Minnesota has many treasures: 10,000 lakes, medical facilities and scores of architecturally significant homes. In the newly released book “Minnesota’s Own: Preserving Our Grand Homes” by Larry Millett, the reader is invited to visit 22 historic homes located throughout Minnesota. Published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, the outstanding stories behind the people and the homes they built come alive, thanks to Millett, an architectural historian. Alongside Millet’s writing are 200 photographs of the historic homes taken by Matt Schmitt.
At a book signing and lecture at the Winona Historical Society, Millett and Schmitt led an overflowing crowd on a photographic tour. “It was difficult choosing only 22 residences,” Millett says. “We began with over 1,000. There could have been many more, but we wanted to detail each home and its history, yet make the book a manageable and affordable size.”
From Worthington to Minneapolis, Duluth to Rochester, Millett visited many historic properties. Research was extensive in bringing the book to fruition. “It’s a mixed bag,” Millet says. “Some [homes] are well documented; others less so. It varies greatly from house to house.” While many historic homes have fallen into disrepair or been razed, those featured are owned by individuals or organizations who maintain or repurpose the homes, while preserving their rich legacy.
Mayowood Mansion and the Plummer House, also known as Quarry Hill (highlighted in “Minnesota’s Own”), come to mind as area architectural celebrities, but there are 25 properties in Olmsted County listed on the National Register of Historic Places (nps.gov/nr). Farms, commercial buildings, even a bridge are listed along with homes.
The Balfour House at 427 Sixth Avenue SW was added to the National Register in 2004. The land was a wedding gift to Dr. Donald Balfour, a Mayo Clinic surgeon, when he married Dr. Will Mayo’s daughter, Carrie, in 1910. According to historical documents, the home, designed by Harold Crawford, was probably built in 1926. In a letter from the History Center of Olmsted County archives dated 1968, Crawford states, “Dr. Balfour stressed secrecy in building the home as a retreat. He desired a ‘hideout’ away from old patients and visiting physicians.”
Before long, the family decided to make the house their permanent residence. Aldrich Memorial Nursery met in their basement. The Balfours lived there until 1960, when they gave it to the Mayo Association. It has subsequently housed the YMCA and the Senior Citizen Center, and it is currently home to the Civic League Day Nursery. The 12-bedroom, six-bath home had a green house, conservatory and a substantial carriage house and is built, as Crawford stated, “like a fortress.”
Pill Hill Residential District, located southwest of downtown Rochester, between approximately Third and Ninth Streets and Seventh and Tenth Avenues, is also listed on the National Register. The neighborhood was developed in the early 20th century. Many of the homes were built by doctors who worked at nearby St. Mary’s Hospital and Mayo Clinic. No two homes on Pill Hill look alike. Some are more grandiose than others, but all are noteworthy for their design, structure and grounds. A walking tour of the area delights those who appreciate the jewels of history and preservation.
Millett says avid history buffs can look for his next book in the fall of 2015. “I am focusing on mid-century modern structures. I plan to include the IBM building in Rochester, ‘Big Blue,’ I guess it’s referred to,” he says with a smile.
Debi Neville is a Rochester freelance writer who is thankful for the assistance of the History Center of Olmsted County in researching this article.