Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota was selected in 2008 by the American Planning Association as one of the top ten Best Streets in America.  It is not only the best preserved street from the Victorian Era, but the address of “all the people who made St. Paul.”  One of those people was James J. Hill.

James was born in what is now known as Ontario, Canada in 1838 and he came from an impoverished childhood.  Though he was forced to quit school in 1852 when his father passed away he had already become very proficient in math and English.  At age 18 he moved to the United States and settled in St. Paul.  James was 24 when he met his wife, Mary, a waitress at the Merchants Hotel in St. Paul.  It must have been love at first or second glance because soon after meeting her in 1864  he told her that she did not have the background or the education to fit into the life he had planned for himself, and the role she would have to play in supporting him.  Then he sent her off to finishing school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for three years.  They married in 1867 and they had 10 children between 1868 and 1885.

He worked primarily in freight and transportation businesses so it was natural that in 1873 he got into the steamboat business and by 1879 he had a monopoly.  He also entered the coal business and shortly had the local monopoly in the anthracite coal business.   The many bankrupt businesses he bought, built up and resold, and the fact that he built the Great Northern Railroad was a testament to what he proclaimed was his secret to success:  “Work, hard work, intelligent work and then more work.”  He definitely earned the title of “Empire Builder”.


James J Hill purchased 3 lots on Summit Avenue in 1882 and in 1887 he began building a 36,000 square foot Romanesque mansion.  It was completed in 1891 and John, Mary and their nine children moved to 240 Summit Avenue.  When building the home he included the best and newest technologies in lighting, plumbing, fireproofing and ventilation to name a few.  And of course, he used the best building materials.

Many of the light fixtures combined electric and gas to ensure that there would always be light even if the electricity failed.

The Hills were art collectors and some of their collection is displayed in the two-story art gallery.  Many of their paintings are held by the Hill descendants as well as some of the household furnishings.  Periodically the paintings, sculptures and other household furnishings are returned to the house by the descendants.  The pipe organ in the Art Gallery was put in when the house was built.  Hill was looking for something unique to separate the gallery from the drawing room and the hall and someone suggested that a lot of wealthy people were installing pipe organs, and so he put in a 106 pipe organ.

The main floor Hall puzzled me because our guide indicated it was the ballroom.  While beautiful and larger than any hall I’d seen in any mansion it seemed a bit narrow for a ballroom.

The Breakfast Room and the Formal Dining Room were both cheery, well-lighted rooms.  Off of the formal dining room is a vault where the silver serving pieces are stored.  Our guide indicated that the formal dining table and chairs had just been returned to the house by one of the descendants.

Johannes Kirchmayer hand carved the white oak and Virgin Islands mahogany in the central hallway and it is truly amazing. Kirchmayer left his signature on his work by carving his face in his work.

James and Mary Hill

One Comment on “JAMES J HILL HOUSE


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