Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and the city of St. Paul, the 36,500-square-foot, forty-two-room James J. Hill House stands as a monument to the man who built the Great Northern Railway. It remains one of the best examples of Richardsonian Romanesque mansions in the country.
By the late 1870s, James Hill’s growing fortunes and family required a larger home that reflected his elevated status within the community. Hill, his wife, Mary, and their children had moved through several homes over the years, mostly in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul. The Hills planned a house with the latest in modern conveniences where they could receive and entertain nationally known civic and religious leaders.
In 1882, James Hill purchased two lots on the far eastern end of Summit Avenue and selected the architecture firm of Peabody, Stearns, and Furber of Boston and St. Louis to design the mansion. He settled on Richardsonian Romanesque as the style of architecture. Named for Henry Hobson Richardson, it was characterized by balanced asymmetry, imposing facades of rough-hewn stone, and rounded arches. The house could be seen from the front on Summit Avenue, and from the back along the river and from downtown St. Paul. Unlike most neighboring homes, the Hills’ house featured finished facades on both its front and back.
Construction began in 1888. More than three hundred skilled craftsmen built the house over the next three years. General laborers earned as little as $1.75 a day. The master woodcarver made as much as $1.00 an hour.
When the house was completed in 1891, it was equipped with the most advanced technologies of the day. Built during the transition between gas and electric lighting, the house was designed to include both. For security, windows and doors were wired to an annunciator system that would ring an alarm in the houseman’s room if they were opened unexpectedly. Buzzers under the dining room tables allowed Mary Hill to discreetly summon waitresses during a meal. Thirteen bathrooms featured state-of-the-art plumbing, with hot and cold running water. An elaborate ventilation system, which included twenty-two fireplaces, ensured that air moved freely throughout the house. The house’s total cost, including furnishings and other expenses, came to $931,275.01.
The mansion at 240 Summit has a basement, three floors, and an attic. The ground level main entrance opens onto an impressive hall connecting all of the ground-floor rooms, including a music room, drawing room, library, dining room, a separate breakfast room, and a large art gallery with a built-in pipe organ designed by George Hutchings of Boston.
The second floor was where James, Mary, and their daughters had their bedrooms. The sons’ bedrooms and a schoolroom were located on the third floor. Five bedrooms for up to ten female servants and two sewing rooms were also located on the third floor. A small theater and playroom were built in the attic for the Hill children and grandchildren.
The basement level housed the servants’ dining room and sitting room, along with the kitchen, wine cellar, pantries, laundry room, boiler room, and bedrooms for the male staff, including the houseman and valet. The terraced lawn once featured a gardener’s house, power plant, four greenhouses, and a mushroom cave.
Over the years, the mansion hosted a number of important events. A reception was held on September 5, 1895, for Monsignor Francesco Satolli, the first Apostolic delegate to the United States from the Vatican. When President William McKinley visited in 1899, Mary Hill remarked in her journal that the evening was pleasant and quiet. Four of the Hills’ daughters were married in the large drawing room.
James Hill died at the house in 1916, and Mary Hill died five years later. In 1925, family members donated the house to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The mansion was home to the Saint Paul Diocesan Teachers College from 1927 to 1951. It housed various educational programs run by the nearby College of St. Catherine and administrative offices for the Archdiocese.
In 1978, the Archdiocese transferred the mansion to the Minnesota Historical Society, which preserved the building and developed educational activities. Since then, the house has been open to the general public for tours, interpretive programs, and special events.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.