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Documentary, Q&A focus on Glensheen architect

The documentary gives plenty of attention to the 39-room Jacobean mansion at 3300 London Road, which was completed in 1908 as a residence for Chester and Clara Congdon. (2008 file / News Tribune)

The prolific Minnesota architect who designed Glensheen mansion is the subject of a documentary that has aired on Twin Cities Public Television and will get a public screening in Duluth.

"Gracious Spaces: Clarence H. Johnston, Minnesota Architect" is a look at the large homes, University of Minnesota buildings, prisons, hospitals and state fair cattle barns that were designed by Johnston between the 1880s and 1930s. It is narrated by Cathy Wurzer, host of Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio, and produced by Twin Cities Public Television. There will be a screening of the 56-minute documentary at 7 p.m. Saturday, followed by a Q&A at the Spirit of the North Theater on the third floor of the Fitger's Complex.

The documentary gives plenty of attention to the 39-room Jacobean mansion at 3300 London Road, which was completed in 1908 as a residence for Chester and Clara Congdon. Producer and director Lisa Blackstone said Glensheen was a cutting-edge project at the time, with nothing like it in the Midwest outside of Chicago.

"It was one of his most spectacular residential commissions," she said.

Homes with commercial techniques

Johnston was known for building residences for St. Paul's elite, including more than 40 houses on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. His designs moved toward a style that included wide hallways, large rooms and natural light. His clients had large families and entertained in their homes. Johnston placed an emphasis on the visual impact of the space when guests walked through the front door, as well as conveniences for live-in staff.

Glensheen fits these signature standards, said Dennis Lamkin, the longtime chairman of the mansion's Citizen's Advisory Board.

"Gracious Spaces" includes a tour of the mansion by Lamkin, who speaks to the construction of the building -- a mix of commercial techniques and modern domestic innovations.

"It's an extremely sturdily built mansion," Lamkin said. "It's built not a lot differently than if you were building a commercial building at that time."

The infrastructure is made of steel beams rather than wood. Servants' doors are made of buckled material that masks fingerprints. Floors are concrete, the walls are clay, and the showers are self-regulated to maintain a certain temperature.

The bathrooms have no-sweat toilets and the butler's pantry has no-splash sinks. There is a central vacuum cleaning system.

Lamkin's knowledge of Johnston's work was specific to Glensheen until he became involved with the documentary. Since then, he has had the chance to tour more of the architect's residences, though he said he considers Glensheen the architect's opus.

Architect largely unheralded

About 75 years after his death, Johnston's name doesn't have the same weight as peers Frank Lloyd Wright and his friend, Cass Gilbert, who designed the state Capitol building in St. Paul.

"It's hard to say why he's been forgotten," Blackstone said. "He was extremely popular when he was practicing. People say he kind of fell out of favor, in part because architectural styles were changing. Unlike (Gilbert), he rarely worked outside of Minnesota."

Lamkin described Johnston as a humble architect with a steady stream of word-of-mouth commissions and no need for self-promotion.

Blackstone said it was hard to find much about Johnston beyond the buildings he designed. He didn't seem to keep a journal and had few correspondences. The filmmakers worked from the book "Minnesota Architect: The Life and Work of Clarence H. Johnston" by Twin Cities' architectural historian Paul Clifford Larson -- who also is featured in the documentary.

Johnston grew up in St. Paul, studied briefly at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where he lived with Gilbert, returned home and then later landed in New York City, where he worked for an architecture firm. He came back to Minnesota and went on to design thousands of buildings -- including some University of Minnesota Duluth structures.

"Johnston was an incredibly prolific architect and has not been given much attention over the decades," Blackstone said. "We thought it was high time to celebrate his work."