By Coco Mault
“James J. Hill was a man who knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it,” said Sara Scrimshaw, tour guide for St. Paul’s famous Hill House. She didn’t need to elaborate much on that statement; standing in the 36,000 square-foot house with an art gallery, 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, and servants’ quarters really is enough to get the point across.
With such a large home, now owned and operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, there are bound to be areas that are off-limits on the regular James J. Hill House tour. But sometimes it’s difficult not to pry, and the folks at the Historical Society clearly understand. They offer a special Nooks and Crannies tour of the James J. Hill House that not only shows visitors the sparkling facades, such as those presented in the grand dining room, but also the not so glamorous behind-the-scenes side that mainly only the servants of the house were familiar with.
Besides the vast amount of space in the house, visitors my first notice the lavish woodwork — it’s absolutely everywhere on the main floor, where the family would host dinners, parties, and greet callers. (As a lumber baron, he probably got a good deal on all wood used in the wood!) Large chubby-faced cherubs curve out from panels on the main staircase and tiny statuettes fill in the base of the banisters. There are faces, vines, and other designs carved into almost every inch of the white oak that is visible on the main floor. Near the front door, there is a much more specific face to find; it’s that of the woodcarver himself.
It’s hard to know where to look first whenever entering a room, on the main floor or upstairs in the master bedrooms: out the grand windows or at the woodworking details?
Every tour of the Hill House includes the main floor art gallery which is still home to a piece that was in Hill’s original collection of paintings, as well as a large pipe organ. “It’s small for a church organ, but it’s big for a house organ,” Scrimshaw said. Be sure not to miss the fireplace in this room. It’s quite fancy, but the best part isn’t very visible. The entire back part of the gas fireplace, behind the original porcelain logs, is a cameo of a lion with an opulent mane.
From the art gallery, the grand dining room beckons from the other end of the hallway. On each side of the room’s threshold are golden dragon light sconces. These are the only two working gas light fixtures left in the house. The light-giving flames flicker out of each dragon’s mouth and enhance their golden bodies, and create a slightly intimidating entrance.
Unlike in the other rooms of the house, the windows in the grand dining room barely even register. The room is so opulent with it’s hand-tooled leather wallpaper ($26 per yard when the house was built in 1891!) and gold-leaf ceiling that the windows, well, whatever view they have to offer can wait until after dinner. There is a hidden doorway in the dining room that opens to a very tiny, very tall room, which is the silver vault. The servants dining room is nearby, which looks like a dining room many of us will be a bit more familiar with. It is certainly not as lavish as the grand dining room, but it is roomy, comfortable, and easily serves the purpose of eating a meal with a few other people. The Hills themselves would even eat here when they weren’t entertaining guests.
Up the lush grand staircase to the second floor, there are two small doors that open out onto small balconies overlooking the art gallery. At this level, it is easy to see just how elaborate the skylight for this room is. The pipes for the pipe organ are housed on this level, too, and a door in the hallway between the two balconies opens to reveal them. The smallest pipe is roughly the size of a pencil. Up another staircase, about fourth of the width of the main staircase, is the attic. It’s a large, wide-open space with a lofty ceiling that arches high overhead. There are a couple of small skylights, but the floor, walls, and ceiling are covered in narrow wood slats. At one end of the large rectangular room is a stage — a fairly large theater for the Hill children to put on shows. There is a fairly elaborate light board for such child’s play, too. On the opposite side from the stage is where the Hill’s would have stored some of their belongings.
The main hallway of the basement has a very generous amount of open space as well. In the time between when the Hills moved out and the Historical Society took over, the house was a school for nuns. In their free time, the nuns would roller skate in this area. They must have had a great time rolling around this vast, smooth marble floor.
Winemaking was one of Mrs. Hill’s hobbies, and there are two bottles of her wine on display on this floor. Nearby is the wine cellar, which looks like it could easily house a couple of hundred bottles. Cold storage is on this level, as well. Rather than have an icebox, the Hills had more of an ice room; a walk-in refrigerator. Blocks of ice would be delivered regularly to keep the walls lined and this is where the perishables would be stored. Another level below is the organ, the coal bin, and a couple of massive black boilers. It’s surreal on this level; somehow it’s even more like being on a movie set than all the lavishness of the main floor. It’s very dark and cool, and all of the surfaces are rough — brick, cement, and iron. The coal room is fairly large, but the ceiling is low and the floor uneven. The Hills must have had to use a lot of coal to heat such a large home in the wintertime. They probably didn’t spend too much time thinking about that though, as Mr. Hill, the Empire Builder, was also in the coal business.
James J. Hill House
240 Summit Avenue
St. Paul, MN
Hours: Open year round Wed – Sat, 10am to 3:30pm; Sun 1 – 3:30pm (Closed major holidays)