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Pioneer Press on Larry Millett and Twin Cities mansions of the past

By Mary Ann Grossmann
Pioneer Press

Millett_Once coverSt. Paul author and architectural historian Larry Millett's new book, "Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities," is the first to take an in-depth look at the history of 90 lost mansions and estates, organized by neighborhood and illustrated with photos and drawings. From Norman Kittson's sprawling castle on the site of the St. Paul Cathedral to Isaac Staples' hilltop home in Stillwater, Millett brings to life the "ghost mansions" and the people who built them. Following are excerpts from Millett's introduction to the book.

 

The lost mansions of the Twin Cities constitute a graveyard of sumptuous dreams that extends into almost every corner of St. Paul and Minneapolis proper, and to Stillwater on the east and Lake Minnetonka on the west. It is hard to say how many great houses are gone, but at least five hundred can be accounted for in public records and photographic archives, while others exist only in the yellowing pages of obscure old atlases. Even the most magnificent mansions sometimes had shockingly brief lives. ...

Whole neighborhoods are lost. In St. Paul, the Capitol Heights, College Avenue, and Lowertown mansion districts, once genteel gatherings of big houses and flowing lawns, have vanished virtually without a trace. ...

Mansion districts have long been a part of American cities, serving to display wealth through the medium of architecture and to confirm social status in a society where

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class distinctions are real but at times elusive. The peculiarly American idea of "arriving," whether through pluck and hard work or via the surer route of inheritance, is often marked by the building of a mansion. In the Twin Cities mansions began to appear as soon as settlers did, since some pioneers brought with them the financial wherewithal to live well even in a rough frontier environment.

There is no precise definition of what constitutes a "mansion." The largest and most luxurious

The Albert Scheffer House and its elaborate porch, shown around 1885, stood at 908 Mound Street. (William Henry Illingworth photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

houses built in the 1850s in the Twin Cities, for example, were much smaller than those that came later, and today they might hardly be viewed as mansions at all...."Estate" is also an elusive term, but it always suggests ample acreage in addition to an outsized house. ...

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