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A humble look at holidays in the James J. Hill house

Alex Johnson played by Daniel Buchen
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Hill houseman Alex Johnson, played by Daniel Buchen, emoting by a fireplace in the picture gallery.

Looking for something to do the weekend after Christmas? Stop by the imposing James J. Hill House on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue. You’ll get a glimpse of how the other half lived 100 years ago.

But not the über-wealthy half, like railroad magnate Hill, who built the massive Richardsonian Romanesque edifice in 1891, at a cost of nearly $1 million. (There are 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers and a 100-foot-long reception hall.)

No, this special tour is designed to show how the servants lived and worked as they prepared for the holidays in the Hill household.

The hour-long tours, which run from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, introduce visitors to a series of servants — the houseman, handyman, pantry maid, second cook, cook and laundress.

The walking play is set up as if the audience members have come to apply for a waitress job. You first meet the handyman, who cheerfully advises about the “long hours, low pay and no benefits” that come with the job. (Be sure to let “Axel” take your coat.)

The actors base their roles on real-life Hill servants, giving anecdotes and showing some ways they cooked and cleaned for a large party. They take visitors from room to room on the first floor and basement of the house, interacting with each other and the visitors.

There’s even a reference to the Schubert Club, the venerable St. Paul classical music organization that existed then and is still considered the oldest arts organization in the area.

This coming weekend is the last one for the “Hill House Holidays” programs, although the Minnesota Historical Society runs tours of the house year-round, with frequent special events.

The holiday tours cost $10 for adults, $8 seniors and students, $6 children ages 6-17; $2 discount for MHS members. Reservations recommended; call 651-297-2555.

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