February 25, 2022
Walking down Summit Avenue in St. Paul Minnesota is like stepping into the past.
More than 350 houses from about the time the automobile was invented line the 4.5-mile road. The grand and gaudy Victorian mansions were once home to some of the most prominent midwestern aristocrats of the late 1800s. One was James J. Hill, known as the Empire Builder, who purchased the nearly bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1878. Throughout his lifetime, he would expand it to Canada, past the Rocky Mountains and to the Pacific Ocean, all on the backs of exploited immigrant labor.
Summit Avenue is living history, and Julie Koehnen is obsessed with it.
“I left my film editing career in Los Angeles, and I came here to see if I can make that into a TV series,” she said. “I had never even written historical drama, so it’s all very new.”
Julie has since made two short films depicting this period in history.
The first, “Master Servant,” tells the story of Samuel Blackburn, an executive looking to celebrate the completion of his company’s transcontinental railroad. However, that same day, an explosion at a railyard killed many of his employees. He struggles to remain indifferent to their losses so that he can celebrate alongside the social elite.
The next, “Awakening,” shows a high society woman, Clemence Finch, who yearns for a more independent life. After attending a luncheon without a male family member, she begins to realize that being a wife and mother or leading a life of domestic servitude is not something she desires.
Julie is of Northern European decent, the type of folks who would’ve immigrated to Minnesota in the late 1800s. That personal connection and a strong interest in the city’s history led her to making the short films.
“At this time in history, labor started to organize and strike. This is when the Pullman Strike happens, but there was also the women’s movement,” she said. “Working-class women had more rights than the social elite. They couldn’t even walk across town unescorted. There was just so much uproar and change. It’s a fascinating era.”
Both films accurately depict the speech, mannerisms and fashion of 19th Century elite. The women wear bustle dresses and puffy shirtwaist tops. Men don finely pressed tuxedos with tails, bowties and deep-V waistcoats. Everyone sits up straight as if holding a rod between their shoulder blades. They speak proper and enunciate every word. Shot in Summit Avenue locations, the homes are elegant with large staircases and parlors. The dining room tables have correct place settings for all its cutlery.
To capture that authenticity, Julie studied plenty of documents on Summit Avenue and travelled to the Maryhill Museum in Washington, which houses the personal correspondence of James Hill’s son-in-law, Samuel Hill.
“I spent a week out there, in the basement, going through his papers,” she said.
Julie’s hope is to adapt these shorts into a 13-episode TV series called “Summit Avenue.”
Prior to this, Julie had made a handful of short films, but they weren’t getting the attention she had hoped for in Los Angeles.
“It’s a character flaw,” she said. “I was letting the world define me instead of understanding that I had to say to the world, ‘this is who I am.’ Things started to fall into place more easily when I recognized that.”
“Master Servant” has won many awards including bronze at the Lake Placid Film Festival short film contest in 2019, and Julie was a guest during the Adirondack Film Society’s 2020 featured filmmaker series.
“For me, what it means is that I’m on the right track,” she said. “As a filmmaker, all you have is your own taste. It’s confirmation. If nobody invites you to a festival, it’s heartbreaking. It makes you feel like you’re not resonating with people. I’ve been there. But with these two films, people are really enjoying them and they want to know what happens next. It feels amazing. I feel a lot of gratitude toward the women and men at the Lake Placid Film Festival who are promoting my work.”
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