Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent, c. 1920

Rockwell Kent in Winona

by Taff Roberts

Rockwell Kent entered Columbia University in October 1900 and excelled as a student of architectural drafting. A few years later, Austin Willard Lord of the architectural firm Lord, Hewlett and Tallent employed Kent in New York City. Lord, who eventually became the head of the School of Architecture at Columbia University, had been born in Winona, Minnesota in 1860.

In 1911 Lord returned to his Winona birthplace, where the lumber industry was booming in the city of 18,000 people, to meet with Samuel Prentiss and Fredrick Bell. He was there to plan the building of two Georgian Revival homes near the outskirts of Winona on land that lay at the opening of Pleasant Valley. The houses were to overlook the Mississippi River and would become part of Briarcombe Farm, a 350-acre farm with a dairy and plentiful orchards. Prentiss, a banker, and Bell, a lumber mill owner, were married to two sisters, Maude and Francis Laird. The homes, built next to each other, were to be connected by an arcade and an underground tunnel. When Lord returned to his firm in New York, he hired Kent to render the drawings for Briarcombe and asked him to be the architectural superintendent at the Winona site.

Work began on the site on December 26, 1911. Kent, his wife Kathleen, and their two children arrived at the main railroad depot in Winona in the spring of 1912. Near Briarcombe Farm, they found and abandoned one and one half room schoolhouse and upgraded to meet their needs as a home.

Nearby, construction of the sisters' homes continued. In keeping with Georgian Revival style, the homes were built with brick and hollow tile construction with chimneys on both sides. Five dormer windows graced each side of the slate roof. The paneled front doors were flanked by two Greek style pillars supporting a small roof above. All of the interior doors were made from solid San Domingo mahogany.


Briarcombe Farms, courtesy of Winona County Historical Society
Click here for photos taken in early 2012

While Kent's primary position at Briarcombe was to oversee Mr. Seidleitz, the general contractor of the homes, a shortage of carpenters prompted Kent (who had honed his skills as a carpenter at Monhegan) to also apply for a position as a carpenter foreman.

In his autobiography, It's Me O Lord, Kent wrote that: " . . . the columned porticos and classic cornices demanded a perfection of craftsmenship beyond my own experience but, fortunately, not beyond my natural aptitude. If I knew how to do a thing I had the skill to do it. Fortunately I had the entire good will of the men with whom I worked, and they showed themselves as ready to give me instruction as I was to receive it. Whereas for the occasional mistakes that I might make, and for which our gum-shoeing contractor was ever and eagerly on the alert, they were more than ready to take the blame themselves than let it fall on me. They even told me so."

These same carpenters informed Kent that in the city of Winona, carpenters were receiving more money per hour. Kent defended his carpenters on the site, and Mr. Seidleitz was furious when he learned that Kent had met with them to discuss going on strike. Seidleitz refused their demands, but after two days of the strike, he changed his mind and settled with them. This is the first recorded strike in the history of Minnesota.

The superintendent work allowed Kent enough time to involve himself with the Winona community. He traveled around the city selling strawberries and then vegetables from the back of a two horse wagon to housewives, much to the astonishment of the Prentiss and Bell families. The thirty year-old Kent was wined and dined by his well-to-do employers, and they were more than a little miffed by some of his endeavors. Deciding not to permanently settle in Winona, Kathleen (pregnant with their third child) returned to New York in the spring of 1913 to await Rockwell's return.

Winona Public Library

Winona Public Library, courtesy of
Winona County Historical Society

During his spare time, Kent painted the bluffs and prairies of the upper Mississippi River gorge. Samuel Prentiss admired Kent's artistic talents and arranged for an art show in the rotunda of the public library in Winona for early June 1913. It was here that Carl Ruggles waited to meet the young Kent as he entered the library building, and the two became friends. In 1911 Carl Ruggles had become the first conductor of the Winona Symphony. Ruggles, in awe of Kent's artistic talents, became enamored of him and attempted to purchase a painting. The work was entitled "The Seiners" and was one of the dozen paintings on display in Kent's exhibition. A few years later, Kent reclaimed the painting and sold it to Henry Clay Frick for $1,500. But Kent did not forget his Winona friend. Years later it was Carl Ruggle's image that portrayed Captain Ahab in Kent's illustrated Moby Dick.

Carl Ruggles

Carl Ruggles, courtesy of
Winona County Historical Society

Before Kent's final departure from the twin house project in Winona, he arranged a farewell picnic, entitled "Grand Intern, Workingman's anti-boss Convention," again much to the displeasure of Mr. Seidleitz, Mr. Prentiss and Mr. Bell. Kent then returned by train to his family in New York. His employer, Austin Lord, went south to Panama to design his next project, the Administration Buildings for the Panama Canal. Kent's next port of call would be Newfoundland.

But the homes of the Laird sisters stood tall and stately in Winona until 1946. In April of that year, Briarcombe was sold to Charles A. Choate, a local businessman who renamed it Old Elm Farm. In that same year the Bell mansion roof was lifted and the second floor was removed as a compromise by the new owner with the wishes of Mrs. Bell. She had requested that her sister demolish the Bell home after Mrs. Bell's passing.

The name was changed again in 1960 to Lyngholm when it was purchased as a home for William Christensen and his family. What was left of the Bell mansion was renamed the Silver Dollar where the Christensens entertained their friends and business associates. Another set of owners came in October of 1971 when it was sold to Wally and Donna Friend who renamed it Walden. In 1986 the property was sold to Edwin Meyerson and his sister Mildred Sorato from Santa Monica, California. The Meyersons return to the manisoneach year for a summer visit.

Perhaps Rockwell Kent expected a variety of people to inhabit the homes he helped build. For his parting words, following the controversial picnic, were to the generations of families that would live at Briarcombe: "On those whose homes they were to be, on their children and grandchildren, on all throughout the generations will come to live there, may there have rested and forever rest, the blessing of peace."

In April of 2012, I was called by the Meyersons to restore the original canvas handprinted wallpaper that was installed in the great stairway in 1913. The canvas wall covering was removed, cleaned and reinstalled. I enjoyed spending time in the old home, pondering the rich history and Rockwell Kent's presence a hundred years before. The trees have grown and no longer can the Mississippi River be seen from the house, but a good feeling permeated the house. (Click here for several photos of Briarcombe taken earlier in 2012.)

Thank you, Rockwell Kent, for that blessing one hundred years ago!