Glensheen director Dan Hartman, winner of the AIA Northern Minnesota Community Builder Award, on the magic of the historic Congdon estate in Duluth—and on securing the property’s future through architectural stewardship and an array of programs for all ages

Interview by Sheri Hansen

Tour Glensheen with Dan Hartman, and he’ll have you crouching to peer inside a stone fireplace, or standing on your tiptoes as he describes the laborious process of removing layers of paint to get to original stencils. Shining through all his knowledge and passion is a vision for the property as an important destination in the cultural and environmental life of the North Shore.

What makes Glensheen so special and so timeless for your visitors?

Glensheen is a beautiful 27,000-square-foot mansion in the classic English Tudor/Jacobean style that speaks profoundly to Minnesota craft culture. But its real advantage is its placement in the landscape on the shore of Lake Superior. The architect, Clarence Johnston, designed his Minnesota mansion for its natural surroundings and for our very cold environment. The design has done a remarkable job of sustaining Glensheen for more than 100 years.

I like to remind the architectural community that Johnston left the clearest examples of many types of his work right here. The way that the architecture interplays with the grounds, the interiors—all the significant elements of the property—is interesting for architects to experience. There are features here you’re not going to see in many other places. The west gate entrance, the servants’ courtyard, the three-tiered terrace, and the massive garden, for example, aren’t typical elements in Minnesota homes. You won’t see all these pieces together anywhere else.

For many Minnesotans, Glensheen is the largest residence they have seen. Because of that, the design becomes that standard by which they view other homes. They don’t always know why they’re impressed with it, but many want to replicate what they see here, which really speaks to the design inspiration Glensheen offers. Visitors want to escape their normal, and Glensheen is far from normal.

What are some highlights of renovations you’ve been doing to the house and outbuildings?

We recently had our west gate entrance, which had been in rough shape, removed and redone, and now it’s in the best shape it’s been in during my tenure. We also restored our gardener’s cottage, which now looks less like 1974 and more like 1910.

Last spring and summer, we redid our entire servants’ porch, which had been close to collapsing in on itself. It looks remarkably better. We owe it to our audience to make these “little” things right, not just invest in the “big” spaces.

I always say that Clarence Johnston knew what he was doing, so let’s trust him. Every time we have, he’s shown us his skill. When we go back to what the architect originally intended, it usually turns out better than the updates that were made.

If you could talk to Johnston today, what would you most want to explore with him?

My first questions would be about his working relationships with [interior designer] William French and [landscape architect] Charles Wellford Leavitt, and about which pieces of the project each designer thought of as his. “Did you do the staircase landing? Did you do the ceiling in the living room? What were the spaces that you designed, and what were the spaces that French designed?” I would ask him. “And what changes did you want to make to the property and the grounds that Leavitt didn’t agree with? I know Leavitt got the boathouse and pier, but what about the vegetable garden? What about the landscape?” There are so many open questions, because we unfortunately don’t have all the blueprints from the work. But we chip away at those fun mysteries all the time.

Are there surprises that you’ve found?

We knew from a 1910 photograph that there were red pavers underneath the asphalt driveway. We didn’t know what shape they’d be in. When we renovated the porch, we pulled the asphalt off, and they were mostly in really good shape. A bit uneven, but they are walked on every day now.

Are there specific programs and building features for families with kids?

With programming, we moved from a guided tour to a self-guided tour to keep the pace flexible for families, who represent 50 percent of our audience in summer. We also created a treasure book for kids; they find two items per room, and at the end of the tour they get a coin. It’s made a world of difference on the tours, because the kids are super-competitive about finding the treasures. From an educational standpoint, the kids are learning a lot more because every treasure comes with a short description. And while the kids are busy, the parents get to really look at the house and read about its features.

We also made some practical changes. For example, if you’ve ever had to change a diaper in a museum on a pullout changing station, you know it’s not an easy task. I went to a coffee shop, and they had a bathroom changing table from Target that worked great, at a cost of only $100—about $200 cheaper than a pullout unit. So, we removed our wall units, installed the Target tables, and bought extra diapers and wipes. We also added stools, because when children are learning to wash their hands, it’s better if they can step up to the sink. At the end of the day, this is all about creating a genuine experience for families, one that gets them excited about the history and the architecture and the grounds. None of that will happen if the little things don’t work.

What stewardship activities are geared toward sustaining the audience for Glensheen?

A different history institution recently surveyed their audience, asking, “What is your most vivid memory of history museums?” The lion’s share of responses were recollections of being there in fifth grade and the speaker being a woman in a costume.

The survey didn’t ask the important follow-up question: “Was that a positive experience?” The fact that the respondents mentioned grade school probably means they haven’t been back. The Congdon family wants to see people enjoying the space. They don’t want to see a cold building that’s well kept up, with no one in it. Before we schedule any event, I ask myself: Would I want to go myself? And if the answer is no, then maybe we need to rethink the event. We need to engage our audiences where they are.

Two weeks prior to the Glensheen gala a few years ago, we had very few people signed up to attend, despite our going all out to make it a great event. I made a social-media post where I didn’t tell anyone that the gala was at Glensheen. I just said, “There is an exclusive party at a mansion on the shore of Lake Superior, and you’re invited.” We sold out in a week. They figured out it was Glensheen eventually, but the teaser got them to realize that Glensheen is a 39-room mansion on the shore of Lake Superior. It’s not that boring place from fifth grade.

We have a concert series that used to be on the lawn with an old-timey big band. Typically, 100 people would show up. I wondered, “Why is the band not on the lake?” So, we brought in a contemporary rock band and put them on the pier, and 850 people showed up. The last two shows each drew a crowd of 2,000. People can come by kayak, paddleboard, or sailboat, and they will hear a modern rock band. It brings life and energy to the property.

What’s next for Glensheen?

The boathouse is one of the last remaining structural boathouses on Lake Superior. It would be awesome to bring it back to life. Originally, a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse stood between the back of the gardener’s cottage and the bottom of the tennis courts. The top greenhouse was a tropical garden with a banana tree. How great would it be to come to Duluth in the middle of winter and visit a place like that?

We’re also constantly updating exhibits based on feedback from visitors, and developing new content and activities to engage our audiences and draw in those who have never visited, as well as those who haven’t visited for a long time.
We just want to invite the people who haven’t been to Glensheen since fifth grade to come back and see us. Explore the house. Ramble the grounds. Enjoy our events. Get inspired. Help us make sure that Glensheen is a vital part of Minnesota for the next 100 years.