Way back in the 1870’s, the magnates of Red Wing decided that the largest wheat trading town in the world deserved a hotel befitting of that status. The band of eleven formed the Red Wing Hotel Corporation, raised an impressive sum of $60,000, and set about building a luxury hotel in Red Wing’s bustling downtown. In May of 1875, the proud men christened their Italianate edifice the St. James Hotel. Why they chose the Apostle as their hotel’s namesake is uncertain, but it is most likely named after the Court of St James’s in London, a similarly regal and classy affair.The St. James’ first guests marveled at the beautiful new building’s futuristic amenities. Steam heat, hot and cold running water, and gas light throughout brought Red Wing front and center into the 19th century. The hotel became an immediate success. Boarders coming in and out kept it at full capacity, and the chefs in the state of the art kitchen persuaded the railroad to adjust its timetable just so passengers could get off to dine there.
The St. James finally ran into trouble in the 1970’s, when it was in need of a major restoration in order to keep up with modern codes. It was nearly demolished. Rather than see the old institution torn down, however, Red Wing Shoes stepped in to save it. They spared no expense fixing up the old hotel, bringing the whole thing up to code and adding an entire new addition while keeping the original part of it mostly intact. It is this current iteration of the St. James that I visited.
The St. James is splendid in every way. The old reception room is dominated by a big white, pink, and blue antique pipe organ, a wedding cake of an instrument. Just beyond it is the library, a cozy sitting room where the old barons of business used to go to talk shop over cigars and cognac. The stained glass window in this room depicts Red Wing’s four historic industries: farming, fishing, tanning, and cobbling. It’s like history portrayed in candy. It is also here that you may see “The Mona Lisa of Red Wing,” a portrait of a stately, anonymous woman who had been absconded with by an overly revelous wedding guest a couple of years ago. She was promptly retrieved by Red Wing’s finest and restored to her rightful place in the hotel.
The Victorian dining room just by is known as “Clara’s Place” after the St. James’ former proprietor Clara Lillyblad, who took over the hotel in 1906. This blue and white wallpapered, tin inlay ceilinged dining area overlooks the boats poking up and down the river. The stag carved into the dining room’s china hutch supervises.
A portrait-lined staircase leads up to the rooms in the old part of the hotel, each identifiable by a photo of the old steamboat it’s named after. The halls are very wide, owing to the Victorian practice of women accompanying one another side by side wherever they went. Here is the St. James’ best room, The Boardroom, the walls of which are lined with Red Wing’s own leather. This room’s fireplace was only just rediscovered during the 70’s renovation, and it has been restored to its original glory. Rutherford B. Hayes stayed there while on the campaign trail.
The very top of the St. James sports the Summit Room, their main banquet hall with a 180 degree view of the Mississippi, granaries, and train yard. I wasn’t there during a wedding that I could crash, so I elected instead to eat on the hotel restaurant’s deck. I imagined I was dining with Rutherford himself, giving him advice on how to handle the Great Railroad Strike and exchanging beard grooming tips. It’s easy to slip in and out of the past and present at the St. James, a place which occupies both simultaneously.
By David Scheller