'Things Happened Here'

Doris Dixon only ever saw one mansion while she was growing up. She lived in Sleepy Eye, a small Minnesota town with less than 4,000 residents. That mansion in her hometown caught her imagination and sparked an interest in architecture. She said she liked to admire it from afar.

Today, Dixon has an insider view of an even more historic mansion: The Minnesota Governor's residence. She has led summer tours through the 16,000-square-foot home at 1006 Summit Ave. in St. Paul for six years now, but she said she never loses the sense of wonder in its halls.

"I love old houses and historic houses," she said. "When you come in here, you get a little bit of history; a little bit of architecture. And you find out about the families who lived here and their stories. With a house like this, you never stop learning."

The gardens

The tours are meant to celebrate the building's 100th anniversary.

They begin the mansion's back yard, in the expansive and impressive children's garden. Cobblestone paths lead through a maze of flowers, and visitors can try to pick out plaques containing the names of past governors' children.

Along the pathway is a plaque dedicated to Amy, Beth and Brett - the children of Wendell and Mary Anderson. There is one honoring Dyan, Hop and Jean, the kids of Gov. Harold LeVander, and one dedicated to Tyrel and Jade Ventura.

At the end of the walkway is a giant stone engraved with the words: "This garden is dedicated to the individualism and spirit of each child, as unique as each flower planted herein."

Visitors can also play lawn games like croquet in the back yard, which is a special addition to tours for the 100th anniversary.

An inside peek

The tour moves into the entryway, where visitors see a beautifully carved wood staircase. The railing has Plexiglas covering its carved openings, we learn, because Governor Anderson didn't want his small children to fall through.

There's also a bench in the entryway whose backrest has fabric with stitching depicting a pair of smiling infants clutching flowers. Dixon explains that Terry Ventura, Gov. Jesse Ventura's wife, found the piece of fabric in the mansion's attic, and she liked it so much she had the furniture re-embroidered with it.

That was just one example of one of the tour's themes: Different governors, and their families, have different tastes in art. And, according to Dixon, it is "their prerogative" to choose the artwork in the mansion.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary, liked to find original pieces by local artists. Gov. Mark Dayton, Dixon said, has added more contemporary, modern art to the residence. Dayton is the first governor since Rudy Perpich to live full time in the mansion, and now the walls in the sunroom and the dining room are lined with colorful, abstract paintings.

The tour moves into the 19-by-39-foot living room. It is the largest and most formal room in the mansion, used for a variety of receptions. The governors often welcome foreign dignitaries there, and a few have even hosted their daughters' wedding receptions in the room.

That's in contrast to the nearby sunroom, which is a very informal, cheery place for relaxing, reading and listening to music. Large windows let the sunlight shine through, and on a nice day a glass door can be opened out to the back-yard porch.

The tour moves through that room and into the dining room, where the table is set with elegant China and flatware. Then the tour concludes in the mansion's library - a small, inviting, cozy room with ceiling-high bookshelves covering one wall. The room is filled with law books detailing Minnesota statutes.

A house full of stories

Susan Mollner, chair of the mansion's docents, said the key to guiding visitors through the tour is keeping them engaged.

"I love the stories about people," she said. "That's what the house is about, and I like telling them to people."

Dixon said she has several favorite stories about the house. Many of them, she said with a laugh, involve Wendell Anderson's wife, Mary, a person she described as sounding "very fun."

One Thanksgiving, a local newspaper wanted to take a picture of the Anderson family's turkey. But Mary didn't want to cook the turkey a day early, Dixon said, so the photographers had to take pictures of a raw turkey. Another anecdote centered on when the family took office, and Mary had to choose between a nanny and a cook.

She chose a cook at first, but her children refused to eat the gourmet delicacies the cook served. So Dixon said Mary announced, "I'll just feed them cornflakes and bologna sandwiches, and get a nanny."

Mollner's favorite story was about Gov. Karl Rolvaag. The Rolvaags became the first gubernatorial family to live in the mansion in 1965. Earlier that year the daughters of lumber baron Horace Irvine, who built the mansion from 1910 to 1912, had donated it to the state to be used as a ceremonial residence for the governor.

Shortly after the Rolvaags moved in, the governor was scheduled to host Crown Prince Harald of Norway. But the house didn't yet have any furniture. Governor Rolvaag scrambled to furnish the place, publicly asking Minnesotans to loan him furniture so the house would "look presentable."

The story goes that as the prince was leaving out the front door after his visit, the furniture was being taken out the back door to be returned to its owners.

Those are just some of the tales about the lives of families who have occupied the mansion. It is easy to feel surrounded by the rich state history as one walks around the now beautifully appointed rooms.

"It gives people a bit of ownership into something their state owns," Mollner said. "It gives them insight into how the state operates, beyond just the Legislature.

"There have been a lot of gatherings here with powerful people, and they weren't just for fun. They were political.

"Things happened in here."

Sam Louwagie can be reached at staffwriter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7825.

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