Saturday, April 2, 2011

More, please!

The following essay was written by my wife.  She is an excellent writer, in my not-so-humble opinion.  I feel like I'm at the house she writes about and yearn with her, in her desire for more.  Enjoy...


The James. J. Hill House was built in 1891 for James J. Hill, his wife, Mary, and their eight children. They also had one married daughter and a daughter that died in infancy. Hill came to St. Paul from his childhood home, in Ontario in 1856, when he was 16 years old. He began work as a clerk on the St. Paul levee. After working in shipping for twenty years, he and others bought two bankrupt railroad companies. Over the next two decades, he built the Great Northern Railway. Hill also had many other business interests. He became known as an “Empire Builder” and had an estimated personal fortune of $63 million. He is one of the 40 wealthiest people of all time.

It took three years and just under $1 million to build Hill's home. It is a 36,000 square foot house built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. It has 5 floors; which include, 22 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, a servants quarters, eight children bedrooms, a large school room, a picture gallery, many crystal chandeliers, and elaborately carved woodwork, that took over 32,000 hours to carve. The formal dining room had a 25 foot table, leather walls, and a gold ceiling. The basement is made of marble walls and floor. It has a state-of-the-art, for the era, laundry room. Encompassing a large part of the basement, is the very large broiler room where the Hill family went through 200-250 tons of coal per year.

Through James J. Hills house, we are able to get a picture of that time in history. Some of the details throughout the house give us this picture. In the art gallery, there is a wall sized, built-in, 1006 pipe, pipe organ. When the architects were designing the house, they told Hill that anybody who was anyone out East had a built-in pipe organ. Back then, having live music being played in the house during a dinner party showed a level of prestige and riches. Now, most households don't even have a piano. The kitchen is in the basement because it was bad etiquette for guests to smell their food while waiting for it. There was a butler's staircase hidden behind a screen in the dining room so that the food could be brought up and served to the guests. In that time, wealthy house did not have living rooms. They had a library where the family spent the evening reading, doing puzzles, or studying. Another area that stuck out to me was the master bedroom. Mary and James each had their own bedrooms. That was common for the time. If Mary was dressing in her room, she did not want James's butler to see her; and likewise, if James was dressing, he did not want Mary maidservant to be there.

Another way to view history through the Hill house, would be in the way it is built. On the third floor is an electric box. Inside it you can see wires coming into boxes on the top side and going out on the bottom. This was the old direct current (DC) electrical system, in which electricity could only run one direction through each wire. During the building of the house the world was discovering alternating current (AC) which would allow electricity to flow both ways through one wire. Hill demanded that the DC electrical system be abandoned and the AC put in instead. Another electrical issue of the time was the lack of a dimmer switch. Hill wanted a theater upstairs that would have the ability to have the lights dimmed. Without a dimmer switch, they used a copper coil that was connected to the source of power. When the light was dimmed, the extra electricity would back up into the coil. When the historical society gained possession of the Hill house, modern electricians wanted to see these two electrical systems of the 1800s. Another historic feature of the house is the woodwork. The James J. Hill house was built at the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement. During that time, something called quartersawn wood was used in decorating. The most expensive, was quartersawn oak. Everything in the Hill house, except the dining room and servants quarters were done in quartersawn oak. The dining room was made with carved, Virgin Island Mahogany. The servants quarters were made with regular pine wood. This shows not only the era that the house was designed in but also, the separation between the servant class and the family.

In 1978, the Minnesota Historical society acquired the James J. Hill house. They offer 75 minute guided tours of the house and host special events. Throughout the house, they have a small handful of furniture pieces that were the Hill's original furniture. It doesn't amount to a lot, but knowing that every chair that you see was used by the Hill family is better than seeing a staged place with unrealistic items. They also have a few artifacts on display. Letters form servants, menus made by Mrs. Hill, Tiffany's silverware, candelabras, paintings, personnel items, and more. Because they don't have a lot of things to look at, the tour is mostly focused on the makeup of the house. The tour guides know a lot about the structure of the house and can tell you minute details, down to the how many times the architect’s initials appear on the woodwork. At one point during the tour we watched a video on Jame's J. Hill life, business endeavors, and personality. That helped us understand more about why James had the house built like he did. They also have historic books and information available for purchase. The guides were also able to include personal little stories and facts about the Hill's. James liked an onion sandwich for a midnight snack, Mary sewed a cover closed over a racy book of Mr. Hill's, because she did not want the children seeing it, and Walter got in trouble for collecting his junk in the artillery closet. The one thing that really got left out, was a tour of the whole house. We are never able to see the five daughters wing of the house on the second floor, or the whole servants quarters on the third floor. The tour guide made several mentions of the historical societies offices behind closed doors and talked about a Nooks and Crannies tour where you can see more. We were given a pamphlet that has the house layout on it, but there is a lot of house that we didn't get to see. I wanted to know if the girls area was a different look then the rest of the house. Were the servants bedrooms like cells or were they at all luxurious? The tour is only 75 minutes and you are not allowed to walk freely through the house. I would have liked to walk around a little more but wasn't allowed.

While enjoyable, I was left wondering what the focus of the tour should have been. Because they did not have many artifacts and furniture, you weren't taking the tour to see what the Hill life was like. Aside from the short video on James Hill, we didn't really learn a lot about the family or all of James's businesses. Because so much of the houses square footage was left out, you are not able to get a feel for just how big and grand it is. The tour ended up being something that wet my appetite to learn more about the Hill's but I didn't really leave having learned enough of any one thing about James J. Hill or his family.


  1. This is just the first draft. Lot's of grammer to fix and a couple paragraphs to refine.

  2. What a place! I can't imagine how much a house like that would cost to build nowadays with quarried marble, quartz, and granite.