Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
Whether on the coast of New England or deep in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the houses we tend to investigate in Period Dramas are more refuges from city life than anything else.
But today, we’re taking a trip into the heart of a city—two cities, in fact—to appreciate the stunning Gilded Age mansions in the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Minneapolis and Saint Paul owe a lot of their economic prosperity in the 19th and early 20th centuries to their frontage on the Mississippi River. Minneapolis became known as a mill town, where lumber and, later, flour mills—like the Pillsbury “A” Mill—were established near Saint Anthony Falls, a natural waterfall on the river.
Meanwhile, Saint Paul grew throughout the mid-19th century once designated capitol of Minnesota, becoming a hub for finance and commerce. The power shared by the two cities was only compounded by the addition of passenger rail service in the 1850s and ’60s. Called the Great Northern Railway, the tracks connected Saint Paul with the west coast.
The cities’ rise brought an influx of money, and corporate leaders had a surplus of cash to spend on grand homes. From the late 19th century into the first few decades of the 20th century, industrial big-wigs built residences in the heart of these cities. It’s these houses—many of which are up for grabs right now—that have piqued our interest.
1712 Mount Curve Avenue, Minneapolis (7 bedrooms, 9 bathrooms, $2.995 million)
One popular spot for successful families to build their houses in Minneapolis was the secluded enclave of Mount Curve Avenue. This 1906 mansion, built for the founder of the now-defunct Donaldson Department Store in Minneapolis, is one such Mount Curve house.
Built in an odd mishmash of styles—Arts & Crafts here, Art Nouveau there—the 12,195-square-foot home features a living room with a Tiffany window and a polygonal dining room with painted frieze and gilded ceiling.
Also, according to the listing, a thistle motif—symbolic of the original owner’s Scottish heritage—appears woven into woodwork around the mansion. How many can you see in these photos?
1017 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul (6 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, $1.55 million)
There may be no thistles to count, but that doesn’t take away from the stately elegance of this home on Saint Paul’s prominent Summit Avenue.
Summit Avenue is the epicenter of Saint Paul’s Gilded Age residential architecture. One of the oldest streets in the city, it surged to prominence after streetcar service made the avenue more accessible in the 1890s.
The street features a wide variety of architectural styles—Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t really a fan, famously calling it “the worst collection of architecture in the world.” One such style is the Colonial Revival, as exhibited by this 1915 home.
The 7,000-square-foot mansion harkens back to the earliest Georgian architecture found along the eastern seaboard of the United States. The floorplan is quite simple: A few rooms on each floor are joined by a wide center hall. Twin chimneys bookend the house, which has retained much of its original woodwork, especially around the fireplaces. The kitchen and bathrooms have received more recent updates.
2400 Bryant Avenue South, Minneapolis (5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, $975,000)
We’re finishing things off back in Minneapolis with a Victorian home that isn’t afraid to go hard on the decorative millwork.
Each room of this 1902 house features woodwork that references other architectural styles. The living room fireplace features a pediment as well as dentil molding, influences from the Greek Revival style, as well as a three-part pointed arch overmantle, a nod to Gothic Revivalism.
In the dining room, architecture-as-ornamentation rises to a new level on the built-in hutch. The heavy wood paneling and leaded-glass doors are capped by three arches with multiple keystones. These keystones do no work holding up the arch—they’re pure ornamentation, and they going out of their way to make that apparent. It’s almost as though the house has a sense of humor about itself.