MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Homes for the holidays

For Christmas tours, historic mansions up the ante on opulence.

Ramsey House during holidays.

Beth Gauper

The Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul was the home of Minnesota's first territorial governor.

Two centuries ago, Minnesota and Wisconsin were ripe for the picking.

Iron ore lay under forests of tall white pine, fertile farmland lay under prairie grasses, and rivers teeming with beaver led to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

It all turned into money when ambitious men arrived, gathering up the goodies like kids on Halloween. They logged, they mined, they traded and they shipped. The men who made the biggest fortunes did it all, plowing their first round of profits into railroads, land and banking.

Then, they built houses.

In Minnesota, the two richest men built the two biggest houses. James J. Hill, who started as a clerk on the St. Paul levee, was a railroad baron but also dabbled in mining, shipping, banking and milling.

Chester Congdon, a pastor's son who was a teacher before he began practicing law, had an uncanny eye for opportunity and speculated in timber, iron ore, apples and copper.

Congdon's counterpart across the harbor in Superior, Wis., was Martin Pattison, whose 1891 home was the Twin Ports' first grand mansion.

Pattison, a lumber baron who made even more money mining iron ore he discovered himself in the Vermilion Range near Ely, Minn., later was found to have abandoned a wife and children in Michigan and changed his name.

The lifestyles of yesteryear's rich and famous are just as interesting as those of today, and usually more so. The people are gone, but the houses tell the stories.

These magnificent houses were places where their owners could impress clients and make even more money, and they also served as investments in the days before the stock market.

On a hill overlooking downtown St. Paul, James J. Hill built a 36,000-square-foot Romanesque mansion of red sandstone, bristling with chimneys for 22 fireplaces.

On the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, Chester Congdon built a 39-room Jacobean brick castle, filled with intricately carved woodwork of fumed oak, Circassian walnut and acid-distressed cypress, with furniture to match.

Mayowood decorated for the holidays.

Beth Gauper

In Rochester, the expansive grounds of Mayowood also are decorated for the holidays.

Lumber barons built houses from Superior to Dubuque. Pioneering physicians built a manse in Rochester, and a beer magnate built a Germanic palace in Milwaukee.

Now open to the public, these homes contain luxuries to an almost dizzying degree: ceilings covered in 22-carat gold, walls covered with silk, fireplaces of onyx and marble, silver chandeliers that took a servant an entire day to polish.

During the holidays, all of this opulence will be gilded with an eye-popping array of velvet ribbons, frosted roses, silver balls, golden garlands and, of course, decorated trees.

Below are a few of the grand mansions that offer holiday tours in 2013.

Minnesota

Mayowood, Rochester: Old-fashioned Christmas tours at the 38-room, four-story 1911 home built by Dr. Charles H. Mayo are given Nov. 1-Dec. 7.

Cost is $15, $5 for children 12 and younger, including light refreshments. To reserve, call 507-282-9447. 

For more about house and area, see Rah Rah Rochester.

Alexander Ramsey House, St. Paul: The 1872 Second Empire house of Minnesota's first territorial governor, later U.S. senator and secretary of war, is decorated for The Homecoming: Christmas at the Ramsey House. Decorations feature many Ramsey family heirlooms, including ornaments on the parlor tree.

Tours start Nov. 13 and continue through Jan. 1. Admission is $11, $7 for children 6-17. Reservations are recommended; 651-296-8760.

James J. Hill House, St. Paul: In this 1891 Summit Avenue mansion, costumed actors portraying servants enact humorous vignettes about the family and staff.

Hill House Holidays are given 1-3:30 p.m. on the first three Saturdays and Sundays in December.

Admission is $12, $8 for children 6-17. Reservations are recommended; 651-297-2555.

Musser and Weyerhaeuser mansions in Little Falls: Christmas at the Mansions tours are Nov. 29-Dec. 8 at these neighboring homes, in which every room is decorated.

The homes, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, were designed by Clarence Johnston and built in 1898 for two scions of lumber barons. Charles Weyerhaeuser and Richard "Drew'' Musser were called the Pine Tree Bachelors for the company founded by their fathers, but both eventually married.

When the company closed in 1920, Weyerhaeuser and his wife moved to St. Paul's Summit Avenue and sold their house to the Mussers for a nickel. The Mussers stayed in Little Falls and continued to be active in the community.

Glensheen mansion in Duluth.

Glensheen

In Duluth, Glensheen holds holiday brunches.

Tours of the mansions, which operate as Linden Hill Historical Event Center, include music, cider and cookies.

Cost is $10-$12. Overnight lodging is available in the Musser Mansion.

Glensheen, Duluth: This year, the 1908 mansion on Lake Superior is offering self-guided holiday tours that tell the story of a month-long winter visit in 1912 by a college friend of Helen Congdon.

Staff in period costume will be stationed around the home, whose decorations include more than 15 trees.

The tours are Nov. 30 through Jan. 5 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Cost is $10, free for children 12 and under

For more, see Duluth's grand mansion.

LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings. In 1866, entrepreneur William LeDuc completed this Gothic Revival house in this Mississippi River town south of St. Paul.

It's decorated and open for Victorian Holidays tours Dec. 7 and 14. Cost is $6, $3 for youths 6-17.

Governor's residence in St. Paul: At 1006 Summit Ave., the 1912 English Tudor residence of the Minnesota governor usually opens during the holidays, but it is being restored in 2013.

Tours of the public areas of the 20-room house are self-guided, but docents are available to answer questions. Food is collected for Second Harvest Heartland.

For more about Summit Avenue, see Street of dreams.

Fairlawn mansion in Superior.

Beth Gauper

In Superior, Fairlawn was the Twin Ports' first grand mansion.

Wisconsin

Fairlawn, Superior. This 42-room Queen Anne house facing Barker's Island on the harbor was the first grand residence in the Twin Ports when Martin Pattison built it in 1891. 

After his death, his wife donated it for use as an orphanage, and an upstairs exhibit contains an exhibit about the children who lived there.

A Fairlawn Christmas tours are given daily from Nov. 24 through Dec. 29, $9, $7.50 for children 6-17. Evening tours are given the first three Tuesdays in December, $5, with admission free for children 6 and under.

For more about the area, see Plainly Superior.

Governor's Mansion in Madison: Every December, the governor and first lady of Wisconsin open their 1921 Classic Revival home for free tours that feature music and trees decorated with Wisconsin themes.

The home will be open Dec. 4-5 and 11-12 from noon to 2 p.m. and Dec. 7 and 14 from 9 a.m. to noon. Donations of canned goods will be collected.

The 16,000-foot, 34-room mansion is on four acres on Lake Mendota, at 99 Cambridge Road. 608-246-5501.

The Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee.

Beth Gauper

In Milwaukee, the Pabst Mansion celebrates A Grand Avenue Christmas.

Pabst Mansion, Milwaukee: This gabled Flemish Renaissance Revival was built in 1892, during a time known in Milwaukee as "the Pabst Decade." A Grand Avenue Christmas tours will be held daily from Nov. 22 to Jan. 5, $9, $5 for children 6-17.

Twilight Tours are Nov. 29 and Dec. 20, $12-$15.

With a $14 pass, people can visit the Pabst Mansion as well as the Charles Allis Art Museum, a 1911 English Tudor built by the first president of the Allis-Chalmers Co., and the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts museum, an Italian Renaissance villa built in 1923. They're also decorated for the holidays.

For  more, see Milwaukee at Christmas.

Iowa

Salisbury House in Des Moines. This 42-room Tudor-style mansion, modeled after the 15th-century King's House in Salisbury, England, was built between 1923 and 1928 for cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks.

The annual Holly & Ivy Tour Dec. 6-8 also includes Terrace Hill, the 1869 Second Empire governor's mansion, plus the 1900 Tudor-style Chamberlain House at Wesley Acres, the first governor's residence and two private homes.

Tickets are $15, $6 for children 12 and under and $30 for families.

Illinois

Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio in Oak Park. The famous architect loved Christmas, and interpreters tell how his family celebrated it during the Victorian Christmas Tour, when the house is decorated in early 20th-century style.

Tours are 9-11 a.m. Dec. 14 and 21, and they're a real deal — free. For more, see Wright in Oak Park.

Bed and breakfast holiday tours

Tours in December allow visitors to see many more historic old houses decorated for the holidays in Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin and Lanesboro, Stillwater, Red Wing and Duluth in Minnesota.




Last updated on December 17, 2013
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