Congdon Pumphouse highlights historic home tour

A 19th Century Duluth pump house was converted into living space by Elisabeth Congdon in 1937. The property will be open during the Duluth Preservation Alliance Historic Property Tour Sept. 16.

Duluth has dozens of spectacular waterfront properties with amazing Lake Superior views but only one home has a front porch featuring metal wave deflectors and living room windows equipped with hurricane shutters.

“We’re over the water,” said Duluth preservationist Dennis Lamkin as he led a visitor around the property at 5802 London Road. “We’re literally standing over the water right now.”

Lamkin is standing on a narrow steel deck next to a waist-high iron railing. Waves on this grey and breezy day crash below. An uprooted, whitewashed tree bobs in the surf and three loons float in the water looking for lunch.

Duluth Preservation Alliance board member Dennis Lamkin stands on the pump house deck overlooking Lake Superior.

The deck is attached to a one-bedroom, one-level house that sits on the rocky Lake Superior shoreline like a run-aground steamboat. The structure is so close to the water because it wasn’t built as a house. The building was constructed in 1876 as a pumping station for the city of Duluth. It was abandoned after 20 years of service and later converted into a guest house by heiress Elisabeth Congdon in 1937.

A rare look inside the former Congdon guest house and views from its waterfront deck will be the featured attraction at the 33rd annual Duluth Preservation Alliance Historic Properties Tour on Sunday, Sept. 16. A wet suit is not required.

The Lakeside property has been owned for the past five years by Kirk and Marianne Bernadino, who recently moved with their two children to Maine. Lamkin, a friend of the family, has spent the past six months directing a building and property renovation.

“We go back and forth a dozen times — to sell it, to keep it, to rent it as a VRBO,” said Lamkin. “At one point they thought they were going to sell it, so they called me and asked me to help them restore the property.”

Contractors installed a new roof with copper gutters and downspouts, removed wall-to-wall carpeting, restored the hardwood floors, refinished the woodwork and hung specially designed wood-block wall covering. Period-appropriate light fixtures were installed throughout the house and Lamkin designed a new front garden using reclaimed masonry from the Superior High School demolition project.

The results are stunning.

The Congdon pump house living room features custom, period wall paper and newly exposed hardwood floors.

Sunshine and steady wave action seep through high-strength, almost floor-to-ceiling windows filling the front salon with light and sound. Built-in hallway closets make more space for a lakeside bedroom and the living room, with its endless lake view, feels like a first-class berth on the Queen Mary. A mysterious “stairway to nowhere” leads up to a second floor that was never built.

Lamkin said it’s unclear if Congdon intended to live in the remodeled pump house or use it only as a studio and guest house. She allowed the house to be used as a residence for Duluth Symphony conductors for 30 years. The property has seen several owners since Congdon sold it in the 1960s.

The building is just 1,200-square feet and can get coated with ice during winter winds. It features six-foot-thick foundation walls and a basement sump pump pit built to tackle the aftermath of big lake storms.

“It has flooded,” said Lamkin. “Storms can get pretty wild. Especially in November and December, That’s the real storm season. You just put down the shutters and listen to it.”

Floor to ceiling windows showcase endless lake front views throughout the house.

Lamkin, a Duluth Preservation Alliance board member, has led about 20 historic home restorations throughout Duluth over the years. He said about 75 early 20th Century mansions are sprinkled throughout the city and some need restoration.

In many cases, Lamkin volunteers as a general contractor and homeowners return the favor by opening their properties for the Duluth Preservation Alliance tour. Money raised through the tour supports the Duluth Preservation Alliance scholarship program and funds other historic structure projects.

Visit Duluth President and CEO Anna Tanski said tourists and locals alike are drawn to the rich history of Duluth and its older buildings offer a look into the past. Tanski said Visit Duluth has noted an increase in historic building interest.

Glensheen Mansion, the most prominent historic home in Duluth, has experienced significant attendance increases over the past five years, she said. And more visitors have booked stays in older homes through bed and breakfast lodging.

“There seems to be a surge in the interest in having an experience and interacting within these historic homes,” she said.

New Glensheen features, like its flashlight tours or concerts on the pier, introduce newcomers to the charm of older homes and offer longtime history buffs new insight. In other cases, Duluth visitors can experience older properties first-hand with an overnight stay. The Historic Inns of Duluth website features six bed and breakfasts and the popular VRBO website list more than a dozen “historic” homes for rent.

“So much of it has to do with the story that these homes can tell,” said Tanski. “You look at the popularity of people exploring our roots, our ancestry and our heritage, that seems to be fueling a lot of this. It’s a parallel interest to see what is the story behind these magnificent homes and the people that built them. It’s a rich history.”

In addition to the historic pump house, the Duluth Preservation Alliance Historic Properties Tour will open three other homes and the NorShor Theatre to ticket holders from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16.

Other homes on the tour are located at:

  • 2219 E. Superior St.
  • 2605 E. Third St.
  • 2819 E. First St.
  • A bonus “home of the future,” at 545 Glenwood St., will showcase one-level living.

Tour tickets cost $20 and are available at the Duluth Preservation Alliance website or in-person on tour day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Fitger’s Hotel lobby.

1 Comment

Hugh Reitan

about 4 years ago

That is 2819 East First. I am reasonably sure of this as I live there. Be sure and check out the gardens also.

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