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Lovely Georgian Home in St. Paul

Author and host of radio’s prairie home companion, garrison Keillor and his wife fill their home with music, family, and personal treasures

Written by Garrison Keillor

Toward the end of the last millennium, my wife, Jenny, and I moved back to the Midwest with our infant daughter, Maia Grace, having decided she deserved to grow up in our home state of Minnesota. We first tried living in a log cabin in the woods, which was splendid and all but offered more solitude than we needed. So we shifted our sights to St. Paul and the Ramsey Hill neighborhood, where I’d lived before and which is a few minutes from my office and from the Ordway Music Theater, where Jenny plays in the Minnesota Opera orchestra.

There on the Hill, on the third or fourth foray with the real-estate agent, we found Our Home­—long and narrow, with a slate roof, six bedrooms, and three large formal rooms on the first floor plus a welcoming sort of kitchen. 

We hesitated a few days after we first viewed the house, trying to decide if we could acclimate ourselves to 13-foot ceilings and formal rooms as big as gymnasiums. Midwesterners are especially leery of pretense, and we weren’t sure what our families and friends would think of us living in such grandeur—whether they’d be embarrassed for us, as if a loved one turned up at the family picnic in black tails.

The brick Georgian house, designed by French architect Emmanuel Masqueray (who was also architect for the nearby cathedral) has a steep and imposing Romanesque roof.

But it is truly a beautiful house, an original that needs to be cherished and maintained and be made comfortable and welcoming. And who better than us to do the job? We also happened to know Tom Kunkelman, a Minneapolis designer we trusted. So we leaped. The previous owners had done the hard work of restoration, and we simply brought in painters to freshen up the walls.

The three-story brick manse, built in 1914, faces a small triangular park with a statue of Nathan Hale at the apex. Every fall, thousands of runners in the Twin Cities Marathon pass here, heading for the finish line at the capitol a mile away. And year-round, college English majors wander, communing with the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald. From here, a short walk will take you past Fitzgerald’s birthplace, his grandmother McQuillan’s house, his old school, and his parents’ townhouse, where, in the summer of 1919, he wrote This Side of Paradise. When Scribner’s accepted it, he ran into the street to stop cars and tell people.

Summit is St. Paul’s old society street, with James J. Hill’s great stone pile leading a procession of mansions meant to show off the worldly attainments of old railroad and lumber barons. But our house is on Portland, a secondary street, and was built for Paul Doty, an engineer and vice president at the electric company who spent 30 years under this roof. His daughter’s wedding was here, and his mother died in an upstairs bedroom. After his fortune was wiped out in the Depression, he sold the house to Mr. Hunter, an executive at Northwest Orient Airlines. Forty years later, his widow sold it to Carol Anderson, whose widower, Bill Rubinstein, sold it to Jenny, and me in 1999.

The architect of our house was Emmanuel Masqueray, whom Archbishop John Ireland had brought to St. Paul to design the St. Paul Cathedral. Masqueray was French, trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and he had designed a string of Romanesque temples for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (“The Greatest Exhibition the World Has Ever Known”). The Archbishop put him to work on a slew of projects all at once, including the Church of St. Louis in downtown St. Paul, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, and the magnificent St. Paul Cathedral that presides over the city from the brow of Ramsey Hill, a few blocks east of our house. The Archbishop was a man of commanding presence and great breadth of vision, and he worked poor Masqueray straight into the grave. But in his short and stressful time in St. Paul, the Frenchman found an ally and friend in Mr. Doty, who advised on engineering problems at the Cathedral. (Engineers had warned the Archbishop not to put the edifice on the edge of the Hill, because it would slide down the slope.) As a favor, Masqueray designed Mr. Doty a fine house. So far as we know, it’s the only St. Paul house Masqueray did.

A Danish landscaped by Peder Mønsted hangs above the console table, which doubles as a server. Framed art from the Keillor’s collection and an earth-tone urn take advantage of the floor space. 

The front room fits us like an old shoe; it’s somewhere to plop down, drink coffee, do the crossword, listen to the CDs, curl up with a book, or play chess. But it can be slightly daunting to a guest—the facing couches (which one should you sit on?)—and people need to be coaxed to come in. Once seated, they can feel the essential lightness and warmth of the room and how kind it is to conversation, both spatially and acoustically. Whether you’re one of two or 12, the large space feels cozy, especially when there’s a fire in the fireplace. It’s a place to sit and talk, letting the sentences arch across the room.

The music room is also an entryway and a playroom for our little girl, who loves to flop around on the leather bench. The rug was made for us, with pumpkins woven into it, to note the fact that Jenny and I are both from Anoka, Minnesota, the Halloween Capital of the World. My son and his wife were married on the staircase on New Year’s Day, 2000, and afterward, we pushed back the furniture and everybody danced.

An iron chandelier, designed for the room, illuminates the reproduction, 8-foot-diameter round table. Two styles of upholstered armchairs––oval- and square-backed––and a custom rug help give the room a relaxed feeling. Mirrored French doors reflect the sweeping staircase of the entryway.

The dining room is, of course, where we eat our meals, and not only dinner. The three of us have breakfast here and take up half the table, with newspapers spread out. Or we can squeeze in 12 for dinner. The circular table is for equality: Every guest is as close to the center of things as any other. Above the fireplace is a table grace that we sometimes sing, to the tune of the Doxology (Praise God from Whom all blessings flow). On the wall is an 1893 landscape by the Dane Peder Mønsted. We’ve collected a few Scandinavian paintings from that period, including two snowscapes, which strike us as being sort of Midwestern.

In the dining room, a hand-lettered, traditional table grace above the fireplace adds warmth to the inviting scene. 

The kitchen is not as pictured here, I’m afraid. This is fiction. Our real kitchen is a mess, a holding area for papers and books, an art studio for our daughter, an office for paying bills, and also a kitchen. The six-burner, double-oven stove with broiler griddle is what you’d want if, say, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir showed up for supper.

I’ve laid my head down in twenty-four residences in my fifty-nine years, which is enough restlessness for a lifetime, and Jenny bounced around too, in her freelance musician days in New York. We look around us now and think: Empty the boxes. Put away the want ads. This is it. Home.

A carved walnut bed welcomes overnight guests. The upholstered ottoman introduces colorful pattern, as do the books––overflow from Garrison’s large collection––in the built-in bookshelves. Woven reed-and-bamboo shades filter light from the wall of windows.

Photography: Robert Mauer

From March 2002