Eccentric Collector Thrives on the Obscure
By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press; March 13, 2006©
Three Saturdays ago, Seth Hawkins hosted a Mardi Gras party at his St. Paul home and museum, which are one and the same. Hawkins taped a handwritten note to the front doorjamb announcing that this party, his sixth in 120 days, helped top the previous record of six he threw in the 131 days between Oct. 14, 2003, and Feb. 21, 2004.
By 10 p.m., about two dozen people were there, most of them long familiar with the upstairs room dedicated to America’s 20th president, James Garfield, and with the room across the hall honoring Hawkins’ peculiar-yet-unwavering commitment to major league baseball.
“Greetings! Welcome to the 1880s,” Hawkins told newcomers, orienting them to the era that, for reasons even he struggles to articulate, has become a central focus of his home and soul.
He urged guests to pour themselves drinks and continue through the kitchen to the basement. There, he has opened an unofficial but remarkably thorough chamber of commerce and history center for Slovenia.
Hawkins, 63, held no personal connection to the European country until, like the 1880s, he simply decided to adopt it. He also had no association to Minnesota — he retired from academia in Connecticut — when he followed a friend’s suggestion in 1993 to move to St. Paul and give a more appropriate home to his museum of “gilded-age decorative arts.”
The two-story house today wears the name of Julian H. Sleeper, the St. Paul entrepreneur who owned the house at the turn of the 20th century and soon after remodeled, expanded and moved it about six blocks from Holly Avenue to St. Albans Street, between Grand and Lincoln avenues.
In spirit and purpose, the house and its contents say more about Hawkins — eccentric, exacting and, if only by his happy admission, elitist — than they do about the 1880s.
Most guests had known Hawkins for years. Others met Hawkins only weeks earlier. One, a blonde in a sequined red top, took in the scores of wooden, porcelain and stuffed owls perched throughout the house and surmised that her host “has an owl issue.”
Asked in passing how the party was going, Hawkins deliberated for a moment before answering.
“This isn’t a record attendance,” he said. “The last party, there were 14 people who had never been before and two who must have walked in off the street. But qualitatively and quantitatively, this is an excellent party.”
DEDICATED, NOT PASSIONATE
Hawkins has never held a license to drive — “I don’t trust my reflexes on mechanical matters,” he says. As for his few modern necessities — a phone, fax machine, coffeemaker, refrigerator and digital watch — he either justifies them by making comparisons to objects or customs common to the 1880s or, failing that, implores guests to ignore them.
Hawkins spent “the low six figures” on elaborate bands of wallpaper covering nearly every wall and ceiling on the main floor, and there are pieces of oak and cedar furniture any antiques store would welcome. But he doesn’t collect or exhibit out of passion — he cites a subject’s obscurity and the potential recognition of bringing something to the public’s consciousness as far greater motivators.
Little notes, riddles and physical gags are everywhere in his home. Amid the clutter of one room is a small rack of glass test tubes with cloth babies inside them. For the party, Hawkins dressed a stuffed owl on a mantel with a tiara and colored beads. His centerpiece dessert was a cake. Spiked into it was a sign reading: “Watch out!! The ring cake has a small plastic baby baked into it! Yours may be the lucky slice …”
Victoria Taylor, a longtime friend and party guest, pointed to the 26 unopened 12-packs of Coca Cola stacked beneath Hawkins’ kitchen table.
“Every time there’s a coupon for Cub, he calls me and asks if I’m making a Cub run. He’s very savvy that way,” she said. “He’s the only person I know who has subscriptions to Star Magazine and the Economist.”
Hawkins grew up in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. He has one sister, with whom he isn’t close, and was married once. “We don’t talk about that too much,” he says.
He was a career professor of rhetoric, communication and speech at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, where he coached the school’s competitive speech team, and said he coined the phrase “Yale is just another four-letter word.” He never took a sick day during 26 years at the university, he says, allowing him to retire with 3 1/2 years of paid leave and move to Minnesota.
Hawkins holds a sideline career as a political consultant and speechwriter — he identifies as a libertarian Republican — and tends to speak as if he’s at a podium, not in volume but in the stretched-out vowels delivered largely monotone. He often converses with his head turned slightly to one side, darting his wide-set eyes to make only fleeting contact with whomever he’s speaking to.
He far prefers entertaining in his home to visiting others, and he keeps even those who’ve known him for years at a personal distance. Asked to cite anyone he feels particularly close to, Hawkins appears stumped, moving about the edges of an answer before naming a married couple in New England as his “guardian angels.” He shares his house with two long-haired cats, Puzzle and Miss E.
“I’m a kind of a detached, rationalist person,” he says. “I’m committed and dedicated, but I’m not passionate.”
CALL HIM ‘DR. FAN’
It’s of little surprise that he chooses pursuits that can’t pursue him in return.
The 1880s didn’t become a conscious immersion for Hawkins until he chose Garfield as the subject for his doctoral dissertation. At the time, Hawkins found no collected, cohesive scholarship about Garfield, and he seems to derive his greatest satisfaction from inspiring whatever interest others have found in the leader.
“He was unjustly and needlessly obscure,” Hawkins says.
His Garfield room, arguably the cornerstone of the museum, is a mishmash of paintings, cartoons, etchings, stamps and glass paperweights that, as a whole, look more as if they were assembled through eBay auctions than any curatorial focus. Hawkins’ prized possession here is a framed business card for Garfield’s assassin — the only such card known to exist, he says.
His baseball fixation is equally disjointed. There are various portraits and signed baseballs under glass and an owl wearing a button that says “Cosell must go!” An organization called the Baseball Reliquary honored Hawkins as “Dr. Fan” in 2002 with its Hilda Award, marking “the importance of fandom in baseball history.” Still, Hawkins isn’t a fan of any particular team — “The Twins get mad because I sit there and keep score without cheering,” he says.
Instead, he’s a fan of moments. Hawkins has put together a resume representing “a selection of milestone MLB events personally witnessed by Dr. Seth C. Hawkins (‘Dr. Fan’).” Among them are Pete Rose’s hits No. 3,000, 4,000, record-tying 4,191 and record-breaking 4,192; Henry Aaron’s 715th career home run and the first night game played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. He has seen every 3,000th hit by a major leaguer since 1959 and, as if entering into a “fact sheet” contract, promises “Dr. Hawkins will attend games in all new parks within one year of opening.”
“I may be a celebrity fan, and it is strange when other fans ask for autographs,” he says. “But this isn’t about being egotistical. I’m the symbol, the connection to the fan who can’t get the summer off, to represent the fan who can’t be there. I get one step closer to the player, and if that makes people happy, I’ve done well.”
At least initially, Hawkins’ interest in Slovenia seems to have stemmed from the moment he realized he didn’t know much about the country.
“I read a lot about everything, so if I don’t know about this wonderful country and culture, most of America doesn’t, either,” he says. “People said ‘You’ve never been to Slovenia and you’re going to open an extensive exhibition in nine months?’ I said ‘You come back on Labor Day weekend 2002 and we’ll drink a toast that I’ll have been right and you’ll have been wrong.’ A few of those people did show up.”
Lined with foam board information placards screwed into faux wood paneling, the exhibit features masks, maps, clothing, posters and a bottle of apple brandy bearing a reflection of Slovenian national poet France Preseren. There also is an essay by Hawkins on the top 20 buildings created by Slovenian architect Joze Plecnik, folk art relating to beehives and beekeeping and a small library stocked with 120 tourism brochures.
Hawkins has traveled to Slovenia 10 times since October 2001, hosted parties for two Slovenian ambassadors and says he is now one of four finalists — and the only non-Slovenian — under consideration to become the Slovenian consul to Minnesota.
“It cost me at least $30,000, and I was glad to do it,” he says. “I get mistaken often for being wealthier than I am, which I suppose is better than the opposite. Anyone who wants a tour guide for Slovenia and will pay my expenses, they’ll get their money’s worth.”
Hawkins has three business cards, representing his lives in baseball, political consulting and the museum. But of his varied pursuits, he expects only baseball to take him into life’s twilight. As for the museum, Hawkins gives tours by appointment but wants to find and groom a successor, someone to adopt and preserve his home and collections.
Like the fictional Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory, he has settled on a “dignified method” — one employed during the 1880s, he says — for finding the right person, but he won’t reveal the details.
“As close as I ever can be to heartbroken, it would be truly unfortunate and unnecessary to have this house and collection separated,” he says. “Normal people would be unwilling to do this. It needs to go to someone special, but I can’t put what I’m looking for in black and white. Anyone clever enough to figure it out can get in touch.”