(credit: Coco Mault)

By Coco Mault

The Twin Cities are host to some pretty tony neighborhoods. But in a new book — Once There Were Castles, Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities by Larry Millett — we find out just how far back those extravagant roots go.

Many of us have seen remnants of these posh neighborhoods our cities’ ancestors lived in; certainly some grand houses still stand in Lowertown and Dayton’s Bluff, Summit Avenue and the Hill District, and Lowry Hill and the Lake District. Few still stand in all their glory, some are in disrepair or have been split into multiple apartment complexes. But as Millett points out, what we see still standing is only a tiny fraction of what used to exist. Much of the evidence of the grandeur of our cities’ past has long been demolished in favor of ever-newer buildings and even parking lots.

If the name Millet sounds familiar, it’s because he isn’t new to writing books on the history of the Twin Cities. He is also the author of Lost Twin Cities and Twin Cities Then and Now. In his newest book, he makes it clear that the process of tearing down and re-building was a common practice further back in our history than many may think, writing in his introduction that, “Although urban renewal and the destruction of historic building, homes, and neighborhoods is often though of as a post-World War II phenomenon, the process is in fact much older than that.”

Minneapolis and St. Paul are river towns and so the people who made their fortunes tended to make their money from the railroads or the mills. And a popular way to display one’s wealth was to build and live in a large home. Many of these early barons of business had homes with hallways and attic ballrooms big enough to rival the size of today’s one-bedroom apartments.

(credit: University of Minnesota Press)

This book is organized by city — St. Paul and Minneapolis — and then further divided by individual neighborhoods within each city. And not only is it a document of houses that have long been razed, there are also interesting tidbits of information about the tenants of those houses — how they made their fortunes (and in some cases lost those fortunes), why their house was torn down (sometimes it was the owners who decided to demolish their homes), and in many cases what ultimately ended up happening to the families who lived in them.

One of the many interesting stories that Millet includes in his book is about the Thomas Lowry House. He briefly tells the story of Lowry and how he became a prosperous Minneapolitan, which allowed him to build a red brick mansion in the neighborhood that now bears his name: Lowry Hill. When Lowry passed away, art collector Thomas B. Walker purchased the mansion. Eventually his collection no longer fit the confines of the 14-room house and Walker built a stand-alone museum next door, which was completed in 1927. That museum, of course, is the Walker Art Center. Millet goes on to share that once the Great Depression set in, the mansion was too much of a liability and was razed in 1932.

But this is just one of many historical tales that millet has dug up from the long buried rubble of these neighborhoods’ pasts. Once There Were Castles, Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities is bursting with photos of the exteriors, interiors, and even blueprints of dozens of long-gone homes. But don’t resist the temptation to take this book on a walk and see these Twin Cities sites in person.

Once There Were Castles, Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities by Larry Millett (University of Minnesota Press) is available in bookstores and online. Larry Millett will be giving a talk and signing books at the Minnesota Historical Society, James J. Hill House (240 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN) on September 27, 7pm; and at the Mill City Museum (704 South Second Street, Minneapolis, MN) on October 6, 7pm.

Comments (3)
  1. Joe says:

    What a loss.

  2. homer says:

    Don’t forget that these mansions were by and large funded by robber barons who lubricated their money machines with ordinary workers, and were then actually constructed by the same.

  3. Jim Sazevich says:

    Good review, but Coco you need a refresher on local geography. Summit Avenue is part of the “Hill District”, and Lowertown doesn’t have any mansions, in fact, it doesn’t even have any single family homes. They’ve been gone for many years. Also, author Larry Millett is probably best known for his most recent architectural work, the “AIA Guide to the Twin Cities, The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul”, published in 2007. I’ll be happy to take you on a tour of St. Paul sometime. All the best.

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