James J Hill was born in Canada in 1838. After working in the shipping business in St. Paul on the Mississippi River for 20 years, he, along with some other investors, was 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.
He married a waitress, Mary Theresa Mehegan, in 1867 and 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.
The master bedroom was two bedrooms connected with each having their own bathroom. 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 have harmed you and especially “delicate” women were discouraged from using it altogether.
On the third floor was a school room 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.
Down a block and across the street is the St Paul Cathedral. It would have only been there a year when JJ Hill died since it is celebrating its centennial this year. Built in the Beaux Arts style and designed by E.L. Masqueray, it is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. It sits at the highest point in St Paul and dominates the landscape.
The interior is light and warm with a 175 foot dome and 24 stained glass windows including three Rose windows. We were not able to go all the up to the Sanctuary as there was a wedding going on but we wandered around the chapels. As I walked in the main door, I was surprised to see the Pietà by Michelangelo in the first chapel on the right.
I saw the Pietà in Rome soon after the damage done by a terrorist act was restored and the protective glass went up. Even after restoration and through an extra pane of glass, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I knew it was made from one big chunk of marble but it looked like delicate porcelain. This Pietà did not have the same affect on me but mainly I was more surprised than anything. I looked it up when I got home.
A plaster cast was made from the original in Rome in 1932, and now there are about 40 replicas around the world and some are even in bronze. Thanks to an anonymous donation, this Pietà has been in the St Paul Cathedral since 2010.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.