Do you have a great aunt or uncle whose house is packed with nostalgic treasures? Mine was Great Aunt Evelyn. She lived in a Park Avenue bungalow with built-in bookshelves, a large fireplace mantle and antique display cases with curved glass doors. Her vast collection of mismatched patterned teacups, framed Buzza mottos and porcelain figurines given to her throughout her 94-year life were set on every surface. She saved everything. There wasn’t any direction or mission to her collecting other than sentimentality. But as a kid, I marveled at her beautiful things.
Many other people are better collectors though, perhaps even curators. Dr. Seth C. Hawkins is one. He not only has a specific plan for his collecting; he has multiple. Though they seem unrelated, he can persuade you otherwise. His collections are displayed in a house museum in St. Paul that’s been open to the public since 1993. I finally went there in late December.
Julian H. Sleeper was a St. Paul entrepreneur, real estate speculator and hotel manager who built the house in 1884. Originally on Holly Avenue, it was moved by Sleeper in 1911 to St. Albans Street, next to a boardinghouse he also owned. Hawkins bought the house in 1993 and entirely restored the interior in a Victorian Arts & Crafts style that would have been popular when the house was built.
The first floor has a parlor, dining room and study all covered in wallpapers by the premier designer of the era, William Morris. Interlocking leaves and scrolls cover the walls and gold stars sparkle on the ceiling. Eastlake and Renaissance Revival furniture, wooden “wall pockets,” artworks and collectibles of the era blend together to represent what an emerging upper-middle-class family home looked like at the height of the Gilded Age.
More William Morris wallpapers and art reproductions tower overhead as one climbs the stairs to the second floor. Additional period rooms are filled with political cartoons, artworks featuring owls and a Chinese emperor’s bed from the 1860s. When you ask a question on the tour, be prepared for a lengthy and entertaining answer that begs for even more questions.
Before moving to St. Paul, Hawkins lived in New Haven, Connecticut, where he taught classes on 19th-century American public speaking and became an expert on the speeches of James A. Garfield (1831–1881). Garfield was elected the 20th president of the United States in 1880, but served for only 6 1/2 months before he was assassinated. Hawkins has amassed what he calls “the definitive collection” of Garfield memorabilia. Photos, campaign ribbons, banners, letters, signed documents, proclamations, souvenirs and a life-size wax replica of Garfield fill an upstairs room. Some favored guests of the museum have been shown the rope Hawkins claims was used to hang Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau.
Across the hall is a room packed with Hawkins’ baseball memorabilia. He often refers to himself in the third person as “Dr. Fan,” a nickname awarded to him in a 1986 Sporting News column. Hawkins has traveled around the country to watch in person as the last 21 major league baseball players earned their 3,000th career hits. His favorite modern star, he says, is Ichiro Suzuki, whose focus on speed and singles resembles Gilded Age ballplayers like “Wee Willie” Keeler.
After walking through the kitchen, packed with everything from a vintage enamel stove to old canned goods to a plate from the St. Paul Grill, Hawkins led me into the basement. The large room doubles as an exhibit space and tourism office for the country of Slovenia. Artifacts in glass-covered cases are topped with a lineup of travel brochures and souvenir airplanes from the now defunct national airline. (Some items were procured with the assistance of one Melania Knauss.) When I asked, “Why Slovenia?” Hawkins simply said it was an underappreciated country. Located in central Europe between Italy, Austria and Croatia, Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia until 1991. This St. Paul basement is an official tourism office and has been visited by the U.S. ambassador to Slovenia.
Visiting the museum on a personal tour by the collector reminded me of wandering through Aunt Evelyn’s house. Stories swirled around the objects and made new connections. At the Julian H. Sleeper House Museum I learned about the Gilded Age, President Garfield, baseball and Slovenia. Where else can you experience that mix?!
If you visit
The Julian H. Sleeper House Museum is open by appointment only. Tours are conducted by Dr. Seth C. Hawkins himself and take approximately two hours. Several public events are also held in the house throughout the year.
Where: 66 St. Albans St., St. Paul
Cost: $9 per person; champagne toast is $11 extra
Info: julianhsleeperhouse.com or call 651-225-1505 to make reservations.
German chocolate cake was rumored to be President Garfield’s favorite dessert. Try some, along with a large variety of lunch options, at the nearby Cafe Latte, 850 Grand Ave., St. Paul.
Follow Linda Koutsky on Instagram at @why_stay_home for more adventures.