Except for her time away at school, heiress Elisabeth Congdon lived her entire 83 years at her family's grand estates, including historic Glensheen mansion in Duluth.
But in her early 40s - with two young daughters in tow - the never-married Congdon planned to live with her girls in a small house about two miles farther up London Road from Glensheen. And Congdon, who often shunned the frills of wealth, may have intended to do it without hired help. Unlike her family's mansions with live-in staffs, the little house had no room for servants.
"Obviously, she didn't anticipate live-in help," said Dennis Lamkin of the Duluth Preservation Alliance.
Elisabeth was the daughter of Clara and Chester Congdon, an attorney, businessman and state legislator who made a fortune in mining before his death in 1916. In this little known episode in Elisabeth's life, she bought the former water intake pump house at 5802 London Road and converted it into a charming lakeside cottage. She would be joining several other Congdon family members who had homes, albeit much bigger, along the lake side of London Road.
Architect Harold Starin's blueprints for the pump house conversion show how the 1,400-square-foot brick building was turned into a one-bedroom home with a small stucco addition on one end to house utilities. While the project moved forward, Elisabeth changed her mind about living there. So her plans to raise the roof and add dormer windows to create two bedrooms and a bathroom for the girls, who joined her family by adoption, were never done.
Daughter Jennifer was a toddler then, while daughter Marjorie was about 5 years old. Marjorie would grow up to become a suspect in her mother's slaying at Glensheen in 1977, one of the most publicized homicides in Minnesota history. Marjorie's husband, Roger Caldwell, eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the deaths of Elisabeth and her night nurse, while Marjorie was acquitted at trial of being involved.
Recently restored, the cottage is featured on this year's Duluth Preservation Alliance historic properties tour on Sept. 16, along with two early 20th century mansions, a Craftsman bungalow and the restored NorShor Theatre. The annual tour, now in its 33rd year, is a major fundraiser for the nonprofit that promotes preserving the city's historic buildings.
At the Congdon cottage, tour-goers will see the result of a year of renovations that revived the faded and tired-looking lake home and brought back its original French charm. The home features large multi-paned Palladian windows, French doors, 12-foot ceilings, a Pullman-style kitchen, period chandeliers and other light fixtures. Butter and cream colors with gold accents in the French tradition dominate, giving it a light, seaside feel.
But the star is the home's spectacular views of Lake Superior. Set 30 feet below London Road, the house is so close to the lake that its terrace overhangs the water's edge. The building is enforced with a six-foot foundation that doubles as a seawall. Its reinforced steel plates deflect the waves, and storm shutters protect the windows from sea spray.
For owners Drs. Kirk and Marianne Bernadino, living there for much of the last six years has been a memorable time for their young family. Son Frank was an infant and son Sam a toddler when the couple bought the property in 2012. The boys' early years were spent observing Lake Superior up close, catching fish at the water's edge, skipping rocks and collecting sea glass along their 85-foot pebble beach. And on summer evenings, the family have dinner on the terrace with waves lapping below them.
"Being there was very special," said Marianne, whose family now lives in Maine. "It's very secluded. It was like time fell away, like we were in our own little era."
When Marianne and her husband would come home, walk into the house and be greeted by stunning views of the lake, they would say to themselves, "I can't believe we live here," she said.
The one-time pump house was built in 1890, designed reportedly by noted architect John Wagenstein. Prior to its construction, other intake stations had stood on the site that weren't built as solidly and didn't last long.The new concrete and brick pump house drew water from the lake for the city's drinking water, along with a larger intake station near 15th Avenue East, until 1898 when the Lakewood Pump House north of Duluth began operating, according to Comfort Systems.
The 58th Avenue East pump house apparently sat unused for decades before Elisabeth Congdon bought it and took on the challenge to transform it. And a big challenge it was. A raw industrial building, it had bare brick walls, a concrete floor, exposed rafters and probably no windows. Big pumps filled its unfinished interior spaces.
The conversion added large windows, interior walls to create four rooms and an entry hallway, ceilings, two fireplaces, built-in bookcases and walls of storage and finished in a tasteful French-style. A spindle staircase in the front hallway leads to the planned second floor expansion. Because that phase of the project never happened, it leads to an attic storage room that has been used as a bedroom by the Bernadinos and other owners.
Why Elisabeth Congdon changed her mind about living there isn't known.
The youngest of Chester and Clara Congdon's seven children, Elisabeth would have been the only offspring still living at home with her mother, then in her 80s.
"My guess is she would have stayed because she was worried about her mom," said Lamkin, an authority on the Congdons and Glensheen. "She was the only one left at home, and I'm sure she didn't want to leave her mother alone in the big house."
Elisabeth continued to own the former pump house cottage for about 30 years, during which she let conductors of the Duluth Community Orchestra, known today as the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, live there. Since she sold the property in the late 1960s, it has had five owners, according to Kirk Bernadino. Among them was St. Louis County Judge Robert Campbell and his wife, who owned it from 1978 to 1998.
A unique draw
About nine years ago, the Bernadinos were living elsewhere in the neighborhood when they became fascinated by the quaint brick cottage down by the lake hidden from passersby by trees. It prompted Marianne to knock on its door one day and ask the owner if she ever planned to sell. The owner told her she would sell in a few years. The owner also told Marianne about the house's Congdon connections.
"Its proximity to the water was outstanding, unlike anything we had seen before," Marianne said. "And the history of the home was enchanting."
A few years later, the Bernadinos bought the house. With two young sons in a one-bedroom home, they considered someday tapping into more attic space to add bedrooms for the boys, similar to what Elisabeth Congdon had envisioned.
Curious about the house's history, Marianne went to Glensheen Historic Estate, owned by the University of Minnesota Duluth since Elisabeth's death, in search of more information. Glensheen staff didn't know about the pump house connection, but referred her to Lamkin, who might.
That led to a friendship, and Lamkin being recruited to oversee renovation of the cottage. He has served as a consultant and general contractor for the restoration of several historic mansions in Duluth.
The cottage's wallpaper was peeling. The trim was dirty. Fresh paint was needed everywhere. And the bathroom needed to be redone. Still, Marianne said, "It was a jewel in the rough."
The renovations - during which the family lived in their garage guest apartment - grew to encompass repairs to the whole house, from rebuilding the ejector pump to move sewage to the city sewer line to installing a new roof.
"We did everything at once," Marianne said. "We knew we would do it all. If we didn't do it then, we would never do it."
With Lamkin serving as designer and owner representative, the work was accomplished with much attention to detail, using local trade and craftspeople. The work included some brick tuckpointing, plumbing and re-wiring. Everything was painted with the original colors duplicated. New blinds were installed. Interior doors were stripped, sanded to remove nicks and repainted. Old rungs were removed to reveal hardwood floors that were refinished. The original 1930s living room drapes were shortened and cleaned. French-inspired custom wallpaper was made for the living room while grass cloth wall coverings elsewhere were preserved. Because some original light fixtures were lost over the years, other period fixtures were found and installed including some from 1930s-era Pullman Palace railroad cars. The bathroom remodel included reproducing the original basketweave tile floor while preserving the high tank toilet. A fireplace's concrete floor hearth was faux painted to match its black marble front panels. Outside, the old copper gutters and downspouts were replaced. And the beige exterior trim was painted a more striking black.
Some landscaping also was done. The work is scheduled to wrap up this week with the placing of salvaged redstone blocks to create a timeless front entry and garden borders.
The Bernadinos wanted to finish the project even though their plans changed and they recently moved to Maine where they are closer to other family members. They haven't decided whether to sell their one-of-a-kind Duluth cottage or make it available as a vacation rental. But it will be available for a weekend stay to the highest bidder Sept. 21 at ARTcetera, the Miller Dwan Foundation's annual fundraiser.
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Duluth Preservation Alliance tour
The Duluth Preservation Alliance's 33rd annual Historic Properties Tour will be held Sept. 16 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. This year's self-directed tour features five sites, including two mansions and a Craftsman bungalow built in the early 1900s, a converted 1890 water pump station and the restored NorShor Theatre. Tour-goers may be asked to remove their shoes at some sites.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at www.duluthpreservation.org. Tickets also are available the day of the tour beginning at 10 am. inside the main entrance of Fitger's Brewery Complex, 600 E. Superior St. If bought online, tickets will be sent via email.
Here's the tour lineup
2605 E. Third St.
This house , designed by Frederick G. German and built in 1909, combines Flemish gables and a Craftsman-style interior. The first owner was in the lumber trade and personally selected the fine woods used in the home. Since the current owners bought the house in 2016, they have been made historically sensitive updates, including the kitchen, a powder room and lighting and wall coverings.
2819 E. First Street
Built in 1918, this Craftsman-style bungalow with many built-ins is in the California style, without hallways. An addition designed by architect Hugh Reitan, who is the owner, continues the look and style of the home. Remodeling has included moving a hutch to its original location and returning a wall and cased opening between the living room and dining room. A tuck-under garage is now a family room.
2219 E. Superior St.
This foursquare, built in 1903, has a striking front face symmetrically arranged around a central two-story entry tower with a bell-shaped roof and large T-shaped window with 23 diamond-paned lights on its second floor. The matching garage was added in 1912. The current owners have worked extensively on the home, including foundation work, to return it to a functioning home.
5802 London Road
A former water intake pump station, built in 1890, sat empty for decades before Elisabeth Congdon bought it in the late 1930s and had it converted into a charming cottage in the French style. Large Palladian windows provide stunning lake views. The house is so close to the lake, that a terrace overhangs the lake and storm shutters are needed to protect the windows from sea spray and flying pebbles on windy days.
NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
This downtown building was part of an opera house and later a vaudeville stage before being reconfigured in 1940 into an art deco movie theater. During a $31 million-renovation, an orchestra pit was installed, new seating put in, the stage reconstructed and murals and the balcony restored. Since 2017, it has been home to the Duluth Playhouse and is used for concerts, movies and other events.