History is always in the offing at Duluth’s Glensheen mansion. But Wednesday offered history in the making, as the popular London Road tourist destination unveiled its first “Nooks & Crannies” tour - a twice-a-day, behind-the-scenes look at the historic home.
“People are going to be impressed by the whole new experience,” said interim director Dan Hartman, who has led a scrubbing of some heretofore inaccessible areas on Chester Congdon’s estate to reveal hidden gems and a more mechanical look inside the house’s operations.
If a tour can have a director’s cut or an outtakes album, this is it. Hartman explained that tourists have long had questions about the home’s inner workings. Now, the coal room, servants’ entrance and pulley-operated carriage lift are revealed on a tour for the first time.
The Nooks & Crannies tour unveils hidden compartments in desks, the closet where the family’s enormous hard-cover volumes of private financial records still are kept, and a “granddaddy of the tour” revelation that is breathtaking in its sightlines.
The tour starts in the carriage house. The carriage lift that had been hoisted forever at rest on the second floor now is lowered, with one of the seven carriages once belonging to Chester Congdon resting atop its manual, pulley-drawn platform.
“We were physically unable to move up here, there was so much stuff in storage,” Hartman said while revealing the second floor of the carriage house.
Places once explored only by Hartman and staff are suddenly open for public view. Hartman opened the boat house doors that once were kept shuttered like a pharaoh’s tomb behind a “Keep Out” sign. The musty interior is dimly lit, with steel beams and concrete walls built into the shore of Lake Superior. Shortly after its construction, it became unlawful to build a foundation onto the shoreline.
“Chester did a lot of things around here that later wouldn’t be legal,” Hartman said, later pointing out a guillotine light-switch that was used to start the home’s vacuum cleaner system.
Mysteriously, there’s a sunken diving bell inside the boat house. The tour reveals another longtime Glensheen mystery solved. While there is a hidden chamber that tunnels out under the mansion’s driveway, Hartman himself explored the space to find, “there are no tunnels under London Road.”
Incongruously, there is a clean and polished tile floor between the coal furnace and the still-blackened coal room. It’s a testament, Hartman said, to Congdon’s insistence on cleanliness.
Of course, Chester Congdon’s wife, Clara, lived there, too. And it’s her private balcony off the master bedroom that presents the best new look at the same-old-same-old. The University of Minnesota Duluth, which owns and operates the mansion, approved Hartman’s request on one condition.
“Only 10 people or less,” he said.
What they see is a view of the grounds that’s as good as any on the property. There’s a stone bridge that reaches like a dragon’s neck over Tischer Creek.
“Chester Congdon’s real passion wasn’t the home,” Hartman revealed. “It was the grounds.”
IF YOU GO
Glensheen’s “Nooks & Crannies” tour is offered daily at 10:45 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. Tickets are $35 for ages 13 and older. For more information, go to www.glensheen.org.