Germanic-American Institute: Group shares culture, language, and “gemuetlichkeit” in Summit Avenue mansion

Anyone who has taken a stroll or drive along Summit Avenue is likely to have noticed a building with the words “Germanic American Institute” atop the entryway. For many years the words were “Volksfest Kulturhaus,” but they essentially signified the same idea, that the place is a gathering spot for all things German in the Twin Cities and beyond.

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The building at 301 Summit is the second structure on that site. In 1882 A. F. Gauger designed a frame house there for Dr. Alexander Stone for $7,500; that structure was moved around the corner in 1903 and still stands at 107 Farrington. In 1905 George Washington Gardner bought the property and built a beaux-arts-style Georgian stone mansion; this is the building that stands there today. Designed by Thomas Holyoke, the building features 14 rooms, a striking wide staircase with a balcony mezzanine, six parlors with fireplaces, and a third-floor grand ballroom. The front entryway boasts a pillared portico and an exterior of yellow Kasota stone. It cost $28,000 to build, and was called “a landmark of architectural beauty.” Popularly, it was known as the Gardner mansion.

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The Gardners lived there for many years—after George’s death in 1934, his widow Claribel lived in the house four more years until her own death, then their son Truman lived there for a time. It may have served as a boarding house for several years after Truman’s residence (St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press, March 5, 1965). In 1948 the Sisters of St. Benedict bought it for $39,000. They sold it to the Volksfest Association of Minnesota in 1965 for $57,000, including two lots running 220 feet along Summit to Farrington. The group wanted to make it a center for Germans along the lines of the Swedish-American Institute in Minneapolis. Dr. Christian Zaun, the purchaser’s house committee chairman, said, “… we hope to blend into plans for restoration, preservation and renewal of the entire Lower Summit-Hill district,” in the newspaper article mentioned above.

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George W. Gardner, who was born in 1864, was a prominent Hastings banker and later president of the Gardner Company, a mortgage loan firm in St. Paul. He was prominent in investment banking, real estate and insurance, according to the Germanic-American Institute’s history. The Gardner Hotel in Hastings bore his name. He and Claribel had two sons, George H. and Truman P.

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In this building in 1948, 178 Benedictine sisters began a new priory, known today as St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood; its current membership is less than half the original. In 1998, 86 nuns belonged to the community, 55 of whom lived at the monastery. They worked as nurses, educators and parish ministers. Over the years, the Benedictines were teachers and principals at more than a dozen Twin Cities parochial schools, among many other service roles (Pioneer Press, June 27, 1998). The order was based in Bamberg, Germany, and this priory was founded by sisters from the large St. Benedict’s Convent, now St. Benedict’s Monastery, in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Prioress Sister Marie Fujan, quoted in the 1998 Pioneer Press article, said, “When Benedictines came to Minnesota in the middle of the nineteenth century, they came to teach the children of German immigrants,” which may in part explain the later sale of the building to the Volksfest group. She reminisced about life in the Summit Avenue location, noting that the only place 200 or so sisters could gather was in the main hallway and up the sweeping staircase. “It was very homey,” she said. “We had lots of fun, we did a lot of singing and harmonizing and enjoying being with each other.”

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Margie Deutsch, the Institute’s historian, told how the nuns could only use the main staircase on Sundays. On other days, it was reserved for honored guests—mostly the city’s poor folks coming to ask for advice or help. Deutsch also says the Benedictines would flood the lot next door and enjoy ice skating, all while wearing their habits.

But the space was never enough. As related in a German American Institute (GAI) brochure, the sisters renovated the carriage house for $23,333 and called it St. Peter’s Hall. They purchased the adjoining lots, the Denny house next door (which they named Mary Hall), and later a house at the corner of Summit Avenue and Farrington Street, which became St. Wilhelmina’s. Still they needed more room, and in 1965 moved to modern, six-story structure near Larpenteur and Century Avenues, selling the house to a forerunner of the German cultural group that occupies it today.

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Since then the location has been a home for German culture in St. Paul. Back in 1957, a man named Al Grossman had founded the “Central Committee of German American Clubs,” which became “The German American Minnesota Centennial Committee” in 1958 and later that same year, “The Volksfest Association of Minnesota.” Its purpose was “to bring into being a broad-based organization to rekindle the spirit of Minnesotans of German origin and to provide a vehicle for recreating the ‘gemuetlichkeit’ of the past and for focusing attention on the cultural, historic, and social contributions of Germany to America,” after the two world wars had given Germany and Germans a very negative image in this country. “Gemuetlichkeit” is a German word meaning cordiality, friendliness, a feeling of warmth and good cheer.

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The first club, the Central Committee, was formed from a number of German-oriented groups. “The basic purpose of the club was to serve as a unifying force for all Minnesotans with Germanic backgrounds,” says the brochure. In a Minneapolis Star article dated March 16, 1978, some members expressed that very purpose. “’Belonging to an ethnic club is a way to retain some of the culture and customs of the land our ancestors came from,’ said Charles Walter, a Volksfest member. ‘Many of these people were born in Germany,’ he said. ‘Coming here is a way of identifying with and meeting people from their homeland.’” The group then numbered about 2,600 members, one of whom commented, ‘It’s a little bit of Germany.’”

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What likely cemented the union of the many groups into the larger one was the state’s centennial, the reason for the first name change in 1958. The committee put on a reception for visiting German dignitaries and a German Day, and participated in the Centennial Heritage Day Parade and the Festival of Nations. German Day had been abandoned in 1938 and was revived at this point, but had funding problems and [the brochure laments] its location, Minnehaha Park, did not allow beer. That situation was a hindrance to the German tradition of “gemuetlichkeit.” The festival was relocated at Highland Park in St. Paul in 1972. It now takes place at the Institute during the second week in June.

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The Volksfest Kulturhaus was renamed the Germanic-American Institute in 1992 to reflect a broader mission. Today it not only preserves the “gemuetlichkeit” of its proud tradition for more than 1,400 households/members, but also functions as a non-profit cultural and educational institution. According to its website, it provides some of the best German language instruction in the area, operates German-language immersion preschools, sponsors a public charter school (the Twin Cities German Immersion School), and offers Goethe Institut programs, current affairs and arts programs, celebratory events, and opportunities for new generations of families and individuals to pursue their interest in German language, culture, arts and history.

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According to Rachel Leiphon, the GAI holds several Kaffeestube (coffee bars) during the year and pairs them with a presentation or learning opportunity, “We do have Kaffee and Kuchen during the summer months on Saturday mornings,” she said, “and it is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a summer morning on Summit Avenue while enjoying traditional German cakes and coffee prepared by the GAI’s Dammenklub.”

The house is also available to rent for events such as meetings, weddings, musical performances, parties and lectures. Various areas of the three floors can be used, including the lower-level Rathskeller, depending on each group’s needs. Approximately 175 people can be accommodated.

The Institute also hosts other events, including some connected with Oktoberfest. Details of these events are available on the GAI website, www.gai-mn.org.

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November 2008, revised December 2016 and November 2019

Special thanks to Rachel Leiphon and the German American Institute for their helpfulness in sharing ideas and photos and double-checking facts.

4 thoughts on “Germanic-American Institute: Group shares culture, language, and “gemuetlichkeit” in Summit Avenue mansion

  1. Great article Lisa! I have been a member for a long time and had no idea of the religious connection. If you ever run out of material the monastery in Maplewood that the nuns moved to is a story in itself. Scott

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