Downtown's haunted house

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Ghosts in the staircases, memos trying to escape bulletin boards, creaks from the former mortuary: any day could be

Halloween at the Smith Mansion

The H. Alden Smith Mansion, a stately Loring Park estate recalling a decadent era in Minneapolis history, is home to phenomena worthy of the "Twilight Zone."

People working at the 1403 Harmon Place mansion -- now part of Minneapolis Community and Technical College -- have observed and heard some strange things over the past couple of years.

For one, the elevator goes up and down several times a day on its own. The elevator's maintenance worker has been out to check the mystery and can't explain it.

Others report hearing doors slam when no one else is in the building.

There are ghost stories, too.

When crews filmed "Drop Dead Fred," a 1991 movie about an imaginary mischievous friend who visits a woman when her life goes downhill, at the mansion, some people reportedly saw a woman's ghost float down the stairs leading to the first-floor entryway.

Janet Tauer, director of MCTC's Educational Opportunity Center, works on the mansion's second floor. One day, she was standing near the staircase with another woman and witnessed a fluky sight: all the bulletins pegged to a hallway board flew up. There was no breeze in the hallway.

Although Tauer doesn't have a logical explanation, she's not convinced the place is haunted.

"I don't know if I believe in ghosts," she said. "I need more evidence."

The mansion's oddities have inspired Ann Costello, a secretary at the mansion (now renamed the Wells Family College Center), to dig into its past. She has launched a Web site, www.home.Minneapolis.edu/~costelan and keeps a scrapbook filled with the building's old permits.

Her discoveries, recently featured in a St. Paul Pioneer Press article, are ripe ingredients for a good mystery novel.

A woman who read the story contacted Costello, identifying herself as a "professional ghost hunter/buster." She asked to tour the mansion on an "informal investigation" to see whether anything could be captured on film.

Costello, a lighthearted woman with a penchant for Minneapolis history, has scoped out the building with a detective's eye for detail. She has found hidden passageways, an odd ground-level staircase that leads nowhere and has even braved a few trips to the "spooky" basement -- a pitch-dark cellar with some remnants of the mansion's mortuary past, including an odd fluid gauge, among other things.

She took a Skyway News reporter and photographer on a tour of the building to examine the strange quirks. The "spooky" basement did have a haunted quality. The narrow staircases creaked and odd sounds emanated from the subterranean level.

Reede Webster, MCTC's executive director of college advancement, came along as well. He appeared skeptical of the ghost tales, though he admitted in the mansion's basement that it had some eerie qualities.

Overall, he had high praise for the 19th-century mansion near the corner of Spruce Place and Harmon. School officials have plans to overhaul the building, outfitting it with a new roof, among other things. MCTC has launched a $3 million fund-raising campaign for the renovations. Congressman Martin Sabo, a Democrat, has secured $200,000 in federal dollars for the rehab.

"It's an era piece," Webster said. "This was built by one of the most prominent architects [William Channing Whitney] in Minneapolis of that time. It's part of the city's history. It's part of what originally made this Loring Park neighborhood a great area."

Costello has also unearthed some facts about the mansion's first resident, H. Alden Smith, a Connecticut native born in 1849 who could trace his genealogy to the Mayflower. His family moved to Minneapolis in 1860.

Smith worked for a door and sash business Downtown in the 1870s and built the Loring Park mansion, a bulky brownstone with odd-shaped rooms and several gas fireplaces, in 1887 for $20,000.

The businessman's time in the mansion wasn't long. After a full day's work, he died of a heart attack Dec. 21, 1906 -- four days before his 57th birthday.

Smith's daughter Alice also died early in life, at the age of 33. She was married at the time and stood to gain a hefty inheritance, leading Costello to theorize she might have been murdered.

After the businessman's death, Smith's wife, Eva, sold the estate for $80,000 to William Davies, who opened a mortuary at the mansion in 1919.

The mortuary stayed in business until the 1970s.

The mansion also served as a gathering place for the city's elite, Costello has learned. One man who used to work at the mortuary told her members of the Minneapolis 500 Club had wild parties in the mansion's third-floor ballroom.

After serving as a mortuary for five decades, the mansion's fate took an odd twist. It became an upscale bar and restaurant called The Little Prince in 1977.

The eatery didn't last long, though. After undergoing $1 million in renovations, the dining spot closed within a year.

Later, in the 1980s, developers eyed the mansion for luxury offices, but nothing ever come of the plans.

In 1993, MCTC bought the mansion for $350,000 and renamed it the Wells Family Center after receiving a major donation from the Frederick B. Wells family.

Now, the mansion houses the college's TRIO Programs, federally funded educational outreach programs for low-income students, students with disabilities and students attending college for the first time in their family. A computer-training program for senior citizens called Senior Net is also located in the Wells Family College Center.

Despite the mansion's rather odd nature, Costello said she loves the estate.

"I like to walk around and try to imagine what it was like when the Smith family lived here. What did they do, who did they entertain, how many servants did they have, what did they eat?" she wondered. "I like to think about what their little girl did. I believe she was only 5 when they moved in. What a great place to live."