Murals of the mansion: Susan Lynn’s Stevens Square masterpiece

Artist Susan Lynn painted a series of murals on the walls and ceiling of a Stevens Square apartment unit that once served as the ballroom of a mansion built in the 1880s. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

In 1888, a mustachioed lumber baron named Sumner T. McKnight erected a 30-room mansion on LaSalle Avenue in Stevens Square — a hulking giant of Lake Superior sandstone filled with ornately carved oak panels, baroque gold leaf scrollwork, Tiffany lighting and a series of green-and-white woodblock panels depicting the legend of Cupid and Psyche.

Two years after its construction, McKnight sold the building to George Newell, a co-founder of the SuperValu grocery empire, and in the early 1940s it was divided into luxury apartments.

By the time my partner and I moved into a third-floor unit last year, the Newell Mansion’s once immaculate opulence had aged into a witchy, not-quite-tottering grandeur.

The reddish sandstone had darkened to a sooty shade of brown and slabs of broken balustrade lay unrepaired around the grounds. A quirk of the plumbing meant some toilets flushed hot. And while a ghost hunter had assured our neighbors of the absence of ill-intentioned spirits, the building still suffered the occasional invasion of squirrels.

But we were compensated for these mild hardships by an aesthetic gift bestowed on our apartment’s walls and ceiling well over a century after its creation.

A panorama of painted murals.

Our apartment’s central room — once the mansion’s ballroom — is an airy, open space about the size of a pickleball court and ringed by sloped walls that map the building’s irregular roofline. A skylight stretching over the kitchen fills the entire space with natural light, which is amplified by the murals’ bright pastel color palette.

“There’s nothing like the light in Paris,” our apartment’s muralist, Susan Lynn, told us after we tracked her down earlier this year. “Paris has this special kind of pinkish, warm light.”

Susan Lynn poses outside the Newell Mansion with a sketch she made for her mural on the ballroom ceiling. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Upon entering the room, you have the sense of being transported to the French countryside, though on closer inspection a Minneapolitan will discover a much more familiar landscape.

A series of wall tableaus are anchored by natural and architectural Twin Cities landmarks, each situated in the room following a loosely geographic logic. On the west wall are St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. To the east are the sights of St. Paul: the Como Park Conservatory, the State Capitol and the Cathedral.

Yet all of these landmarks have been placed in bucolic landscapes devoid of any hint of their urban surroundings — a flowing river and grassy banks lead to the entrance of the glass-domed conservatory, while neatly manicured hedges line the path to the Capitol. No busy roads, no parking lots.

“I wanted to make it look like it was this 19th-century neoclassical appreciation of Greek mythology,” Lynn said. “What would the Capitol look like if nothing were around it? What would the Cathedral look like?”

The State Capitol is one of the Twin Cities architectural landmarks Susan Lynn included in her imagined landscapes. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Shaking with elation

Susan Lynn, we have learned, is a whimsical, elusive person who becomes most animated when sharing details of her artistic process.

She grew up by Lake Harriet before living in New York and traveling throughout Europe. Today, she has a studio on Summit Avenue in St. Paul and rents an office on Cedar Lake Parkway. She said her mother once rented Theo van Gogh’s Parisian apartment on the Rue Lepic and that she painted in the same courtyard as Vincent — a memory, she said, that makes her “shake with elation.”

Lynn prefers to paint on large walls or big, 17-foot canvases. “I want it to be interactive with my whole body,” she said. “I like to be on my feet and moving like in a dance. Sometimes I’m moving as fast as playing tennis.”

Trained in stone masonry, architecture and archaeology, she’s received commissions for paintings and plaster work at local restaurants like Arezzo, St. Genevieve’s and Brasserie Zinc. She once painted a Paris rooftop scene covering a full floor of a real estate magnate’s Lake Minnetonka mansion.

Lynn paints a 2009 residential commission in North Oaks. Submitted photo

Our apartment’s murals, Lynn told us, have occupied a place in her imagination like no other project.

In the winter of 2003-04, the Newell Mansion’s then-owners — friends of friends — first showed her the ballroom and she knew immediately she would paint “some angelic human form” floating on the ceiling.

She was given a contract to start work the following summer and, during the spring, she flew to Paris for a season of research — trips to the Musée d’Orsay, photographs of ceilings, sketches in charcoal.

She was supposed to begin painting the ballroom in June and finish in August, but a woodworker was using the space to build a stairway and she felt it was impossible to work around him.

At summer’s end, she’d only just started painting. So Lynn decided to rent the unit.

It was my “home away from home,” she said. “I did the work of my own will and own heart. … I rented it because I wanted to finish these murals.”

Nearly everything she painted in the ballroom, she said, she did in the fall of 2004. But Lynn continued renting the space until 2014. She said she’d often come back from other painting jobs exhausted and would lie on her back, staring at the ceiling, “dreaming and imagining” about what it could be.

“That’s what’ll happen when you’re not getting paid for something anymore, and you’re doing it completely on your own volition,” she said. “More than anything, I’d love to finish it.”

The Newell Mansion on LaSalle Avenue in Stevens Square. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Shards of gold

When Lynn started her work in the Newell Mansion, the ballroom was painted all in white and she had to contend with its angular architecture.

The room’s four sides are fractured into a patchwork canvas of more than two dozen walls — mostly rectangles and trapezoids, few of matching proportions.

The ceiling, though also lacking spatial definition, is at least big and flat. That’s where Lynn spent her first week of work, anchoring the amorphous ballroom with a 23-foot-long oval outline stretching the ceiling’s entire length.

“It’s much more complicated to create an oval than a circle — to get it symmetrical so both ends mirror the other side,” she said.

To give the oval a gilded effect, she bought some composition gold leaf, designed an adhesive stamp and built a custom piece of scaffolding to lift her body high enough to reach the ceiling with her lips.

“I’d blow the gold leaf into place and it would sit on the adhesive,” she said. “The whole room was filled with little shards and pieces of gold flying and floating around.”

In the center of the oval, she painted three female figures. She wanted to portray the Grecian Fates holding hands beneath the clouds. As she envisioned the figures, she reflected on the contours of the Damophon statuary she had once cleaned, documented, drawn and catalogued at a Greek museum — mixing those images with pictures she started taking of human models.

“I’d photograph friends of mine lying down in chaise lounges in old wedding gowns and coiled fabric,” Lynn said. “I would be on a ladder up above them and they were lying back on the lounge.”

The three Grecian Fates painted on the ceiling. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

After the oval came the arches, nearly as many arches as walls. And inside each arch, she planned to create a pastoral tableau — a scene that might prompt viewers to wonder whether the painting dated to 1888, when the mansion was first built.

She drew inspiration from Hudson River School artists like Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church as she sought to “capture the feeling of early American painting.” Elms, ash and maple — trees found in the Twin Cities, Paris and the Hudson Valley of yore — arc regally over the Como Conservatory and the St. Paul Cathedral.

“There seems to be a certain way those artists really appreciated the outline of tree limbs,” she said. “Where the shape of the outer branches create certain shapes as they lob over — as they blow in the wind — they create these sort of floret shapes like the top of broccoli.”

A close-up view of Lynn’s brushwork. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

In one corner of the ballroom (an alcove that’s become my pandemic home office), Lynn has shaded in the space above the arches with hundreds of waving ribbons of pastel browns, pinks, reds, lilacs and blues.

The goal, she said, was to create a trompe l’oeil of solid stone, giving the appearance of “tiger’s-eye agatized marble.”

She said it took her just a single afternoon to paint the alcove. For a long time afterward, she intended to stretch the effect throughout the ballroom, but she never did.

“It would have flown everywhere in the entire room, all the way around and into the in-between space between the oval and the arches,” she said, pausing for a moment. “It pulls itself off as a work regardless of whether it’s done or not.”

You can see more examples of Lynn’s work on her website.

A view of the ballroom facing north. Photo by Isaiah Rustad
Lynn’s preparatory work included photographing friends lying down in old wedding gowns and sketching in charcoal. Photo by Isaiah Rustad