Local Current Blog

Glensheen reinvents itself with live music, new perspectives, and kayaks

'This is what you call a perfect Duluth day,' said the Boomchucks' Jamie Ness after soundchecking on Glensheen's pier. All photos by Jay Gabler/MPR.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I drove to Duluth to meet the director of Glensheen, but it wasn’t the casually dressed thirty-something guy who shook my hand and immediately asked if I wanted to hop into a kayak.

Dan Hartman has led the team running the historic London Road mansion since 2013, and the former Duluth city council member has overseen a remarkable spike in interest: attendance at Glensheen has doubled over the last three years. Yes, doubled. What’s changed?

As we paddled out onto the lake, Hartman and marketing manager Jane Pederson credited a shift in perspective. “Fundamentally,” said Hartman, “Glensheen is a 39-room mansion on Lake Superior.” By treating the house and its grounds as a venue for diverse experiences, rather than as simply a place where you go to learn about history, the Glensheen staff have inspired a new generation to open their eyes to a Zenith City gem that’s been hiding in plain sight.

By way of example, Hartman cited his early surprise at discovering tickets to the annual fundraising gala were moving more slowly than he expected. “Instead of asking, ‘Do you want to come to the Glensheen Gala,'” he explained, “we started asking, ‘Do you want to come to a party at a mansion on the lake?’ Then, tickets sold out.”

The Glensheen kayak experience is currently available through Day Tripper, and it will soon also be part of what the Glensheen staff are calling the Best Damn Tour. The tour, which staff expect to debut later this summer, will start with kayaking, followed by a picnic dinner and s’mores on the beach, and concluding with a flashlight tour of the mansion.

Hartman and his staff have been visiting other historic houses across the country to see what works, and one thing they’ve learned is that they should be giving visitors the same kinds of experiences that staff themselves like to have at the mansion. The Best Damn Tour is the tour that staff would give their own friends, said Hartman. It’s about kayaking up the creek, it’s about hanging out on the lake, it’s about having the kind of experience you want to tell people about.

In the meantime, the mansion has expanded tours significantly beyond the traditional guided walkthrough. One big change: the standard tour is now self-guided, with interpreters waiting in the various rooms to answer questions. “It’s great for families,” says Hartman — a dramatic departure from my own Duluth childhood in the ’80s, when I never set foot inside Glensheen because, my parents said, it wasn’t a place for kids.

There are also tours including photo walks, strolls across the 12-acre grounds, Christmastime candlelight tours, and full-mansion tours that include the third floor and attic, previously closed to the public. “Nooks and crannies” tours feature spaces like the boathouse, while “servants tours” look at Glensheen life from the perspective of the hired help.

What about those murders? This year happens to be the 40th anniversary of the tragic deaths of Elisabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila, sparking renewed discussion of the incident — including Glensheen, a hit musical now back for a third summer at St. Paul’s History Theatre. That musical opens with a scenario that many assume to be the norm at Glensheen: a pack of tourists press a guide for grisly details while she desperately tries to deflect attention to the house’s architecture.

That makes for good theater, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of what brings people to Glensheen, said Hartman. “A lot of our visitors are younger, and they’ve never even heard of the murders.” When I toured the mansion last week, I watched and listened to the other people on my group, and sure enough: no one paused at the scenes of the crimes, and no one even brought them up. Staff were indeed pressed for information, but the visitors’ questions concerned Chester Congdon’s book collection and his sons’ college photos.

I chose last week for my visit because it was the occasion of the first weekly Concert on the Pier. The Boomchucks — a Duluth band led by Jamie Ness, the brother of former mayor Don Ness — set up at the end of the pier past the boathouse, where they played for a 360º crowd.

“This is what you call a perfect Duluth day,” mused Ness after the band soundchecked, as they sat in the sun and watched food vendors set up on the lawn.

“This place has become more accessible and more interconnected with the community,” said the band’s drummer Brad Nelson, a Fitger’s Brewhouse vet who now runs the Cedar Lounge and adjoining Earth Rider brewery in Superior.

Bassist Dicky Brooks admitted, “I never thought about coming to Glensheen before. This is a cool, hip thing.” The band members credited Glensheen’s Emma Deaner, a musician herself, for booking a solid slate of bands that include Feeding Leroy, Superior Siren, and the 4onthefloor.

Up by the carriage house, the Chow Haul food truck was busy serving savory snacks. (“It’s a little hot back here,” said one of the cooks. “It’s a lot of hot back here!” responded another.) After I finished my breakfast poutine, Hartman beckoned me over to meet local baker Amanda Belcher, whose Zenith Bread Project was offering deliciously unconventional tapered pretzels.

As boats gathered for the show — free to all, by land or by lake — Hartman and Pederson ran around posting social-media updates. (“Are you doing Snapchat?” “I’m doing Instagram right now.”) Pausing, Hartman pointed out to the lake. “This is the first time the Wednesday night sailboats have come.”

The Wednesday night sailboats? Welcome to Duluth. The Vista Queen tour boat also pulled up, having offered a special voyage for the occasion. Against the pier, a man named John sat in his canoe and explained that he was visiting from the Twin Cities. “Normally I come to events on a bike,” he said, quaffing a tallboy in a coozy. Nearby, a man sitting in a kayak produced a Bent Paddle insulated growler and poured a glass of beer for a companion who was straddling a paddle board.

The Concerts on the Pier — which run every Wednesday in July — have drawn up to 1,800, said Hartman. Last Wednesday’s crowd wasn’t quite that big, but the rootsy Boomchucks played to their in-the-round audience as though they were at the Palace Theatre. After the show ended, all three musicians jumped in the lake. “I wish every show ended like that,” said Nelson.

“We don’t get anything out of this financially,” said Hartman about the concert series, “but awareness is through the roof. And, it just feels right.”