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Glensheen preps for Christmas

Chris Ibarra (right) and Blake Romenesko decorate the Great Hall Christmas Tree at Glensheen Monday afternoon ahead of the holiday tours which start later this week. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
A woven goose ornament dating from early last century decorates a Christmas tree at Glensheen Mansion. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Tatianna Dickson, who works at the Glensheen gift shop, decorates a tree in the living room of the mansion Monday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

After Chester Congdon died in 1916, his wife's penchant for collecting nativity scenes took on new meaning. No longer would the mustached Chester be coming through the door with elaborately crafted pieces from all over the world.

"Family members started giving her nativity scenes — it became her gift," said Glensheen director Dan Hartman.

Those nativity scenes and more will be on display at Glensheen Mansion when it reopens Friday after being closed for two weeks to decorate.

Enjoying its second straight year with more than 100,000 visitors, Glensheen continues to take on deeper holiday significance — both as a daytime diversion to the Bentleyville Tour of Lights in Bayfront Festival Park and as a place that hews closer to a true Congdon Christmas than ever before.

"We like to say we're Bentleyville indoors," said Jane Pederson, marketing manager, who led a private tour of the decorations that include red bows and holiday knickknacks, hearth stockings, hidden elves for children to chart and hundreds of feet of pine and cedar garland lining the gate alongside London Road.

Inside, workers continued to get ready Monday for a season fast becoming the busiest of the year for the home museum owned by the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"Ninety-five percent of our visitors are from outside Duluth (throughout the year)," Hartman said. "But during Christmas, 30 percent are local. For a lot of Duluthians, this is their Christmas tradition."

After years of avoiding the word Christmas in favor of using the more inclusive term "holiday," Hartman described how the mansion went back to using the term Christmas. The Congdons were devout Methodists, but until a couple years ago, Glensheen, like home museums across the country, shied away from adopting Christmas tours, Hartman said.

"It was the safe thing to do," he said. "But part of what we do is interpret the past."

After consulting with experts in inclusion and diversity on the UMD campus, the mansion brought back an authentic Christmas tour a couple of years ago. It comes complete with stories about how the Congdons, for decades after Chester's passing, gifted their friends and colleagues throughout the city with poinsettias grown by and delivered in a Cadillac by the family gardener.

But whereas the Congdons celebrated the season with a single tree in their amusement room, the mansion now features 25 trees.

"I really love to decorate," said Glensheen employee Tatianna Dickson as she hung bulbs from a tree in the main-floor living room. Dickson played a role in decorating half the trees throughout the house — each one different and none more meaningful than in the library, where an artificial tree is hung with all of the authentic Congdon ornaments. Each ornament, now matter how modest, is outfitted with the accession tag and number used to identify it as a historic artifact.

"They look normal," Hartman said, "because they were a normal family, in the end."

There are no real trees or live plants in the home in order to keep tiny bugs away from delicate artifacts. But the trees and wreaths in the carriage house are real, infusing the tiled horse stalls and gift shop with the crisp scent of Christmas.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 8, and will be closed Dec. 24-25 for Christmas but will be open both New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Weekend visitors will be able to follow Christmas carols played by a pianist seated at the family's Steinway grand piano. 

Daily tours will feature shortbread cookies made by Johnson's Bakery from Clara Congdon's recipe. A hot-cocoa bar will be found in the vast amusement room, where the family would roll out an enormous Turkish rug, cover the pool table with a buffet and eat Christmas dinner cross-legged on the floor.

With other homes spread across the country, the Congdons, Hartman said, would always return to the mansion and Duluth, where it always felt most like Christmas.

"It's my favorite time of the year," Pederson said, surveying the decorating that unfolded on the first floor — the last to be decorated.

Hartman agreed, adding, "It feels like the Congdons will waltz in."