James J. Hill built a house that symbolized success, but one that also suited him and his family. The Boston firm of Peabody, Stearns and Furber designed a simple, forceful and direct house in the massive Richardsonian Romanesque style. Hill oversaw the planning, construction and furnishing of the house as if it were a new branch of the railroad. He rejected stained-glass window designs by Tiffany and Company, saying they were "anything but what I want," and even replaced the architects when they ignored his orders to the stonecutters. He engaged Irving and Casson, also of Boston, to finish the interiors.
Completed in 1891, the mansion was the largest and most expensive home in Minnesota. It contained 36,000 square feet on five floors including 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, a two-story skylit art gallery, a 100-foot reception hall, and a profusion of elaborately carved oak and mahogany woodwork. Sophisticated technical systems throughout the mansion provided central heating, gas and electric lighting, plumbing, ventilation, security and communication. The final cost totaled $931,275.01 including construction, furnishings and landscaping for the three-acre estate.
The home served as the center for the public and private lives of the Hill family for the next 30 years. Mary T. Hill kept a watchful eye over the household including the large domestic staff. She hired maids and cooks, inspected the kitchens, and served as hostess at countless dinners and receptions. "I feel it is necessary to know just where everything is and how it is," she commented in her diary.
Mrs. Hill maintained the house after Hill's death in 1916 until her own death five years later. In 1925, family members purchased the mansion from the estate and presented it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul. For the next half century the structure was used by the church for a variety of purposes until it was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the James J. Hill House recalls the powerful era of the Northwest's storied "Empire Builder."
At the end of his life, James J. Hill was asked by a newspaper reporter to reveal the secret of his success. Hill responded with characteristic bluntness, "Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work." Hill became a pivotal force in the transformation of the Northwest as his railroad served as the backbone of white American settlement, agricultural development and commercial expansion.
Born in southern Ontario in 1838, Hill began his career in transportation in 1856 as a 17 year-old clerk on the St. Paul levee. After 20 years working in the shipping business on the Mississippi and Red rivers, Hill and several other investors purchased the nearly bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1878. Over the next two decades, he worked relentlessly to push the line north to Canada and then west across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Renamed the Great Northern Railway in 1890, it remained the "great adventure" of Hill's life. "When we are all dead and gone," he said, "the sun will still shine, the rain will fall, and this railroad will run as usual."
In 1864 James J. Hill met a waitress working at the Merchants Hotel in St. Paul, where he often took his meals. Mary Theresa Mehegan, born in 1846 in New York City, was the child of Irish immigrants who settled in the frontier town of St. Paul in 1850. To prepare her for the impending change of stature in her life, Hill sent Mary to finishing school in Milwaukee before their marriage in 1867. Over the next 18 years they had 10 children: Mary (who married before the family moved to Summit Avenue), James, Louis, Clara, Katherine (who died in infancy), Charlotte, Ruth, Rachel, Gertrude and Walter. Four of the daughters were married in the mansion, and five children later had homes on Summit Avenue. Louis Warren Hill succeeded his father as president of the Great Northern Railway, and lived with his family next door at 260 Summit Ave.
Hill pursued a broad range of other business interests: coal and iron ore mining, Great Lakes and Pacific Ocean shipping, banking and finance, agriculture and milling. In later years he explained his economic philosophy in the book "Highways of Progress" and continued the campaign to convert the farmers of the Northwest to the principles of scientific agriculture. After amassing a personal fortune estimated at $63 million, James J. Hill died in his Summit Avenue home on May 29, 1916, one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures of America's Gilded Age.