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Unhaunted: Touring nooks and crannies in the James J. Hill House

The James J. Hill house in St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
The James J. Hill house in St. Paul

If ever there was a building that looked as though it should be haunted, it’s the James J. Hill house in St. Paul. It’s built in a style called Richardson Romanesque, an imposing approach to architecture particularly favored by churches and government buildings. Trinity Church in Boston, as an example, and the Minneapolis City Hall — although it was first used as the architectural style for a madhouse, which is promising.

And, in fact, Hill House is the name of a haunted house, in a book by Shirley Jackson. “Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone,” Jackson wrote at the start of “The Haunting of Hill House.” But that’s a different place. Our Hill House, perfectly sanely, is not haunted.

It should be. It has all the right details. Much of the house is covered in carefully hand-carved woodwork, and, if you look in the right places, you might spot a face peering back out at you. There are lights carved to look like dragons, fed by gas jets, which erupt upward and flicker constantly. The house is full of twisting hallways and little rooms, and it seems to go on forever, and up forever. The ceiling of the dining room is gilded in gold, and its wall has a secret door. The basement is marbled, and, for a time, when the building belonged to the archdiocese, nuns would roller-skate there, an image directly out of the works of Edward Gorey. Portraits of James J. Hill, the railroad magnate, the empire builder, stare down from most rooms, a stern-seeming man with a white beard and one secretly blind eye, who is supposed to have once said, “Give me snuff, whiskey and Swedes, and I will build a railroad to hell.” Why isn’t he still about? How dare he build such a house and then rest in peace?

The pipe organ at the James J. Hill house
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
The pipe organ at the James J. Hill house

And, like any decent haunted house, the Hill House has a pipe organ. It’s not on any of the original plans, but there it is anyway, filling one of the walls of the house’s art gallery, its pipes snaking up through the interior of the building. If you open a wall in the Hill House, you find pipes, all thrumming as though alive. Go to the basement, which is bathed in darkness but for the glow from the massive coal furnace (now converted to electric, but maintaining its original facade), you’ll find a little side room with a massive bellows system to pump air through the pipe organ. The organ leaks, and so there is the constant sound of air rushing out of it, and it’s the sort of thing that in any halfway decent haunted house should spontaneously erupt into Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Disappointingly, it won’t, because, as I have said, this house is not haunted.

Superficially, it was the organ that brought me to Hill House yesterday at dusk. It’s a nice detail to have a pipe organ that leaks air if you’re writing a ghost story, but if you’re trying to preserve a historic monument, it won’t do. There is a program called “Partners in Preservation” — the partnership is between American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation — and they give away money every year for a preservation project somewhere in America. This year, it’s here in Minnesota. And an element of this project is online voting, this being web 2.0, or whatever iteration we’re up to. And so they have a Facebook page where interested webizens can visit to log daily votes for projects they want to see funded. The folks preserving the James J. Hill House, perfectly sanely, want their pipe organ fixed.

To that end, they invited a small collection of people on what was, essentially, their “nooks and crannies” tour, which peeks into rooms that are ordinarily off-limits to people touring the house. Who were these assembled guests? I don’t know — bloggers, folks from Twitter, anybody who can spread the word about the drafty organ. And, properly, when you assemble a group of strangers in Hill House and go exploring its forbidden rooms, one should disappear in each room, and have their mangled bodies show up later. This did not happen.

The tour did nothing to relieve my sense that the Hill House is a wasted opportunity, supernaturally speaking. There is, in the basement, a room used for stacking coal, and it’s basically just a hole dug into the earth and lined with shelves. Some lunatic has hung the room with police tape, probably to let people know where the low ceiling is, so they don’t bump their head. But the effect is that this may have been some subterranean murder scene, the same sort of place Jame Gumb kept his victims in “Silence of the Lambs.” And there is an attic with a theater, where, presumably, the Hill children put on their own amusements, or perhaps the Hills had musical guests. The whole attic is lined in wood, like a summer cabin, but push a door open and discover that the whole of it is surrounded by eaves, wide enough to let a man walk the circumference of the roof undetected, and now sprayed with a foam insulation so the whole of it looks vaguely cavelike.

A bathtub with plastic sheeting; this must be where they keep Laura Palmer
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
A bathtub with plastic sheeting; this must be where they keep Laura Palmer

Admittedly, many of the rooms on the nooks and crannies tour aren’t used for much more than storage, but this doesn’t help the sense that Hill House is a sinister place, which it isn’t. Mrs. Hill’s bathroom, as an example, is used to store realistic mannequins, which is not what you want to see when you go to a bathroom. In the basement, there is an old bathtub filled with plastic sheeting, and one can’t help but see it and think, here were are, this is where they store Laura Palmer. But it’s not. The dummies are just dummies, and the sheeting is just sheeting.

The Hill House does offer actors reading spooky stories in the fall, so obviously they are aware of the potential of the structure. But I am of the opinion that this is not enough. The pipe organ can wait. If they get the preservation money, they should use it to hire themselves a decent ghost.

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