So what was a man who was worth $36 million and the father of 10 children to do? For railroad tycoon James J. Hill, the answer was to build a 36,000 square foot mansion spread out over five floors on the prestigious Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Completed in 1891, the mansion also boasts 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces and 16 crystal chandeliers – and a price tag of over $900,000 dollars! In case you’re wondering, that’s about $20 million in today’s money.
My family and I had the privilege of touring the magnificence that is the James J. Hill House last April. We tried not to be too downtrodden when returning to our own living quarters, at the time an 800 square foot apartment. Before I elaborate on this architectural delight, let’s take a walk back in time and meet the man whose testament to obscene wealth still stands today.
Who Was James J. Hill
James Jerome Hill was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1838, and immigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota, during his early teen years. He worked for several years in the shipping business, before purchasing St. Paul and Pacific Railroad at the age of 40. He and his business partners salvaged the nearly-bankrupt company by relentlessly pursing expansion into Canada, the West Coast and Rocky Mountains of the United States. Hill changed the name of his company to Great Northern Railway in 1890.
A driven and brilliant business man, Hill did not stop at railroading. He was also involved in the areas of coal and iron ore mining, shipping, banking and finance and agriculture and milling. He died at the age of 78, one of the richest and most powerful public figures of his time.
America’s Gilded Age
The period of the late 19th century, which lasted approximately from the early 1870’s to the late 1890’s, is known in American History as the Gilded Age. During this time frame, the economy of the United States grew at its fastest rate ever and the modern industrial economy began. Due to the business principal known as Capital Formation, a subclass of the super-rich was created. In addition to Hill, several well-known millionaires such as John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt came out of this era. The actual term Gilded Age was created by Mark Twain, as a poke at fabulous displays of wealth. It was also a play on words of Golden Age.
Hill and his wife, Mary, purchased two lots on Summit Avenue in 1882, but it would be another nine years before the family would take up residence. He hired an East Coast building team, Peabody, Stearns and Furber, and supervised the construction of the mansion closely. He chose Richardson Romanesque as the main architectural style. This is a rugged style featuring differing sizes of stone, sturdy pillars, rounded arches and a horizontal emphasis. Numerous civic buildings, educational institutions, libraries, service buildings, churches and private homes were built in this style in the late 19th century.
Visiting the James J. Hill House Today
The James J. Hill House is available to see only by guided tour. The one disappointment I had when starting the tour was learning that flash photography is prohibited inside of the mansion. Here’s why: The heat and light produced by flash photography speed up chemical reactions that can lead to deterioration of the antiques within the home. Picture taking junkies that my husband and I are, we settled for dark shots rather than none.
We immediately noticed the very detailed hand-carved woodworking throughout much of the first floor. Also, it should be noted that electricity was just coming into use at this time. There were no electrical outlets installed in the home, since its only purpose was for lighting.
The first floor of the home contains an art gallery, music room, formal dining room, library, drawing room and James J. Hill’s home office. The art gallery contains paintings and sculpture that James and Mary Hill had imported from all over the world, while the music room boasts a very large pipe organ. The library holds an impressive collection of business and scholarly books; unfortunately, for this allergy sufferer, it also contained the unmistakable musty odor that comes with old books.
The Hill’s, as could be expected of a wealthy society couple of this era, entertained guests in the large formal dining room on a regular basis. Their staff of maids, cooks and hostesses kept that part of their lives running smoothly.
The second floor is where James and Mary Hill had their bedroom, as well as two guest rooms and rooms for five of their daughters: Gertrude, Rachel, Clara, Ruth and Charlotte. Their oldest daughter, Mary, had married before the Hill’s took up residence on Summit Avenue, and a seventh daughter, Katherine, died in infancy. Their sons, Louis and Walter, were housed on the third floor of the home. The Hill’s servants also resided there. An additional son, also named James, was an adult by the time the family moved into the mansion. The fourth and fifth floors were not available for touring.
Moving outside, we could see there were additional servant’s quarters in small houses along the property. There were also garages for the newly invented automobile, although they were not along the grand scale that everything else was. Perhaps that is because many people were still getting around by horse and carriage, and they didn’t want to house automobiles until they were sure this fad was going to stick.
The Post-Hill Mansion
James J. Hill died in 1916 and his wife, Mary, followed in 1921. In 1925, Hill family members presented the home to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul, who used it as an office building, school and church until 1978. At that point, it was purchased by the Minnesota Historical Society. The James J. Hill House was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961.