Southwest mansion plays host to the gifts - and ghosts - of the past
Editor's note: In this new, semiregular column, Southwest Journal contributing writer Jeremy Stratton will highlight items from Southwest's and Minneapolis' past, primarily from the collection of the Hennepin History Museum, 2303 3rd Ave. S.
Of all the historic items collected over the years by the Hennepin History Museum, the George H. Christian mansion that houses them is surely its most visible gem.
In 1917, local architect Edwin Hewitt began construction of the three-story mansion, a mix of the Renaissance and late English Gothic style. (Hewitt's firm, Hewitt and Brown, designed many notable Minneapolis structures, including the Charles S. Pillsbury House at 106 22nd Ave. E., Lake of the Isles Church at 2020 W. Lake of the Isles Parkway, and both the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church and the Cathedral Church of St. Mark, between Lowry Hill and Loring Park.)
Before the house was finished, Christian died, along with his wife and his son George Chase Christian, whose widow, philanthropist Carolyn McKnight Christian, oversaw its completion in 1919. McKnight Christian lived there with her foster children and servants until 1957, when she donated the house to the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts.
The Hennepin County Historical Society purchased the mansion soon after, and for nearly 50 years, the building that Curator Jack Kabrud calls the museum's “greatest artifact” has housed an ever-growing collection of the county's historical notables - many of them hailing from Southwest and greater Minneapolis.
Besides the house and its permanent fixtures, only one item - a table - is from the Christian family. (McKnight Christian gave much of her family's collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.) The museum's collection has been amassed through almost 50 years of donations. Nowadays, it is these gifts -which, counting every item, paper and photograph, Kabrud estimated at 1 million pieces - that fill the rooms, decorate the walls and enliven the house, rather than McKnight Christian and her foster children.
One daughter, now grown, told Kabrud how she and her siblings would listen excitedly from the top of the grand, main staircase as the doorman announced guests arriving for social gatherings.
Now, it's museum visitors who walk through the doors to the museum's main lobby. Much of the first floor, including former the library, music room and dining room, now hosts ever-changing exhibits and occasional receptions. Like the second-floor gallery rooms, walls are routinely painted to complement the next exhibit while other permanent features like the carved stone fireplace remain as they've been for 90 years.
A garden-level bedroom is now the museum's public library, where guests often browse and do research during open hours. Beyond the public areas, a maze of hallways and stairs lead to room after room of the stored permanent collection.
Kabrud said a residual presence exists in the mansion, whether from the house and its past inhabitants or the layers of history attached to the growing collection. Some are eerie, even ghost-like: volunteers and staff have experienced pockets of strong, unexplainable scents, and Kabrud said many people - especially women - have gotten a strange, unsettling sensation at the top of the main staircase.
“It's uncanny,” Kabrud said. “People consistently say that they feel creepy. There's clearly something manifesting itself in some way.”
Kabrud recounted his own spooky experience in the former conservatory, which is now office space. Investigating an odd noise, Kabrud saw that the water inside the water cooler was spinning like a whirlpool. “I just stood there for the longest time,” he said, until the water stopped spinning and then “trembled” for minutes afterwards before it was still.
More than ghosts, however, it's the remnants of people's lives that give the museum its power, said Kabrud.
“Some objects are very mundane,” he said, “but when you look at the people who owned them the stories connected are astounding,” Kabrud said.
The oldest piece in the collection is a receipt, from the mid-1700s, for the purchase of a slave. The most valuable: a wedding quilt from 1820. Inside the thin layers, one can read old letters to family and loved ones that were stitched inside to strengthen the quilt.
There's a room full of furniture with famous - and infamous - ties to the past. Another is filled with signs and other memorabilia from local businesses of the past. In another, you'll find doorknobs and ashtrays from long-gone buildings. The most disturbing gift was from a local podiatrist: a collection of bunions, in-grown toenails, calluses and corns.
There's so much more that the collection is outgrowing the mansion; it's a shortage of space and funding that is not uncommon for small and medium-sized museums, Kabrud said.
Still, Kabrud encourages people to donate the stuff of their family's Hennepin County history.
“These are the things that make up people's lives,” Kabrud said. “The recognition of us, who were, where we lived, our family.
“History doesn't have to mean a hundred years ago,” he said. “History could be yesterday.
“One of the great efforts is to make sure all people of Hennepin County's history are included,” he continued. He gave the example of the African American community, which has been ignored in the past by the museum, and new immigrants. “Documenting their arrival would be invaluable to their families later,” said Kabrud.
He told the story of little girl who visited the museum and saw a picture of the old Whittier School, now converted into the apartments where she lives. “She took such pride in seeing a photo of where she lived,” he said.
“It's that common recognition, the sense of community. We want to teach children that history is not all about George Washington, it's about you right now, who you are, where you live, who your parents are. It's about you because you live here. You are history.”
For more information on the Hennepin History Museum, visit www.hhmuseum.org for museum hours and information.