The information highway of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was quite different than what we know today with the Internet, Twitter and Facebook. Still a rather young nation, we were content to be exploring America’s terra firma, creating highways to get people and products to and from one area or coast to another. That is where James J. Hill comes in.
Born in Ontario in 1838, Hill first encountered transportation work in Minnesota at the age of 17 as a clerk on the St. Paul levee. At age 40, he and a group of investors pooled resources and purchased the failing St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. For the next 20 years, they forged their rail line across Canada to the Rocky Mountains and finally, the Pacific Ocean! The venture now took the well-earned name of the Great Northern Railway. Hill himself summed up his life’s work this way: When all are dead and gone, the sun will still shine, the rain will fall, and this railroad will run as usual. He died in 1916, amassing a fortune estimated at $63 million—a true scion of the Gilded Age.
In 1891, Hill set out to build his mansion on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Long before the Governor’s mansion was built down the street, it was the fashionable address for the town’s upper class. The well-known and respected architectural firm of Peabody, Stearns and Furber designed and created the plans for the Richardsonian Romanesque-style mansion. Hill, being somewhat of a control freak, oversaw the entire project. He refused Tiffany windows stating that they were “anything but what I wanted.” He also replaced the Peabody Stearns architectural firm with the Boston firm of Irving and Casson after Peabody ignored his orders to fire the stonecutters.
Upon completion, the 36,000- square-foot, 3-acre property reportedly cost almost $1 million to build, furnish and landscape. Its five stories contained 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, a sky-lit two story art gallery, and a 100-foot reception hall.
In 1925, family members bequeathed Hill House to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul. It was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978. For more information, visit mnhs.org.