Several years ago, I spent two months in a 5th grade classroom as a Student Teacher (completing a requirement for my MAED [Master’s of Arts in Education]). My supervising teacher was a middle-aged man named Mr. P, and he was a wonderful educator. In his twenty-plus years of teaching he had found an exceptional balance between discipline and fun, seriousness and play. He knew when he needed to transition from the role of “teacher” to instead become a mentor, a parent, or a friend. He pushed the kids who needed extra challenges, and rallied for the ones who struggled. He showed me what skilled teaching looks like, and helped me develop my own sense of confidence and presence in front of what I consider to be the most challenging group of people to present to: children.
One of the many tasks I helped Mr. P complete during our semester together was planning class fieldtrips. One location he was adamant about taking his students was the James J Hill House. He told me that two of his favorite locations were The Grand Tetons and the JJ Hill House (as he fondly called it [as if he and the house were besties who had nicknames for one another]). While he couldn’t manage the logistics required to take 28 ten-year-olds over 1,000 miles away from their homes in a trek to Wyoming, he could secure a school bus and get them across town. He had made the trip to the Hill House with each of his classes for over 20 years, and expected to continue the tradition for as long as he managed a classroom.
I don’t know why Mr. P was such a fan of the James J Hill house. In looking at their website, to me the place seemed be just another big house constructed in the 1800s by rich white guys. Yet, I had (and continue to have) very high regard for Mr. P – so if he said the JJ Hill house was something worth seeing, I had to believe that making the visit would be worth my while. So when I created my 101 list over two years ago, I included the James J Hill house (and all of the other Minnesota Historical Sites) in honor of my teaching mentor. Mr. P, this one’s for you.
Earlier this week I visited the James J Hill website to secure information necessary to complete this task (i.e., location, hours of operation, parking situation, etc.). When I clicked on the “Plan a Visit” link, I read, “The best way to see the James J. Hill House is to take a 75-minute guided tour. Reservations are recommended.” Noted. With this prompting, I called the house and asked if I could be included on their Saturday 2 pm tour. The kind receptionist told me that she could accommodate my request. Boom. Done.
I arrived at the Hill house ten minutes before 2 pm on a gorgeousSaturday afternoon. Walking through the main door, I was warmly greeted by a receptionist who confirmed my name on the tour roster, then invited me to read through a brochure that provided an overview to the house or peruse the gift shop while I waited for the event to begin. I chose the first option, and began establishing my bearings with the space I was about to explore. (Note: If you want to pause the below slide show at any point, hover your mouse over the bottom-middle portion of the picture, then click on the middle “pause” button. To resume the slide show, click on that same middle button [which will then be a “play” button].)
Just a few minutes later (promptly at 2 pm), a woman in her late 50s gathered the tour group, smiled broadly at us, and welcomed us to the James J Hill House with such sincerity that I wondered if she was related to the family. (She’s not – she’s just a genuinely kind person.) Before she began her comments, I quickly looked around at my fellow tour participants – and was surprised by both the number and diversity of people on the tour. With the weather outside being so amazing, I had expected just a few people to choose to spend part of the afternoon inside a historical site. However, 18 people stood along side me – and a few of them were in their 20s! A few more were in their 30s, and the remainder of the group was evenly spread between 40-70 year olds. Quite unexpected.
Before we walked anywhere, our tour guide shared the basics of the Hill family and their locally-known house. Much of the information she shared I had read just a few minutes ago (in the brochure), but I did learn a few new facts:
- In addition to eight of their children, the Hills had 10-12 servants who also lived with them in the house.
- To accommodate the needs of their family, servants, social commitments, and social status, the Hills built their home large. Specifically, the home has 42 rooms (22 of which have a fireplace). As our guide explained, “At the time of James J Hill, a man built his home to reflect his level of success.”
- Not only is the home massive, it was also incredibly modern for its time. For example, even though it was completed in 1891, it had electric lights, indoor water throughout (cold and hot!), electric heating, gas fireplaces, a security system that included electric-wiring for the windows (so an alarm would sound if a window was opened when the system was active)… Not only was Mr. Hill rich, but he was a truly smart, practical, and strategic man. [More on him later.]
- When both James and Mary Hill died, their children inherited the home. Not wanting to be burdened with maintaining such a massive space, they donated the house to the Catholic church [if you scroll to the very end of this blog post you’ll see why]. The church turned the home into a nun’s teaching college, but after 50 years decided to donate it to the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). In addition to providing tours, MNHS also uses the space to host weddings, concerts, Easter egg hunts, winter holiday events, and even high school proms. Which made me pause and think, “I wonder what Mr. Hill thinks of his ‘perfect’ home being occupied by obnoxious teenagers for multiple evenings each year…?”
Once our group learned the basics of the house, our guide began to walk us through the home. As we stopped in the first room (a sparsely decorated sitting area), our guide mentioned that many of the rooms in the home were lacking in furniture, since much of it was lost over the years. (While the Hill children didn’t want the house itself, they did help themselves to the contents within it.) However, every room had a photo in it that shows what the space looked like when it was fully decorated. While these visuals weren’t quite the same as walking into a fully outfitted room, the images were very helpful in sharing a sense of what the space truly felt like back in the 1890s:
As we turned to leave this first room, our guide directed our attention to a black gate blocking an exterior door, and told us that this was original to the Hill home (not an addition the MNHS made). Mr. Hill took security very seriously, so in addition to the wire-lined windows (mentioned previously), he ensured that every door had a wrought iron gate that pulled across it (and slid into a pocket door when not in use, so as to not be an eyesore). Impressive.
From here, our group walked to an art gallery within the home. At first, I though this room was a space the MNHS had re-purposed from its original intended use – but our guide made clear that Mr. Hill collected art over his lifetime, and designed this room specifically with the intention of showing off his acquisitions. (Interesting fact: Hill spent $1.7 million on art. Holy buckets! I wonder how much that would equate to in 21st century dollars?)
Many of the pieces Hill housed in this space are now in galleries across the state, so the MNHS does take liberty to show pieces from local modern artists alongside some of the original works Hill displayed. The set below made me laugh out loud; I bet the Victorian, prim-and-proper Hill patriarch never imagined THIS would be in his home!
Exiting the art gallery, our group walked into the Grand Hall of the house. This is where all guests were received, as well as where entire evenings were spent. Our guide let us know that the space measures 2,000 square feet. Did you catch that? A hallway that is two-thousand square feet. (I.e., this “hallway” is bigger than my entire house.) Crazy.
We continued walking, and entered a room where some articles of clothing that the Hill family wore were on display. These are items that James, Mary, and their daughters and sons wore on a “regular” day; I still can’t get over how fancy ‘everyday’ life was for them!
Leaving the room, I saw a piece of furniture that caught my attention. I adore rocking chairs, and imagine this one was comforting to a family that, despite their immense wealth, may not have known a lot of genuine comfort. I could visualize some of the kids sitting side-by-side on the seat, cuddling with each other and feeling soothed by the gentle-yet-constant motion of the chair, and the image made me smile.
Moving on, we made our way to the formal dining room. Another massive space, it was designed expressly to impress guests. The table is able to seat over 40 people at once (it can be expanded by dropping in additional leafs), and when a dinner party was held, guests were confronted with a 14-piece flatware setting.
Yet while the Hill family could put on a good show (and from all accounts, they did this regularly and convincingly), when they were alone in the home they put all of the pomp aside, and kept things casual and intimate – as demonstrated by the family dining room, where the Hills ate their “everyday” meals:
The Hill family portion of the tour wrapped up with a walk through their living room and personal library. While the den didn’t do much for me, I adored the library; it was dark, but felt super-cozy – like wrapping a nice blanket around me on a cold winter day. Had I lived in the Hill house, I imagine I would have spent many hours in that space.
(And since we’re on the topic of libraries: Mary Hill kept a diary for nearly 40 years – and all of it has been digitized and is available online. So if you want a peek into what this woman scribed during the second part of her life, you can explore her journal entries here.)
At this point, our tour group took a forced “intermission” and sat down to watch a 10-minute video on the life of JJ Hill. I’m not usually a fan of videos on a museum tour, but this one moved quickly and shared a lot of cool details about the life and times of Mr. Hill. Here are a few fun factoids I learned:
- James Hill wasn’t born into wealth; he made all of his own money. While many people disliked him (and for good reason), I gotta give him props for working hard and truly earning every penny he acquired.
- Hill created the Great Northern Railway – and was on-site for the construction of the entire line.
- Hill also created the Stone Arch Bridge, and helped found the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
- He was a man of both business and art, of logic/reason and aesthetics. This balanced set of attributes is one reason why the house is so well-designed; Hill was strategic and practical. (It’s why 16 of the 22 fireplaces in the home are gas – Hill didn’t want to perpetually clean ashes. It’s why the interior of the home is made of brick walls and steel beams – Hill knew the risks of fire, and wanted his home to be indestructible [and it is]. It’s why the house has such a sophisticated-yet-unobtrusive security system – Hill wanted to balance safety with visual appeal.) Say what you will about the man, he was one smart, future-thinking guy.
When the video ended our guide resumed the walking portion of the tour through the home – but the remainder of the spaces we visited focused on the Hill’s servants. Which actually makes sense; considering that the Hill house staff were just as numerous as the Hill family itself, it’s only logical that we should spent as much time exploring the spaces they occupied as the rooms the Hill’s populated. First up: the staff living quarters:
Note how sparse and plain this space is, compared to how elaborate and ornate the other rooms in the house are.
While the servant’s living rooms were on the third floor, the majority of their time was spent in the basement – another plain space. (Though I have to say that compared to many present-day “unfinished” basements, this one is actually quite nice! While it does have exposed pipes and beams overhead, it also has pretty fancy tile and wood throughout.)
Once our feet touched the basement floor, our group took an immediate right turn – and saw the Hill house servant command center:
When a family member wanted a servant, s/he rang the buzzer in whatever room s/he was in – and the corresponding arrow activated on the top section of the above switchboard (along with a loud buzzing sound – like an old English house buzzer). Once the family member was placated, the arrow was reset to neutral, and the panel awaited the next request. Interestingly, this switchboard was also the way the home’s Head of Security was notified if one of the window wires got tripped. The appropriate arrow on the bottom section of the board would spring up, and a different (but equally loud) alarm would sound. With that notification, the security man would “grab the silver-barreled Colt .45 that Mr. Hill gave him”, and investigate. (Fun fact #1: The present-day family members of that now-deceased security man still have the gun that Hill issued. Fun fact #2: The home was never broken in to.)
Feeling safe (wink), our tour group moved to the next-most-important room in the home: the kitchen. It was interesting to note that the very large space had absolutely no cupboards (they weren’t “invented” until the 19th century). But it did sport a large work table, and industrial-size range/stove:
From here, we walked down a very short hallway and entered the laundry room – which turned out to be just as large as the kitchen. With all of the clothing that eight children and two adults require (as well as uniforms for an entire staff), I imagine washing garments was a never-ending task. Nor an easy one; just check out all of the gear required to clean clothes circa 1890:
Just as present-day restaurants use a three-sink cleaning method for dishes (wash, rinse, sanitize), the Hill staff used a three-sink method for cleaning clothes (soak, scrub, rinse). [The final sink was used for “blueing” – a precursor to bleaching.
This large iron was used for sheets, tablecloths, and other sizeable flat items. It was very new-to-market when the Hills purchased it back in the late 1890s.
On sunny, dry days, all clothing was hung on a line to dry. But what to do on rainy (or winter) days? The items were draped over small dowels, then the panel was pushed in to an enclosed space that had hot air blowing in the back. Ingenious! (And kind of wild.)
What to do about socks? (I imagine it would be easy for them to fall off the slats [and maybe catch fire?].) Apparently this is the answer.
Before our tour came to a close, our guide walked us through a final room: the furnace. In an ordinary home, a furnace is probably not anything noteworthy. But in a 42-room mansion built in the 1890s in one of the coldest states in the Union, a powerful furnace is a necessity. And boy howdy, did this furnace deliver:
Just look at the size of this beast! (For comparison, look at the standard-size wheelbarrow that sits in front of the furnace door.) While the specific dimensions of this furnace weren’t shared, I have to guess it was at least 40 feet tall, and maybe 20 feet wide? (And who knows how deep it ran.) Absolutely insane. We were told that a horse-drawn truck delivered mountains of coal to the home on a weekly basis. Again, insane.
After marveling at the sheer scale of the furnace, our guide asked if we had any final questions. (This tour group was great, and only asked a handful of appropriate questions during the entire 90 minutes we were all together [unlike the pesky group at the Alexander Ramsey house].) Once our final curiosities had been placated, she released us through the servant entrance/exit, and invited us to stroll the grounds before departing for the afternoon. I walked from the back of the home to the front, snapping a few photos along the way:
I can see why Mr. P is such a fan of the James J Hill house. The story of James J has lots of great morals (including the positive story of earning what one receives, the example of supporting art and design while pursuing business), and the home shows great contrasts between life 125 years ago versus now. The staff at this site is also quite good; our tour guide was one of the best I have come across in my two-plus years of engaging in various adventures. (She provided appropriate amounts of information and levels of detail, and kept us moving forward without ever making us feel rushed.) And the home itself is truly impressive. While initially I was hesitant (almost resistant) to complete this 101 task, I can now say not only am I glad I did it, but I would take family or friends here if they wanted to see it and experience it again.