Behind the daunting, soot-darkened red sandstone walls, the James J. Hill House at 240 Summit Avenue can give visitors a chance to sense how people coped with summer heat before air conditioning—at least how wealthy people coped. The wide halls, spacious terraces, big windows and dark interior are comfortably cool, with the help of an occasional electric fan, even on the hottest days of summer. The house’s many intriguing features give insight into other aspects of life during the Gilded Age.
When it was completed in 1891, James J. Hill’s home for him and his family, including eight of his nine children (the oldest had married and left home), was the largest as well as the most expensive home in Minnesota. It has 36,000 square feet on five floors and cost $931,275.01 to build (Hill was a meticulous record-keeper, down to the penny). It features 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, a two-story skylit art gallery, stained glass windows, elaborate carved woodwork, and a 100-foot reception hall.
There is little furniture in the house now; the family furniture was divided up among the children when Hill died intestate. Photos of the rooms fully furnished, before the family left, help compensate for this lack. The pieces that are there are excellent–a beautiful formal dining table and chairs, Hill’s desk, a steamer trunk that belonged to one of the servants. The house is so vast and has so many locks, some 500-plus, that numbers were tacked onto doorways. As its Richardsonian Romanesque architecture communicates, the house was built to impress as well as to live in, and it still stands as an emblem of Hill’s success.
The relative sparseness inside the house enables visitors to examine Hill’s many modern gadgets closely. Among his “sophisticated technical systems” were central heating, both gas and electric lighting (electricity was relatively new then and considered unreliable, so light fixtures have an upper fixture for gas and a lower one for electricity), indoor plumbing, ventilation for every room, gas fireplaces for ambience, communication systems and electronic security. Visitors can view electrical switch boxes on each floor; nine miles of wiring were run through the walls when the building went up. The electronic security was wired into windows, so if they were forced open at night, bells would go off and someone could investigate, pistol in hand. The original security gates, which are still used in the parlor, are iron grates that fold back into small closets, out of view. The house has been called a fortress, with good reason.
One of the most interesting areas is the basement, where the servants worked, and some lived. Around 13 servants worked for the family at any given time. Visitors can see the servants’ sitting room, where they played cards and received visitors, and the kitchen, where six meals a day were prepared, three for the servants and three for the family. Mary Hill, James’ wife, who was a hands-on supervisor, made jams and jellies there and wines from the grapes grown in the yard. The laundry room shows how washing, drying and ironing were done, and the boiler room features an exact replica of the original boiler, as well as the bellows for the pipe organ upstairs.
The house was where the Hills lived and entertained for 30 years, and Mary lived there for five years after her husband’s death. For the next 50 years, it was the property of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul, a gift from Hill family members. The archdiocese used it variously as a residence, office space, and school. The building was declared a historic landmark in 1961 and acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978.
This imposing house nearly had to close when legislative funding to the Minnesota Historical Society was cut drastically in 2003. The Hill House was one of seven sites managed by the Historical Society that were directed to close or raise their own operating funds. Almost immediately, “Friends of the James J. Hill House” was formed as the nucleus of efforts to keep the site open. Money came in from a city grant, St. Thomas University, Burlington Northern Railroad, Andersen Windows, and many others, money that went directly into operating expenses. Another budget-managing strategy was selectively raising admission prices.
Additional changes have been instituted since then to increase revenue and make the historic house a more viable site financially. For example, volunteers fulfill some needed functions, such as helping with cleaning, reception and computer tasks. The most successful change has been opening the house to after-hours rental. Meetings, conferences, classes, lectures, concerts, receptions, luncheons and dinners are welcome, though weddings, birthday or anniversary celebrations, and family reunions are not, in deference to the need to preserve the site.
Events and tours also bring in revenue. The Nooks and Crannies tours during the summer explore corners of the mansion not often open to the public. These are in addition to the regular house tours, which are available Wednesday through Saturday; self-guided tours are available on Sunday during the summer while regular tours are given Sundays during the rest of the year. More details about tours are available on the website at http://www.mnhs.org/hillhouse/activities/tours. Christmas Traditions tours are offered in December.
The Nooks and Crannies tour makes a nice supplement to the regular tour, filling in details and allowing glimpses of several areas normally off-limits. This tour covers such areas as the inner workings of the pipe organ, the dust collection system, the laundry chute, the fifth-floor children’s playroom with a stage, the boys’ rooms and gun room on the third floor, the wine cellar, the houseman’s room, the refrigeration (icebox) room, and coal bin in the basement. The Hill House required 250 tons of coal each year.
James J. Hill was something of a force of nature, a testament to the belief that hard work leads to success in this country, a Horatio Alger story come to life. He started as a mud clerk when he first came to St. Paul, and when he died had $63 million in cash and another $200 million in assets. He’s best known for building railroads, especially the Great Northern, which went all the way to the west coast, but he also had interests in mining, electric and waterpower development, shipping, agriculture, milling, banking and finance. His vast holdings earned him the nickname “Empire Builder.” His wife Mary, whom he married in 1867, was a waitress at Merchants Hotel in St. Paul when they met, and went to finishing school in Milwaukee for several years before they married. The couple ended up living a life that was quite remote from their working-class roots, in the most imposing home on prestigious Summit Avenue.
August 2005, revised August 2018