It Takes One: Dolly Schnell

Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Dolly Schnell

It Takes One: Dolly Schnell
Duluth, MN
United States

I am a citizen volunteer who did and does what I could and when I can for Historic Preservation often with passion (and always with heart) not to advance a "career" but simply out of a "pride of place" and a genuine love for my city.

Duluth is a beautiful city located on the rugged shore of Lake Superior rich in many historical, cultural, and natural resources which give it distinctiveness. Duluth was a very prosperous city at the turn of the last century with great fortunes being made in the iron ore and lumbering industries. At the time, it had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. Much of this rich heritage is reflected in Duluth 's beautiful homes, structures, sites, and landscapes. My husband and our then three young children moved to Duluth 15 years ago and have had the privilege of owning and living in two of Duluth's fine historic properties. Our current property consists of a 1 ½ acre site with a 10,000 square foot Tudor Revival Style home built in 1914 by John Killorin who made his fortune in lumbering, mining, and wholesale hardware. I have always had an interest in historic preservation and have always felt that historic landscapes and streetscapes are often overlooked areas of historic preservation and appreciation.

How would you define a cultural landscape?

I would define a cultural landscape as being "a geographic area (including both cultural and natural resources). associated with a historic event, activity or person or exhibiting any other Cultural or aesthetic values. the four general types being historical sites, historical designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes." ( Guidelines for Treatment of Cultural Landscapes).

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

My first preservation project in Duluth began in 1994 with my strong opposition to the cutting down of healthy boulevard trees in historic neighborhoods during street improvements. I feel the existence of mature boulevard trees on historical streets capes contribute much value aesthetically and historically. They help determine and define the age and period of development of a neighborhood. I gathered my neighborhood together and collectively our opposition gained the attention of the media. The "cutting of historical boulevard trees" became a citywide issue. A moratorium on further cutting was enacted during which time I researched and contacted experts on trees and historic streetscapes. A task force was formed to help deal with these historic streetscape issues and a City Tree Commission was formed (which is still active today). Permanent changes were made to our City Policy as a result of this "Streetscapes in Historic Neighborhoods Project"and public attitudes were reshaped. A new replanting policy was developed which includes the planting of trees considered to be appropriate for historic boulevards. As a result of this project, I was asked to serve on the City Planning Commission and the Heritage Preservation Commission which I did for eight years. During that time, I authored a new set of Local Street Standards which allowed for exceptions to the wider street width standards the city had used for the street reconstruction projects. Our "skinny" streets in many or our historic neighborhoods lend great charm and character to our city. My standards allow for narrower streets which accommodate and respect historic situations, elements and materials (such as trees, street surfaces, and curbing). Neighborhoods how have the option of requesting their streets not be "automatically" widened with street "improvement" projects- the end result being saving many historic boulevard trees and streetscape features and maintaining overall historic neighborhood character and integrity.

During my years on the Planning and Heritage Preservation Commissions, I learned that Historic Designation is a vital part of Historic Preservation. Having a good "collection" of historically designated properties enhances the "Heritage Value" of that community and gives credibility to a city's preservation "profile." I've always found teaching through example to be a very effective educational tool so in a effort to set a good example for my community and to serve as a model for other properties which might seek designation, I decided to have my own home and landscape designated as a "Duluth Heritage Preservation Landmark." This took two years and involved writing a nomination, report, and a preservation plan. Since our home (and property) was the only private owner-occupied residence in the city to have this designation the press did a terrific feature on the designation (Duluth News Tribune-1998). As a part of the designation, I included and emphasized the landscape and any visible landscape features in an effort to draw attention to the importance of historic landscapes. This all leads up to why I got involved in a landscape that was threatened in my community. When we moved into our home in 1995, we had inherited from previous owners hundreds of pages of original work orders, blueprints, and plans. But it wasn't until 2002 when we decided to add a pool, pool house and pool-mechanical and storage building to our grounds that we discovered in 1914 our landscape had been designed by Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

We had contracted Herd Baldwin (landscape architect from Jordon, MN known as the "Grandfather of Landscape Architecture in Minnesota ") to design our pool and landscape. We had also hired Duluth Landscape Architect Dan McClelland who has a vast knowledge of and background in historical landscapes to guide our efforts to create an appropriate "new" addition to our historic landscape. It was Dan who, in his research, discovered that our landscape had originally been designed by Morell and Nichols. Dan had worked for 18 years as the landscape architect for Glensheen (or the Congdon Mansion ) which was built in 1908. Charles Leavitt had designed that landscapes and Morell and Nichols had worked with Charles Leavitt on that design! I went back to our pages of plans and found an original watercolor and a blueprint by Morell and Nichols for our landscape. Seeing our own historic landscape as the perfect opportunity to draw attention to the importance of recognizing historic landscapes, we asked that our local media once again get involved. The Duluth News Tribune has been tracking our historic landscape project since 2003. We hired Frank Martin, Landscape Historian, from Minneapolis to do further research on our Morell and Nichols landscape and to write a report (forthcoming). Dan McClelland spent many rainy, cold hours doing a survey of the site around the new pool area, cataloguing any historic landscape elements and vegetation before any new construction began. He uncovered among other things, a beautiful stone walkway leading from the carriage house to the lower level laundry area. I contacted Mike Koop from the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul and asked if we might seek a National Register Designation for our Landscape in an effort to bring much needed attention locally to landscapes as landmarks. Mike Koop, Elisa Cavalier (from the National Trust for Historical Preservation, Washington DC ) and Chris Morris (from the National Trust in Chicago ) were kind enough to visit our project last spring.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

Adding a new landscape addition like a pool and a pool house to an existing historically significant landscape is a challenging and sensitive undertaking. It must feel "appropriate" and "right" respecting the intent of the original landscape architect(s) and the time period(s) in its history. Our historic landscape "library" has increased significantly - with the excellent Pioneers of American Landscape Design being one of our first additions. In our research on Morrel and Nichols, we all learned of the importance of maintaining "long views." We have many commanding views of Lake Superior from our property and knew this was an essential element of our historic landscape. I hired Randy Larson as the general contractor for this project because of his excellent reputation. Randy enthusiastically and patiently has worked on this project for 3 years. Understanding its importance historically, he built a mockup of our proposed new pool house to insure that we would not be compromising any of these "long views" so important to Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols.

Our pool house was designed by Mark Seuss of Mark Seuss Design, St. Cloud, MN. I did not think it appropriate to design a mini "faux-replica" of our main house. It had to be compatible but different so as to distinguish this new chapter (our own) in the history of our landscape. Herb Baldwin, our Landscape Architect, felt the pool house should be playful and a bit whimsical. Particularly inspiring for our pool house design was the 18th century English landscape concept of garden "follies"- small buildings set into the surroundings landscapes. The Victorians were world travelers and brought back exotic architectural concepts and treasures which they incorporated into garden folly structures. Follies were focal points and gave a sense of mystery and wonder. Well placed follies lead the eye to the prescribed view which was one of our main missions with the entire project. We wanted to lead the eye to our "long views." This concept of playful, worldly, and exotic garden follies formed the foundation for Mark's beautiful pool house design. Every major rehabilitation project needs a "visionary" and Mark certainly is one. Herb Baldwin, another project visionary designed the pool mechanical and storage building-another design treasure. Beautiful and high quality materials will be used in the entire project's construction. We have assembled an incredible team for this project and have all learned much from one another and from the landscape itself. In addition to those already mentioned, Bob Claybaugh, Preservation Architect from Taylor's Falls has overseen the proper selection of brick and has designed a pergola structure. And Craig Nelson, Landscape Architect from the Damon Farber Firm in Minneapolis has "translated" time and time again all of the [others'] information along with his own design into articulate blueprints. Every step of this process has been reviewed, approved, and documented by the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission so that there will be on file a permanent record for future generations. We have much yet to learn about our historic landscape and will stage future landscape work as we learn and uncover more information. The media coverage will bring more (much-needed) awareness of historic landscapes to the public.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

Historical preservation doesn't stop at our front doors, but extends outward into our landscapes, streetscapes, streets, and neighborhoods. Don't start any project on a historic landscape without doing your homework- research what was there and do a thorough inventory of what exists now. Take time. DO NOT RUSH. History has a way of reveling itself often in strange ways. Build a great team when undergoing a major historic landscapes rehabilitation project. Hire the best people you can to assist in research, planning, and design. Get your local media involved to reach the ears of the public. Set a good example-you can effect positive change by doing so. Offer your home and landscape as a model for the designation process if you live on an historic property. This September, I was the recipient of the 2005 Duluth Depot Foundation's Award for Historical Preservation and Interpretation a-great honor. Remember that one voice, no matter how small, can make a difference. We constantly change the world, even by our inaction. Therefore let us change it responsibly. Do something.

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