Recently I re-visited the James J Hill house on Summit Avenue in St Paul, Minnesota. JJ Hill remains today one of the richest men ever. He amassed a fortune and built a huge house he and his family lived in for over 25 years.
James J Hill was born in Canada in 1838 to a successful Irish-Canadian farmer and his Scottish wife. He attended a Quaker school until he was 15 when his father died. He traveled to the US when he was 18 after hearing from a passing stranger that the US needed young men with spirit, like him.
After working in the shipping business in on the Mississippi River for twenty years, he, along with some other investors, were able to purchase the almost bankrupt St Paul and Pacific Railroad. He built the line to the west over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, often overseeing things personally. The name was changed to the Great Northern Railway in 1890. To this day the Empire Builder runs from Chicago to Seattle with lines going off it along the way. I rode it once from Minneapolis to Montana. By the time he died in 1916, he was one of the wealthiest men in America.
While working as a station agent, he ate his meals at the Merchants’ Hotel in St Paul where Mary Theresa Mehegan served him his meals. Once she agreed to marry him, he sent her away to school and paid for her education. They were married in 1867, when she returned. They had ten children. Peabody, Stearns and Furber built the house they moved into in 1891 to Hill’s specifications in the Romanesque style. It sits on the top of Summit Hill overlooking the Mississippi river and is now registered as a National Historic Landmark. The Minnesota Historical Society owns it and offers guided tours.
The house is massive with 36,000 square feet on five floors and includes 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, and a two-story art gallery with a skylight roof and a complete pipe organ. The house was fitted with both electricity, a new phenomenon at the time, and gas so if one failed the other would be available. The doors on the first floor all had hidden metal gates that were pulled shut at night and locked and electrified so if anybody tried to break in they would get a shock and it would alert the butler in the pantry through a buzzer system.
On the stairway there is a bank of stained glass windows. Tiffany submitted designs for these windows but Mr. Hill said they were anything but what he wanted and ended up using the A.B. Cutter Company from Boston.
The dining room has a gold leaf ceiling and hand tooled leather panels on the walls. A small hidden door leads to a large walk-in safe where the silver is housed. The table has 19 leaves.
The kitchen is at one end of the basement and a big boiler room at the other. The man who serviced the boiler was also called upon to pump the bellows for the organ during parties and recitals. A large laundry room included heated drying racks for the clean clothes.
JJ and his wife had adjoining bedrooms each with their own bathrooms. A balcony led off of Mary Theresa’s room. JJ’s bathroom had a shower in it. This was quite modern and some considered dangerous. It was advised that a doctor approve the use of such a thing since the force of the water could be harmful and women were discouraged from using it altogether since they were too delicate.
On the third floor was a schoolroom with chalkboards on the walls. Legend has it that a couple of the older boys managed to get a pool table all the way up there without their mother knowing about it. That’s how big this house is. Each of the children had their own room with the exception of the eldest who was already married by the time they moved in.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St Paul and lived there off and on until 1920. The last house he lived in was Summit Terrace, eight blocks down the street from the James J Hill house. In chapter 9 of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby has died and his father, Mr Gatz, says “If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man. A man like James J Hill. He’d of helped.” Unfortunately the Great Mr Gatsby did none of those things in life.
JJ Hill had a large collection of nineteenth-century French Romantic and Realist art and was one of the founders of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, known as MIA today. Hill built several office buildings in downtown St Paul and the James J. Hill Reference Library, one of the best business research libraries in the country, was completed after his death. He also supported many schools and churches.