By Bette Hammel, author of Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka
Picture a majestic Lake Minnetonka Hotel opening for 800 guests from neighboring states and the South. Travelers were delighted to find their rooms overlooking the refreshing waters of Lake Minnetonka from their verandas.
Guests enjoyed views of the many boats scurrying to deliver passengers including straw hatted men out fishing, and ladies in fluffy billowing skirts promenading.
Then came dinner and with that, hundreds of waiters swung into action in the spacious dining room. Two orchestras supplied music and later performed in the grand ballroom for dancing.
James Ford Bell wrote, “It was a place of life and gaiety… of many people. One was impressed with the size of the building itself… the big broad veranda so often crowded with family groups many from the South… the arrivals and sailings of the big boats and the 5:45 train from Minneapolis.”
It was 1882 when James J. Hill celebrated the opening of his grand Great Northern Railway hostelry which he named: the Lafayette Hotel. Hill had chosen a great location, a ridge shaped slope overlooking Lake Minnetonka on both sides: the Lafayette Bay to the north, and Crystal Bay to the south. Even the President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant, came to join the celebration.
Unfortunately, the huge building caught fire in 1897 and burned to the ground. Hill carried on with his luxurious yacht, the Belle of Minnetonka, and took part competing for business on the lake. Those were the glory days of Lake Minnetonka when all the ferry boats and steam boats alike were enjoying a brisk business as the lakes hotels were attracting many summer visitors.
Now, 130 years later, the Lafayette Club is regarded as the” hidden gem”of the private clubs in the Twin City area. After the first fire, It had survived socially as a club and was rebuilt as the Minnetonka Club. Again another catastrophe struck when it also was destroyed by fire several years later.
Ultimately, the Board was forced to hire an architect to design a new structure that would be fireproof. Hewitt & Brown, a local firm of good repute, was chosen and in 1924 produced a sparkling new clubhouse of Mission Style Revival. Stepping into the clubhouse visitors today admire the classic Spanish style of the interior: the old world look of the circular fountain decorated with floral arrangements, the classic lobby furnishings, and especially the high ceiling.
Since its inception, the club has always had two upper levels; the second is still used as guest hotel rooms, the third is out of date. Looking upward, the visitor can’t help feeling the ghost of Hill looking down for approval of his new club. The Lafayette has always been considered the place to go for festive weddings, anniversaries, retirements, graduations, and all sorts of private dinner parties. The grand ballroom is the perfect hosting for unforgettable dances such as The Waltz Evening held annually led by The Golden Strings Orchestra.
In the past couple of years with the advent of the pandemic, such public celebrations have been limited according to General Manager Gregg Malsbary. But lunches and dinners continue as usual for members and guests including outdoor dining when weather permits. Through the pandemic, the golfing has been very popular, he says. This spring the tennis clubs will resume while pools remain in use for all age groups. Wedding plans can also be arranged.
While the Lafayette holds court, the city of Minnetonka Beach continues to grow and it’s history is impressive. First established by early settlers in 1855, it was incorporated as a village in 1894, thereby becoming a self governing municipality, a city. It is recognized as the smallest incorporated city in the U.S. and one of the wealthiest in the nation. Its current population is just 535 with 230 homes.
Two of its roads connect with the Lafayette Club--Northview Road and Cottage Lane. Across from the Clubs’ golf course lie two large neighborhoods overlooking Crystal Bay: the Woodbridge Road neighborhood has grown and flourished with homes of varied architectural styles ranging from contemporary to mid-century modern to Colonial Revival.
Arcola Lane is the much older more established neighborhood. A stretch of homes faces Lafayette Bay from their perch high above the highway rushing below. The first home on the lane, situated where Woodbridge road winds up from the historic bluff below, maintains its early 20th century site with a gracious large family home now beautifully updated by its owner, Michael Snow.
This historic residence was once the home of Bergmann Richards, noted historian of Minnetonka Beach and the State Historical Society. Originally designed for a family of five, Richards home was among the first lake homes to build a front porch that ran completely across the front façade, providing a fantastic view of Lake Minnetonka. Further down Arcola Lane, three Victorian homes remain, proudly showing their 19th century carvings on the facade or on the roof lines. The largest one with a great round porch facing Lafafette bay is famous for an historic event, the unforgettable day when John Philip Sousa came to entertain with his popular band.
Across highway 15 and the Arcola Bridge lies the largest part of Minnetonka Beach including Lafayette Road and Huntington Point Road. As a neighborhood, the Beach is recognized as one of the finest lakeside home settings on Lake Minnetonka. There are more than 230 homes, each one of superlative vintage and design.
Around the bend those homeowners facing Lafayette Bay can hop in a boat and buzz through the narrows headed for the Upper Lake where they can enjoy cruising the landmark islands and bays near Al & Alma’s, or Lord Fletcher's.
The distinctive homes of Minnetonka Beach feature Colonial Revival, shingle style or a mixture of several styles. Eg., a 19th century home becomes a mid-century-modern. Only the new contemporary features lots of glass and straight angles, with few curves.
Even James J. Hill would have approved of Minnetonka Beach’s lakeside neighborhood and the fireproof modern Lafayette Club. Many Beach homes have open porches or terraces completely furnished with patio setting and tables. It could well be the setting for a James J. Hilll movie. Why not? That’s the talk of dreamers who say “even Bergmann would have liked that idea.”
NOTE: Bergmann Richards, a prominent attorney and distinguished historian of the 50’s, was following an old tradition as a learned amateur antiquarian who maintains close scrutiny of a specific locality. In Bergmamn’s case, it was his village of Minnetonka Beach. The results of his studies were published in 1957 in a small book, “The Early Background of Minnetonka Beach.”
Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka was published October 15, 2009 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and was written by Bette Hammel with photography by Karen Melvin.
The book details 30 of the most spectacular estates on Lake Minnetonka. It retails for $49.95 and is available at your favorite book seller.