James J. Hill House St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
Minnesota Historical Society
Continuing with our Travel Dates to places in our Backyard in the world-class cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, we toured the majestic James J. Hill House, another stop in our exploration of Minnesota Historical Society sites.
James J. Hill House
“The rugged stone, massive scale, fine detail and ingenious mechanical systems of this magnificent Gilded Age mansion recall the powerful presence of James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway.” (Visitor Guide)
The red sandstone mansion was designed in the massive Richardsonian Romanesque style. Completed in 1891, the 36,000 square foot residence immediately became the largest and most expensive house in Minnesota.
James J. Hill House
On a beautiful, sunny, Minnesota summer day, we visited the historical mansion of the railway magnet, James J. Hill.
I had toured the house many years ago on a field trip with my school-age children, but it was fun to see the updates, improvements – and look at it with fresh eyes and ears! It was as grand as I remember!
In previous Travel Dates last summer (2021), we had visited the Cathedral of St. Paul, just across the street from the Hill House and the James J. Hill Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. We knew that this mansion was on our bucket list once it reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down.
Skip and Cher at the Hill House.
P.C. Hannah, our guide. 7/24/22
James J. Hill: the Man & His Legacy
James J. Hill: “Empire Builder”
The story of James J. Hill is a success story of a man who moved up the ranks of business and society to become one of the most influential men in his time. He is a wonderful example of what could be accomplished with grit and hard work during this heroic era in the formation of America.
J.J. Hill was a pivotal force in the transformation of America’s Northwest, earning him the name the “Empire Builder.” The native Canadian’s name became synonymous with railroad innovation and visionary business leadership in the last quarter of the 19th century.
James J. Hill
After amassing a personal fortune estimated at $63 million and over $200 million in related assets, James J. Hill died in his Summit Avenue home on May 29, 1916, one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures of America’s Gilded Age.
At the end of his life, Hill was asked by a newspaper reporter to reveal the secret of his success. Hill responded with characteristic bluntness: “Work, hard work, intelligent work – and then more work.”
Hill’s influence in the literature and music of America’s Gilded Age was a fun surprise in my research:
Hill is the man whom Gatsby’s father says Gatsby would have equaled if he had lived long enough in the classic novel,”The Great Gatsby.”
Hill and his railway are mentioned in the Harry McClintock song “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.”
James J. Hill
James Jerome Hill was born on September 16, 1838 in southern Ontario to Irish immigrant parents. Hill’s father died when he was 14. He began clerking in local shops before setting off to seek his fortune. In 1856, at age 17, Hill’s career in transportation began as a clerk on the St. Paul levee.
Mrs. Mary Hill
Like James, his wife was an Irish immigrant. Born on July 1, 1846 in New York City, her family later moved to Chicago and then settled in St. Paul in 1850. In 1867, Mary Theresa Mehegan married James J. Hill. They were married for 49 years and had ten children.
Mary Hill proved to be a profitable and able partner with James. She maintained a watchful eye over the household, raised ten children, hired and managed servants. Of the many social events she hosted in her vast mansion, the highlight was a reception for President William McKinley in 1899.
Hill’s North Oaks Farm
In 1883, Hill purchased 3,500 acres of land in the countryside about ten miles north of his St. Paul mansion in Mounds View and White Bear Townships. Hill named his property North Oaks Farm. In the next few years he purchased adjacent farms to increase his land ownership to about 5,500 acres.
North Oaks Farm was owned by the family until the 1950s. The land was divided into parcels for a carefully planned community with an emphasis on preserving its natural beauty. It is said that Hill’s grandson helped survey most of the early lots himself and would sometimes alter the path of the a road to save a single tree…no grid-like street patterns here.
To ensure their mission would be fulfilled, plots were sold with a warranty deed that created the North Oaks Home Owners’ Association (NOHOA) to be responsible for roads and recreation. Each deed placed each home’s property line halfway into the street, placing all roads into private ownership.
North Oaks Family Farm
Summers were spent at the Hill family’s North Oaks Farm. Each spring, Hill made an annual trip to his hunting lodge in Quebec for salmon fishing.
I live close to North Oaks, and knew it was a unique community, but I had not realized that it had been part of the Hill property before this blog!
VISIT: The site of the Hill estate on the southwest corner of Pleasant Lake in North Oaks is now an open-air museum. Three of the original 40 buildings remaining. Check out activities at website: hillfarmhistoricalsociety.com
Hill House Exterior
The Hill Mansion is near the prestigious, eastern end of Summit Avenue near the Cathedral of Saint Paul. During the 1880s, many St. Paul business and civic leaders such as James J. Hill began building fashionable homes along the bluffs overlooking the city. Between 1882-1886, 46 new houses were constructed on Summit Avenue. (Being a lover of history and “original” houses, I found it sad that to construct a house that symbolized his success and suited him, his wife, and their large family, Hill tore down the first house ever built on Summit Avenue.)
The massive Richardsonian Romanesque style mansion, then in high fashion, was designed by the Boston firm of Peabody, Stearns, and Furber, known for its impressive mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. The final cost for the three-acre estate, including construction, furnishings and landscaping, totaled $931,275.01 – almost $22 million in 2022 value!
Hill House front view. P.C. Cher B. 7/24/22
After the death of Mary Hill in 1921, the children gave the house to the Archdiocese of St. Paul. It was used as a school, residence and office building by the Catholic Church until 1978. In 1961, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The house is now a historic site operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Carriage Porch, the Grand Entrance
It is through this grand Carriage Porch that guests of the Hills – and visitors today – are welcomed to the majesty of the James J. Hill House. – by foot, not by carriage!
Cher at Hill House. Carriage Porch
P.C. Skip B. 7/24/22
Hill House: West Wing
In the right wing, west side, the dining room, terrace, library and China closet were on the first floor. The five girls’ bedrooms were on the second floor. The servants’ quarters were on the third floor.
Hill House: East Wing
The left wing, east side of the house is the 2 story Picture Gallery which displayed his art work and holds a 3 story pipe organ. (Details below)
Hill House: Back/South Side
Looking out the back of the home was the Drawing Room (1st floor) and above it the bedrooms of Mr. and Mrs. Hill (2nd floor). It also provided a spectacular view from the balcony midway up the grand stairway. This side of the 3rd floor housed a Gymnasium (school room). The fourth floor features a stage in a room that could seat 200 people, a grand piano, and gymnastic equipment. The Hill children used the room as a playroom.
Hill House on a Hill: South Side
The Hill’s had a spectacular view of the river and growing downtown St. Paul from the back of their home. Today an interstate and a medical complex occupy this space. This photo taken from the medical complex window provides a glimpse of the proximity of the Hill House (left) and the Cathedral (right).
The terraced lawn once featured a gardener’s house, power plant, four greenhouses, and a mushroom cave.
Hill House Interior
Reception Hall & Staircase
The home served as a center for the public and private lives of the Hill family. Once inside the Carriage Porch, the entrance into the house is as grand as one would expect. The reception hall is nearly 100 feet long and used for entertaining, dancing and impressing all who enter – then and now!
The house contains 36,000 square feet on five floors. It includes 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, a two-story skylit art gallery all decorated with stained glass, gilding and crystal chandeliers.
Innovative technical systems provided central heating, gas and electric lighting, plumbing, ventilation, security and communication.
Features that made the interior extra-special were a profusion of elaborately carved oak and mahogany woodwork.
When the house was completed in 1891, it was equipped with the most advanced technologies of the day. Built during the transition between gas and electric lighting, the house was designed to include both.
Master carver John Kirchmayer, a Bavarian immigrant, was paid $1 per hour for his intricate carving of the home’s grand staircase. Compare this to $1.75 per day earned by general laborers in 1891.
Visitors today can enjoy walking up the grand staircase to the third floor rooms. The balcony half way up faces south and showcases intricate stained glass windows.
Drawing & Dining Rooms
Many of the house’s original furnishings were custom-made by Boston based interior designers. Today the Hill House is only partially furnished. Most pieces were removed in 1925 when family members gave the house to the Archdiocese of St. Paul. Efforts have been made to obtain period furniture similar to what we have seen in photos of the house. Some original pieces have been returned to the house by members of the Hill family.
Drawing Room: Now
The first room we experienced was the Drawing Room where we met our guide. The photo on the wall revealed what it previously looked like (no date given).
Hill family Weddings
The home served as the center for the public and private lives of the Hill family for the next 30 years. Children grew up in the house, and four daughters had their weddings in the large drawing room. Newlyweds often lived in the enormous house until their own homes were completed, five of which were close by on Summit Avenue. Grandchildren visited in later years, bringing the house to life! I can only imagine what fun it was to run down the halls, up the stairs, and hide in the nooks and crannies of this huge house.
Drawing Room: Then
The style of the Drawing Room is a “Louis XV” French Revival. The woodwork is mahogany, painted white. The ceiling moldings are paper-mache. The table (partially seen in my photo) has an oval base that mimics the oval design in the ceiling.
The formal Dining Room was the most elaborate room. It included a sample of a formal place setting. Partitioned walls hid servants as they waited to be summoned by Mrs. Hill’s special buzzer system. This space also hid a door used to bring food to and from the kitchen via a dumbwaiter in the basement below.
For security, windows and doors were wired to an annunciator system that would ring an alarm in the houseman’s room if they were opened unexpectedly. Buzzers under the dining room tables allowed Mary Hill to discreetly summon waitresses during a meal.
The Breakfast Room near the dining room is where the family would dine not only for breakfast, but also when the formal dining room was too big.
Sample of Place Setting for Formal Six-Course Dinner, ca. 1910
Hill House Love Story!
My cousin Vicki shared a Hill House Love Story that I use with her permission. Both Swedish immigrants, her great-grandparents met as servants of the Hills! He was the head coachman, assisting the fine ladies out of, and back in to, their carriages when they came for social events. The raised steps on either side of the Carriage Porch are where they stepped. She held several jobs. Vicki’s mother remembers her grandfather lifting her up on the steps as a little girl – and tales her grandmother would share about having to take account for all the silverware before guests were allowed to leave!
Bed, Bath, Baking & Boiler Rooms
On the second floor overlooking the city below were the bedrooms of Mr. and Mrs. Hill. Their rooms were adjoining in part because they needed privacy as both had people to help them get dressed! Also, Mr. Hill often worked late into the night and did not want to disrupt Mrs. Hill!
The innovative technical systems provided central heating, gas and electric lighting, plumbing, ventilation, security and communication.
Thirteen bathrooms featured state-of-the-art plumbing, with hot and cold running water. This one is off of Mr. Hill’s bedroom.
The huge basement of the Hill House contained servants’ dining and sitting room, bedrooms for male staff including the houseman and valet. The spacious kitchen featured a dumbwaiter to bring food to the dining room above it. The wine cellar, pantries, laundry, and boiler room all had their spots. It also included the hand-pumped bellows for the 1,006-pipe organ in the skylit gallery above. The floor of the main hallway is inlaid marble.
Hannah, our guide, told us that the Boiler Room is high on the list of favorite rooms in the house! An elaborate ventilation system, which included twenty-two fireplaces, ensured that air moved freely throughout the house.
Hill Art Collection
At the east end of the first floor is a two-story skylit art gallery. It is here where Hill showcased his extensive collection of French paintings, I was intrigued by the sun protective shades covering the skylight.
Also in this room is a three-story 1,006-pipe organ, created by renowned Boston organ-maker George Hutchings. The hand-pumped bellows are in the basement below. It was refurbished in 2018 for $141,000.00 with private donations. Concerts are held regularly by the Schubert Club.
Hill amassed a magnificent art collection. It consisted mainly of Barbizon School of mid-19th century landscape painters. Retractable iron grilles on the windows and doors provided security for the collection and the family’s other valuable possessions.
Hill donated much of the art collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), which he helped found in 1915.
Art: A Personal Connection
Of the hundreds of paintings available from the Hill collection at the Mia, I chose two to highlight here. Fortunately, it was not a difficult choice!
The first one is “Mill Pond at Minneapolis, 1888.” It has a personal connection for both Hill – and me!
For Hill, it is directly associated with the Stone Arch Bridge, commissioned by him and completed in 1883. This view of the mill pond in Minneapolis was painted from the west side of the Mississippi River, looking toward the University of Minnesota.
For me, the connection harks to my family’s heritage! It was in 1888 that my great-great-grandfather immigrated from Sweden and worked in the Pillsbury “A” Mill, on the river banks in this same place. He would have seen this scene daily as he walked to work!
Art: A Student Favorite
The second choice is “Springtime of Life. “ This was always a favorite of my art history students when we toured this section of the Mia.
Besides being a lovely painting, it evoked warm feelings within my students, especially the girls, as we imagined the story the girl in the picture might have to share with us!
Our Travel Date to the James J. Hill House was a fun trip back in time to the Gilded Age of St. Paul! I’d love to hear if you’ve enjoyed this blog with your “like” and comments! It inspires and encourages me for future Travel Dates and blog posts! Thanks! ~Cher
James J. Hill House
- Visit to the James J. Hill House – Details at the Minnesota Historical Society website – mnhs.org
- Admission: Various rates; free to MNHS members
- Parking: Free street parking; no parking on-site
- Food: no food options on site. Check out many great dining options west along Grand Avenue or east in downtown St. Paul.
North Oaks Hill Farm
- NOTE: I just became aware of this site and opportunity while researching this blog. I have not visited it so cannot speak to what it offers. Have fun in your discovery and exploration!
- Visit the site of the Hill estate. An open-air museum with three of the original 40 buildings remaining is now on the southwest corner of Pleasant Lake in North Oaks.
- Check out hours, cost, and activities at website: hillfarmhistoricalsociety.com
- Brochure: Visitor Guide by Minnesota Historical Society for James J. Hill House
- Guided Tour of the James J. Hill House by Hannah, Minnesota Historical Society Guide 7/24/22
- Photos by Cher B, Skip B, and Hannah (guide) unless otherwise noted
- collections.artsmia.org/search/springtime of life
- collections.artsmia.org/search/stone arch bridge
- mnhs.org/hillhouse/learn/house – old photos 1902 (back) 1905 (front)
Enjoy my blog of other Travel Dates to Minnesota Historical Society sites: Historic Fort Snelling