James J. Hill built a house that symbolized success, but one that also suited him and his family.
The Boston firm of Peabody, Stearns, and Furber, already known for their impressive mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, and elsewhere, designed a simple, forceful, and direct house in the massive Richardsonian Romanesque style, then very much in fashion. Hill oversaw the planning, construction, and furnishing of the house as if it were a new branch of the railroad. He rejected stained-glass window designs by Tiffany and Company, saying they were "anything but what I want," and even replaced the architects when they ignored his orders to the stonecutters. He instructed his Boston interior design firm Irving and Casson to finish the project. Their work included a large number of custom furniture pieces on the first and second floors.
Completed in 1891, the mansion was the largest and most expensive home in Minnesota. It contained 36,500 square feet on five floors including 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 cut-glass chandeliers, a two-story skylit art gallery, an 88-foot reception hall, and a profusion of elaborately carved oak and mahogany woodwork. It also boasted a three-story pipe organ created by renowned Boston organ-maker, George Hutchings. Sophisticated mechanical systems throughout the mansion provided central heating, gas and electric lighting, plumbing, ventilation, security, and communication. The final cost totaled $931,275.01 including construction, furnishings, and landscaping for the three-acre estate.
The home served as the center for the public and private lives of the Hill family for the next 30 years. Mary T. Hill kept a watchful eye over the household including the large domestic staff of 10-12 servants. She hired maids and cooks, inspected the kitchens, and served as hostess at countless dinners and receptions. "I feel it is necessary to know just where everything is and how it is," she commented in her diary. After a visit by President McKinley in 1899, she merely noted, "The evening passed off most pleasantly and quietly."
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--many of which were close by on Summit Avenue. In later years the house came alive with visits by grandchildren.
Mrs. Hill maintained the house after her husband’s death in 1916 until her own death five years later. In 1925, family members purchased the mansion from the estate and presented it to the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul. For the next half century the structure served as an office building, school, and residence for the church until it was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the James J. Hill House recalls the powerful era of the Northwest’s "Empire Builder" and is a premiere example of an American Gilded Age mansion.
Read more about the James J. Hill House: "The James Hill House: Symbol of Status and Security" by Barbara Ann Caron from the Summer 1997 issue of Minnesota History.
Watch a clip from the video, "James J. Hill: Empire Builder"