Historian Larry Millett out with new book, ‘Once There Were Castles,’ tracing history of Twin Cities lost mansions
Imagine the scene in the Whittier neighborhood in 1890.
A massive mansion — by far the largest in Minneapolis at the time — overshadowed all other neighboring homes on land now home to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
The mansion known as Fair Oaks belonged to William Washburn, a politician who served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
In his new book, “Once There Were Castles,” architectural historian Larry Millett describes the home as something quite rare for the city. “Like the man himself, [the mansion] was flashy and outsized, as much gesture as substance, an architectural show designed to awe. There had never been anything quite like it before in Minneapolis.”
The mansion was donated to the Minneapolis Park Board after Washburn died in 1912, but it became too costly too maintain and was razed in 1924 and became Washburn-Fair Oaks Park.
The estate is one of roughly 500 mansions that have vanished from the Twin Cities, according to records Millett has uncovered. Many of the mansions, especially those in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, were demolished to make way for new commercial development or railroads.
Other mansions, like Fair Oaks, became too expensive to keep up. The Washburns often threw fancy parties in their 14-bedroom home and had famous visitors, including Ulysses S. Grant. The 10-acre estate also had a greenhouse and carriage house.
“We lost some beautiful old neighborhoods,” Millett said in a recent interview about his new book.
Beyond uncovering interesting details about these lavish homes, Millett’s book includes many fascinating tales about the wealthy people that lived in these homes.
One of the more unique characters was Charles Gates who built a magnificent mansion on Lake of the Isles that only lasted two decades. He describes Gates as a “speed-obsessed playboy who had inherited a fortune from his father.”
The home at 2501 Lake of the Isles Parkway East was the largest private residence ever built in Minneapolis, according to Millett. The mansion was 38,000 square feet and was designed in the Italian Renaissance architectural style.
“Finished in 1914, the mansion was of a size only equaled of late by the homes of computer billionaires, hedge fund managers, and the occasional Hollywood producer,” Millett wrote in the book. “Despite the millions spent on it, the Gates House turned out to be a chimera, gone in a flash, and it remains by far the greatest of all the lost mansions of the Twin Cities.”
Gates died before he could enjoy his life in the completed mansion. He had a heart attack in Cody, Wyoming at the age of 37. His wife Florence moved into the Lake of the Isles estate in the summer of 1914.
Florence soon remarried a man from Connecticut and they lived in the mansion until 1923 when they sold it a St. Paul lumberman Dwight F. Brooks for $150,000 — much less than the millions invested in the place by Gates. When Brooks died in 1930, his estate tried to sell the mansion but given the horrible state of the economy there were no takers. It was demolished in the spring of 1933 after many of its interior furnishings were salvaged.
Another interesting tale Millett came across in his research was the story of Olaf Searle, a poor Norwegian immigrant when he arrived in Minnesota who went on to become wealthy from selling land and steamship tickets. He built a luxurious estate on Lake Minnetonka’s Big Island and had a channel dug into the island that separated him from his neighbors.
Searle later had financial hardships and marital troubles. He died in 1926 and not long after, a fire destroyed his abandoned mansion.
Like many other mansion owners, Searle’s story does not end on a happy note.
Larry Millett will appear with Garrison Keillor to discuss “Once There Were Castles” 7:30 p.m., Nov. 7, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Millett, a former architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has written many other books, including “Lost Twin Cities” and six mystery novels.