SDA tours the James J. Hill House

July 18, 2018

The James J. Hill House in Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States, was built by railroad magnate James J. Hill. The house, completed in 1891, is near the eastern end of Summit Avenue near the Cathedral of Saint Paul. The home has 36,000 square feet of living area and 44,552 square feet of total space.

 

Hill bought three lots on Summit Avenue in 1882, during an era when wealthy citizens were scrambling to build fashionable homes in the neighborhood. The street offered a commanding view of downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River area, making it a highly desirable location. The family previously lived in the Lowertown area in St. Paul, near Ninth and Canada streets. As new warehouses and railroad tracks crowded the Lowertown residential area, and as Hill's collection of paintings and sculpture overflowed the house, the Hill family thought it was desirable to move. Hill also realized that recent improvements in home technology, such as electric lighting, plumbing, ventilation, and fireproofing, could be incorporated into a new home. Moreover, since Hill was becoming a socially prominent person in the community, a new home would stand as a tribute to his status as the "Empire Builder".

 

The house was designed by an East Coast architectural firm, Peabody, Stearns and Furber, The house was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, with a massive, rugged style featuring randomly sized blocks of stone, sturdy pillars, rounded arches, and a generally strong horizontal emphasis. Hill supervised the design and construction closely.

 

The interior features an art gallery that housed Hill's collection of painting and sculpture. It even had a pipe organ, installed after someone suggested to Hill that other wealthy people had pipe organs in their homes. The house had a hybrid system of gas and electric lighting, with rotary switches on the walls to turn on the electric lights. However, there were no electrical outlets installed, because during that era electricity was only used for lighting. The woodwork in the house is very intricate, with hand-carved woodworking in the central hallway, the formal dining room, and the music room.

 

The first floor has an art gallery, music room, hall, formal dining room, library, drawing room, and Mr. Hill's home office. The second floor contained Mr. and Mrs. Hill's rooms, two guest rooms, and rooms for their five daughters, Gertrude, Rachel, Clara, Ruth, and Charlotte. The third floor contained rooms for their sons James, Walter, and Louis. It also had a room that served as a gymnasium and school room for the children, as well as quarters for the servants.

 

After James J. Hill died in 1916 and his wife died in 1921, the children eventually moved out. In 1925, four of the daughters purchased the house from the estate and donated it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The church used it for the next fifty-three years as space for offices, residences, and a teacher's college for women. Fortunately, the church preserved it well and did not make any significant alterations, although most of the original furniture was sold during this period. In 1961, the United States Department of the Interior designated the house a National Historic Landmark. The Minnesota Historical Society acquired the house in 1978, after the Archdiocese consolidated its offices elsewhere. The house has been restored and is now open for tours.

 

 

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