Stepping Back: The first Friends President

First in a series previewing the 2022 Friends Centennial

In just one year, Friends will be celebrating its centennial.  My committee and I have been busy for well over a year producing a book due out at the beginning of January 2022, documenting our extensive history. In our research, we continue to discover stories about the selfless, intelligent, accomplished, and entertaining women leading the way for Friends. Not all of this amazing information can fit into our book so we thought instead, we’d bring you the tales of these legendary people in this column. Smile, laugh, be astonished, and be proud of women strongly connected to our history. 

Carolyn McKnight Christian
1875-1964

 Carolyn McKnight Christian, 1875-1964

 When the much-admired Ethel Morrison Van Derlip died at an early age in 1921, 45 of her fellow community art supporters and friends felt Van Derlip’s legacy needed recognition. On January 20th, 1922, these women officially formed Friends of the Institute in her honor. With Carolyn McKnight Christian herself being a strong patron in the neighborhood and art supporter within Minneapolis, she was selected to become the first president of this cherished organization.

2200 Park Avenue. Photo courtesy of CARLOS GONZALEZ – STAR TRIBUNE

Carolyn was born in Colorado in 1875 to Sumner T. McKnight and Eugenie Manville. Mr. McKnight was in the real estate business as well as the lumber business. His vocation took the family across the Midwest and the West Coast, moving Carolyn 11 times as a child. Eventually, the family settled at 2200 Park Avenue in Minneapolis. 

In 1897, Carolyn wed George Chase Christian. Mr. Christian was the son of Leonora Hall and George H. Christian. George H. and Leonora had lost their oldest son Henry to tuberculosis at the age of 27. Perhaps because of this, Leonora devoted much of her time to supporting the fight against this devasting disease. In fact, they funded treatment camps and hospitals for patients with tuberculosis, engaging in a special interest for afflicted children. George H. Christian, himself involved in the Minneapolis flour milling industry, founded the Citizen’s Aid Society with a $1 million endowment in 1916, soon after his wife Leonora passed away. It was included in the articles of incorporation that patients with TB be treated. Later this Citizen Aid Society developed into the United Way.

2303 Third Ave

In 1917, Carolyn along with her husband George began construction of a three-story mansion at  2303 Third Avenue. The architect, Edwin Hewitt, already famously known in the Twin Cities, designed a home with a mixture of late English Gothic and Renaissance design. In 1919, before the house was completed, George passed away and this left Carolyn with the task of putting the finishing touches on the grand home.

Carolyn lived in the home, with her foster children who she met while traveling with her husband in Paris, until 1957. They had no children of their own but Carolyn also spent a great deal of time with her seven nieces and nephews. She maintained the role of the family matriarch and was often called, “Nana.” Often the home was filled with music, and many concerts were hosted in the fireplace room designed for this purpose. Carolyn’s golden retriever named Dennis would “dance” with Carolyn around the living and dining rooms, adding to the festivities. One of Carolyn’s foster daughters recalled perching at the top of the grand staircase, hearing the doorman announcing the guests for the evenings’ social gatherings. Aside from enjoying entertaining, Carolyn continued to demonstrate her passion for the welfare of the community in countless ways.

Before Carolyn’s death in 1964 at the age of 89, it was her wish to donate her home to the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1957. Shortly afterward, the home was purchased by the Hennepin History Museum to house an increasing collection of the county’s artifacts. Jack Kabrud, museum curator has mentioned a lingering presence exists in the museum. It is unknown whether or not this is from the historic museum collection or previous inhabitants of the home. Past volunteers and staff of the museum have “experienced pockets of strong, unexplainable scents, and many people—especially women—have gotten a strange, unsettling sensation at the top of the main staircase.”

No doubt, Friends feel the presence of Carolyn Christian when continuing its passion for serving the community and the mission of the museum. Her legacy as Friends’ first leader has set an extraordinary example of generosity and the spirit of giving.

Friends Centennial History Publication Authors

Pamela Friedland
Linda Goldenberg
Mary Merrick
Suzanne Payne
Connie Sommers