Once the homes of land barons, bankers, railroad tycoons, and shipping magnates, giant mansions would often stand tall on bluffs and hills, overlooking towns across the Midwest, much like a king looking down on his fiefdom. With wings set aside for family members, entertaining, or other reasons, mansions showed the rest of the world how wealthy you were.
Today, several mansions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are museums of sorts, telling the stories of the families and their impacts on their communities.
Through our travels, both hosted and on our own, my wife and I have visited several mansions because we enjoy learning the backstory, as well as local history. The mansions I selected for this article are ones that really stood out to me, and show similarities and differences of communities across the region.
1. Seelye Mansion
From President Theodore Roosevelt to Thomas Edison, celebrities and dignitaries often dined at Seelye Mansion. The 25-room estate was built in 1904 for Dr. A.B. Seelye and his wife, Jeannette. The couple often entertained visitors in the dining room, so as you walk through the room, you can imagine where the president may have sat, or even reflect on the fact that Edison, the famous inventor, sat at the table sharing a meal with the Seelyes. You’ll find a century-old Steinway piano that may be played by a tour guide. The home included a dance hall on one of the upper floors, where the Seelye family would host large parties. The family enjoyed bowling in its single-lane basement bowling alley. Dr. Seelye was also known for a series of medical patents, which are celebrated as part of a medical patent museum in the rear of the mansion. The Seelye Mansion is a must-see during the holiday season, when more than 750 nutcrackers and about 75 poinsettias are located throughout the magnificently decorated house. The Seelye Mansion has been recognized as one of the “8 Wonders of Kansas.”
2. Glensheen Mansion
Nicknamed Duluth’s Downton Abbey, Glensheen Mansion ranks among our favorite mansions in the Midwest. With nearly 40 rooms, Glensheen Mansion features dark mahogany wood among its interior decor. The home, along with its contents, was donated to the University of Minnesota in 1979, so everything you see in the home once belonged to the Chester and Clara Congdon family. The rooms are well decorated and reveal what life was like along Lake Superior during the early 20th century. It’s a beautiful home with amazing views. As you tour the home, you’ll find views of Lake Superior from bedrooms and offices. The mansion is located on about 12 acres of land, down from its original 22 acres, and includes a picturesque garden facing the lake. Walk along trails that take you next to Lake Superior to the former boathouse.
3. Pettigrew Home And Museum
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Richard Pettigrew served as South Dakota’s first senator following statehood. In 1889, during his political service, a Queen Anne-style home was built in Sioux Falls for Thomas and Jenny McMartin. In 1911, Pettigrew bought the mansion from the McMartins. A tour of the house offers a look at the kitchen pantry, dining room, and parlor. With two floors to explore, the Pettigrew Home and Museum includes exhibits with Native American artifacts, natural history pieces, and Western-era weapons, as well as special exhibits.
4. Arbor Lodge Mansion
Nebraska City, Nebraska
What started as a four-room cabin grew into the 52-room Arbor Lodge Mansion. J. Sterling Morton, a former Nebraska territorial governor, founded Arbor Day. His four sons also went on to enjoy success, as Joy Morton created the Morton Salt Company and Carl helped invent Argo starch. Mark worked with Joy on several business ventures, and Paul served in President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Joy actually built Arbor Lodge, based on the White House, around the family cabin. During tours, you’ll see where the cabin is located inside. With parlors, a dance hall, and a dining room among the popular attractions, visitors also have fun checking out the family’s bowling alley in the basement. The mansion is located as part of the 72-acre Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and features several acres of flower and botanical gardens, as well as hundreds of trees.
Editor’s Note: Tim knows a thing or two about this beautiful city. Here are his top activities in Nebraska City (as well as where to eat and stay).
5. Durkee Mansion
Known for its suspended staircase, the Durkee Mansion was built for Charles Durkee and family in 1861. The mansion’s immaculate foyer opens the staircase, which leads to the second-floor bedrooms. The parlor and dining room were decorated during the era the Durkees called the mansion home. The family also entertained guests in a large dance space on the third floor. In the mid-1860s, the Durkees sold the Italianate-designed mansion to the Episcopal Church, which added a chapel and girls school to the property. Today, the property is officially known as the Kemper Center. Tours include the Durkee Mansion, the school, and the chapel. The property’s grounds are amazing and worth a walk around, offering excellent spots for photos.
6. Historic General Dodge House
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Named by President Abraham Lincoln to oversee the construction of the transcontinental railroad from Omaha westward, General Grenville M. Dodge built this 14-room Victorian-style house in Council Bluffs. He ensured the house had central heating and hot and cold water, a rare feat for the time. The three-story brick Historic General Dodge House includes a large porch, perfect for enjoying an ice-cold beverage on a warm summer evening. Decorated as it was during the Dodge family’s time there, the home offers an interesting look at life on the plains in the mid-1800s.
7. Turnblad Mansion
Swan Turnblad immigrated to Minnesota from Sweden and ran a Swedish-language newspaper in Minneapolis. He built the 33-room Turnblad Mansion on what became known as the Golden Mile, as the Turnblads’ home was one of 40 mansions in the area. The mansion features a French chateau-style exterior. Inside the well-decorated mansion, with its dark wood featuring artistic carvings (including a beautiful staircase), the Turnblads imported 11 colorful, Swedish-tiled stoves located in key rooms. The family lived in the mansion for 20 years. It later became home to the American Swedish Institute, which shares cultural history, special exhibits, and conducts tours of the mansion.
8. Thomas Hart Benton Home
Kansas City, Missouri
An artist, writer, and lecturer, Thomas Hart Benson was renowned in the Kansas City area. Visitors can tour the house and his studio at the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. The 2.5-story house and property feature a beautiful landscape. Furnished as it was in 1975, when Benton died, you can tour the house’s rooms and view modern furniture as well as accessories of his era. You’ll also visit his art studio, with paintbrushes, canvases, and more. The stone-exteriored house was built in 1903 for a local power company executive, and Benton bought the house in 1939 for about $6,000.
9. Mueller-Schmidt House (Home Of Stone)
Dodge City, Kansas
Known as the Home of Stone — the house is built from Kansas limestone — the Mueller-Schmidt House was built in 1882 for the Mueller family. The limestone gives the house a yellowish tinge when viewing it from the sidewalk. It is located on a corner lot with plenty of outdoor space. After suffering financial issues, the family sold the mansion to the Schmidt family in 1890. The Schmidt family occupied the house until 1960. It was then sold to the county five years later. The house is decorated in era-friendly furniture and accessories, although a few of the items, such as pictures, were family heirlooms. The front room includes a table and chairs, desk, and accessories. The upstairs bedrooms are decorated as they were when the Schmidt family lived there. One room is dedicated to telling the role that women have played in the area, with older photos, artifacts, and memorabilia on display. Some locals believe the house is haunted, so you may encounter a spirit or two, especially in the basement.
10. Magic Chef Mansion
St. Louis, Missouri
Considered one of the most beautiful mansions in St. Louis, the Magic Chef Mansion was completed in 1908 for Charles Stockstrom, owner of Quick Meal Stove Company (later changed to Magic Chef), the world’s largest stove manufacturer. At 12,000 square feet, the mansion was among the largest in the area. With a terra cotta facade, the mansion quickly catches the attention of passersby. Tours of the house take you through immaculately-designed rooms, including a full-sized bowling alley in the basement and a saloon. You’ll view gorgeous art that was once hidden by layers of paint. You can read more about the mansion’s history, and tours, here.
What To Expect
As you plan to visit the mansions across the Midwest, you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes. You’ll also need to be aware that some of the houses have narrow and steep stairs that may be difficult for some people to climb. As you do use the stairs, it’s recommended to use the handrails for safety. You will also want to prepare for possible surface changes.