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Finding a home for the holidays

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image The Dayton House in Worthington, Minnesota, built by the founder of what would become Target Stores was our home for the holidays. Mitch Traphagen Photo

We realized the opportunities of having an entire mansion were few and far between, so we decided to spend another night. It was wonderful to the point of being magical.

By Mitch Traphagen

A family I don’t know is living in the only home I ever knew as a child. All of my memories of childhood Christmases and birthdays are wrapped up in that house and yard, replete with train sets, go-carts and forts. Now someone else is making new memories there. Another kid is living in my room.

I know that I’m not alone with this sudden awareness — nothing is forever and that includes the house that for so many years I’ve gone “home” to for holidays. My current home is nearly 1,700 miles away but my real home will always be a little house on a hill, in a little town on the prairie in Minnesota.

Since it was unlikely the owners of my Mom’s old house cared to spend the Christmas holiday with two strangers, Michelle and I needed to find our own home in my hometown. We could have opted for one of the chain motels in town but that somehow seemed too clinical and impersonal for Christmas Eve. Instead, we found a mansion of our own.

George Draper Dayton moved to Worthington, Minnesota, in the late 1800s. By then he was already a successful businessman but that paled in comparison to the success he would soon know, founding Dayton Hudson Corporation (today known as Target Corporation). In 1890, with a wife and a growing family, he commissioned a suitable home to be built. It became the gem of that little town, three stories tall with porches, decks and ornate styling both inside and out. Craftsmen carved beautiful ornamentation into the doorways and above the master stairway. The home was large, magnificent and comfortable.

In the early 1900s, Dayton’s business took him and his family to Minneapolis where the venture he began continues to grow today. The Dayton family remains as one of Minnesota’s most prominent, with his great-grandson, Mark Dayton, a former U.S. Senator and current Governor of the state.

The house changed hands twice since George left town. By the early 1940s, the widow of one of the owners began taking in guests and eventually turning the place into a nursing home simply to make ends meet. The home remained standing, and due to its sheer size remained a prominent fixture in the town, but its glory days appeared to be forever in the past. The owners did what they could but the home fell into general disrepair.

A decade ago, it was purchased by a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring it. The state of Minnesota and the Dayton family contributed heavily to that mission, with one family member finding and donating the original architectural drawings and another donating an oak mantle to one of the home’s five fireplaces, all of which had been removed or hidden when the house served as a nursing home.

My sister, Paula, served on the board of the restoration nonprofit and gave me a tour several years ago while reconstruction was still underway. I could see the beauty then but still was not prepared for the grandeur and warmth that greeted us as we arrived for our stay on Christmas Eve.

Today the house, with multiple dining rooms, can seat 60 people for a sit-down dinner, and well over 100 for hors d’oeuvres and receptions. During the summer months, it is frequently rented for weddings but the nonprofit organization that owns the house also offers tours, sometimes with local vendors and wine tastings to enhance leisurely wandering through the grand and historic home, brimming with Victorian-era elegance.

It has two large suites upstairs for overnight guests, both with spacious bedrooms and adjoining sitting rooms, decorated with period-correct antique furniture but with the modern conveniences of digital flat screen televisions and fast wifi. During our stay, it was decorated throughout for Christmas, complete with three full-sized Christmas trees. Since the other suite wasn’t rented and there were no events going on, we were told we would have the entire mansion to ourselves. These days it’s easy to spend $120 for a night at a chain motel, but getting an entire mansion for that price redefined our definition of luxury for the dollar. In the formal living room was an antique silver “stereo viewer” that had been donated by my Mom, adding a nice touch of familiarity.

Downstairs, the kitchen was stocked with coffee, tea and breakfast items and we had a choice in how we could reach the kitchen — either via the service stairs that lead directly to it or via the beautifully polished main stairway that would take us through the heart of the house. We could have dined in either of the two formal dining rooms, perhaps choosing to sit at opposite ends and shouting quips and jokes to each other. Instead, we chose the cozy comfort of the small, hand-carved table in the sitting room of our suite.

The master bedroom, as with the entire house, period correct antiques are used throughout. Photo Mitch TraphagenOn Christmas Eve, we returned to the mansion after an evening with family and enjoyed a glass of wine on an antique sofa next to a beautifully lit and decorated Christmas tree in the living room. We then retired to our suite upstairs for a blissful night of sleep.

The next morning we realized the opportunities to having an entire mansion were few and far between, so we decided to spend another night. It was wonderful to the point of being magical.

Of course, with a house that is 120-years old and a past that included serving as the last home for any number of elderly people over the decades, the subject of ghosts came up. If there were any ghosts, they were either pretty happy with their wonderfully restored surroundings or they had left for Christmas because walking through the various rooms and hallways of the house even in the dead of night produced no chills or the slightest indication of creepiness. On the contrary, the house felt warm and welcoming with a good vibe to it. The house felt like home.

A Christmas Day dinner in our sitting room that included mullet spread from Steve Fagen’s Mullet Shack, ferried north in Michelle’s luggage, made it feel even more like home.

The Dayton House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Inside are numerous antiques and other memorabilia donated by the Dayton family. With only two suites available for rent, it offers a unique opportunity to have a mansion to call your own. Call ahead, however, as the home books up well in advance, particularly during the warm weather months. For information, visit www.daytonhouse.org.

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