternal monuments to capitalism. Many of the stories of the families are as arresting and intriguing as the stories of their homes. For instance, the tragic story of the family that first developed – and named – Como Park in Saint Paul. There is the story of the poor immigrant who attained wealth and his dream estate on Lake Minnetonka, only to have it disappear in alcoholism and eventually treachery and deceit. There’s the story of the owner of Dan Patch, the fastest pace horse in history, and the eerie fact that both horse and owner died on the same day. Apparently the outline of the race course that Marion Savage constructed is still visible in an aerial view.
It’s amazing to think that there used to be a vast stone mansion on the corner of Hennepin and Lyndale. Or that those who first lived in Richfield were living out on the prairie. It was interesting to learn that North Oaks is not, after all, a made-up community, but was once the country estate and working farm of James J. Hill.
Readers will recognize many famous names from this history. From Ramsey to Larpenteur to Merriam in Saint Paul, to Pillsbury, Robbins and Walker in Minneapolis. Their excesses and follies, as well as their successes, played out in their homes. There are wonderfully reproduced photographs, with many interior shots, of these fabulous bygone castles. Full page reproductions along with some floor plans and plans of entire estates give the type of detail that house-nuts will love.
The term ‘mansion’ brings to mind grand, lofty spaces with scenic vistas and sprawling grounds, and in many but the most urban settings, this is true. The book covers the fine mansions on Park Avenue in Minneapolis and Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, Lake Minnetonka and White Bear Lake estates, the many mansions that have been lost to freeway construction, and that used to stand in the downtowns. In some cases it tells you where you can find lost gems still, or what now stands in their place, if you are inclined to go on a treasure hunt. You’ll learn who bequeathed Lakewood Cemetery and what Dorilus Morrison Park has to do with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The book closes with a look at two lost Prairie School gems (one an actual Frank Lloyd Wright), and ends on a nice modern note with a final look at a very unusual Pillsbury mansion.
This book is a tribute to Millett’s knowledge of and love for houses, and occasionally he waxes poetic on the subject. “Sometimes the dream holds and sometimes it fades, and when mansions come down, memories always float like airy fugitives amid the dust and debris.” (From the Introduction) The text is entirely absorbing, with the kind of minute details that let the reader right into the lives of the ones they are reading about. Millett is the author of Lost Twin Cities, Twin Cities Then and Now and AIA Guide to the Twin Cities. He has also written six mystery novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, all but one of those set in Minnesota.
The book launch for Once There Were Castles is being held tonight, appropriately enough at the James J. Hill House in Saint Paul. Millett will give a talk at 7pm, followed by a reception and book signing. Optional house tours will be offered after the talk. But if you can’t make that, you can find him about town at other locations coming up. He will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers next Tuesday, Oct 4 at 7:30pm. He will also be giving a talk at Mill City Museum on Oct 6 at 7pm and at the Hopkins Public Library on Oct 11. All of these events are free and open to the public. Check the University of Minnesota Press website for further events.
376 pages, 268 b&w photos, 10 x 11
Jacketed hardcover, ISBN 978-0-8166-7430-5, $39.95