“Give me Swedes, snuff and whiskey, and I’ll build a railroad through hell.”
-James J. Hill
I’ve been welcomed to very few mansions in my lifetime. I went to one in Tuxedo, NY a few years ago to help to film a banker asking for donations to some foundation. He rightly asked not to have his palace in the background, lest his plea for donations should lose a great deal of its urgency. I once visited another in Minneapolis to ask its resident to invest in rental housing in Milwaukee. He declined, but only after showing me his secret wine cellar, walk-in liquor closet, and custom cherub garden fountain that he had made in his image, complete with an unmentionable spout. But the absolute cake taker, the most impressive mansion I’ll ever be allowed to sully with my proletarian presence, is the James J. Hill House in St. Paul.
James J. Hill, known as The Empire Builder, created the Great Northern Railway. This proved to be a wise business decision on his part, because at the time of his death in 1916 he was worth more than $53 million — or approximately eleventy bazillion gajillion dollars in today’s money. A man who is capable of making so much money under his own devices isn’t the sort who’s going to blow it all on booze and brightly colored balloons. Instead Mr. Hill spent a piece of it building a 42 room home overlooking all of St. Paul, which he completed in 1891.
The Minnesota Historical Society smartly doesn’t let people mope around the mansion on their own. They conduct one and a half hour tours of it instead, one of which I enjoyed very much. It began in Hill’s music room, a light French style chamber with lyres carved into the woodwork and one of the home’s 16 cut glass chandeliers dangling from the ceiling. Our tour guide, a pleasant woman in a dress printed with Harry Potter’s snowy owls and wax sealed envelopes, explained to all of us that she would show us most of the place provided that we didn’t touch any of it. A very clever child asked if this meant that we weren’t allowed to touch the folding chairs we were all sitting in, and thus discovered the existence of loopholes.
The first level is the one which guests were meant to behold, and the most magnificent. We saw where Hill’s private art collection was kept, a two story room dominated by an intricate pipe organ which no one in his very large family knew how to play. We were then led to the grand hallway, paneled with hand carved white oak and lit through stained glass windows depicting waterbirds snaking their necks around flowers. The technology embedded throughout the first floor — the recessed iron security grates, the gas fireplaces, the electric wall sconces — is still impressive to this day.
We worked our way upward, checking out the labyrinthe of bedrooms that once kept several children, 15 live-in servants, and Mr. and Mrs. Hill themselves. Our guide explained to us that Mrs. Hill’s bathroom differed from her husband’s for its lack of a shower, as the consensus back in the day was that ladies’ delicate hides couldn’t hold up under the torrential pressure of one. It must be that women have toughened up somehow in recent years, because it has been my experience that they don’t suffer from regular showering in the slightest.
We sat in a theater which was once the children’s classroom and watched a short documentary about Hill. “Boundless energy coupled with a shrewd, calculating mind,” it called him, and told about how some nobody from nowhere (Canada specifically) would go from holding the title of “mud clerk” to becoming so powerful that only Teddy Roosevelt could put the brakes on his impact on the economy. Teddy could have stopped a bull elephant if he had wanted to, which he often did for fun.
Back down to the first floor, where we visited Hill’s elaborate dining room paneled with leather and rich mahogany. Hill had a secret room built there, where his butler could hide the silverware made of real silver. William McKinley ate dinner there once. Had Hill known that McKinley’s future vice president would one day become such a thorn in his side, what would he have said to the president?
From there we descended into the bowels of the mansion, which I confess I thought to be the most interesting part. I imagined how the servants must have boiled alive in the heat from washing and ironing clothes down there, to speak nothing of the man whose task it was to shovel coal into a boiler the size of my apartment. The kitchen, on the other hand, looked downright cozy. Our guide explained that Mrs. Hill, who had been a waitress before making the supremely good move of marrying Mr. Hill, insisted that its floors be made of wood so as to save the chefs from discomfort.
We took one of the servants’ exits outside, and stood on a patio perched over all of creation. It is very probable that no one will ever be as rich as James J. Hill was ever again. The world has gotten too small to carve out so vast a chunk of it for yourself anymore. Arguments swim about that no one should ever become that rich again, for it is not possible to do so without scarring the earth and exploiting its people, which are indeed not very nice things to do. And yet the mansion still stands, and it is beautiful. It does not blacken the patch of earth that it sits on, and anyone can see it and should. You may go to mnhs.org/hillhouse to plan your visit.
By David Scheller