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Star Tribune: Vanished grandeur of Twin Cities mansions

By Kim Palmer
Star Tribune

Millett_Once coverThere's nothing gracious or elegant about the busy Lowertown intersection where Larry Millett stands marooned on a concrete traffic median. Cars whiz by in both directions; behind him looms the Ramsey County jail, behind that the downtown St. Paul skyline.

Not a trace remains of Lafayette Park, a long-ago enclave of 19th-century mansions. Their parlors, port cocheres and carriage houses have been replaced by freeways, parking lots and nondescript buildings.

"The whole character of this neighborhood has changed," Millett mused, as a truck rumbled past.

Lowertown is just one of the "graveyards of sumptuous dreams" that Millett, an architectural historian and novelist, chronicles in his new book, "Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities" (University of Minnesota Press, $39.95).

The book is a eulogy for landmarks lost and the "poetry" that is sacrificed when a city's historic homes are destroyed. "The simple truth is that large sections of both Minneapolis and St. Paul were once far more urbane and beautiful than they are today or ever will be again," he writes.

But it's also a lively history, loaded with archival photos and personal glimpses of well known Minnesota families, their fortunes and how they lived in their stately abodes.

You might know that Henry Sibley was Minnesota's first governor, for example. But you probably didn't know that he sired a daughter by a Dakota Indian woman and was haunted by memories of a kerosene-lamp explosion that burned him, his wife and teenage daughter and turned their servant into "a human torch."

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Once There Were Castles