Monday, July 29, 2013


James J. Hill was one of the robber barons of the late 19th century.  Born in Ontario in 1838, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota at the age of 17 and made his fortune in the transportation industry, eventually creating and expanding what came to be known as the Great Northern Railway.  His home was completed in 1891 and Hill lived there until his death in 1916.  One could say that Hill needed a large home for his family that included 10 children.  But a home of 36,000 square feet, including 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, and a two-story art gallery, would seem to be more than ample for family life. In fact, it became one of the centers of the social scene in the upper Midwest.  Eventually the house was  acquired by the St. Paul Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, which used it for offices until 1978, when it was transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society.  The Society gives tours of the house, and Geri and I recently spent a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon doing just that.

The house has been wonderfully restored basically to its condition when the Hills lived there.  The exterior was built in a Romanesque style including a dark red sandstone that I did not find particularly attractive.  As usual, I neglected to get a wide-angle view of the house (my excuse being that there was a persistent light rain).  Here is a shot of the front as seen through the foliage at the street.

I think I was trying to be artsy.  Maybe the shot is interesting, but it does nothing to show the house.  Here is another shot of a porch at the rear that does reveal the red sandstone construction.

At nearly 100 feet in length and 2000 square feet in area, the home's main hall is as large as the entire house of most families.  Here is a shot of one of the staircases leading up from the hall.

It was fashionable for a home of this calibre to include an art gallery, and the Hill house was no exception.  In this case the room was two stories high and featured a pipe organ.

The above shot includes our guide who did a superb job during the nearly 1-1/2 hour tour.

As usual, I found myself primarily taking shots of interior detail.  This was a challenge because of the low-light conditions in the house.  Built in the 19th century, the house's windows did not draw in nearly the amount of light that would be found in more contemporary homes.  Moreover, as I indicated, the the day was overcast, further reducing the light.  I had to ramp up the ISO level to the 1000 to 1250 range to get reasonable shutter speeds for the shots, all hand-held.  This led to some graininess in the shots, but it was not bad unless I looked at a loupe view of the images.

Here is one of the first shots I took of ceiling applique in a reception room.

As I mentioned the house includes 13 fireplaces, and most were framed in tile applied in a "subway" style.  Here are a couple of shots of that tile . . .

including a few damaged tiles that for some unknown reason I found interesting.

The walls of the formal dining room were done in a special covering with a three-dimensional texture.

The house includes a number of stained glass windows.

It was refreshing to shoot some secular stained glass after spending a number of sessions recently inside various churches.  

I did take a few shots of the house's furnishings, including the stove . . .

. . . and a washboard.

And here is a kitchen pot that was nicely placed on a side table near a window.

The tour included a look at some of the house's infrastructure, including the boiler.

The home cost nearly a million dollars to build at the time, which would translate to $25-50 million on an inflation-adjusted basis.  However, that figure does not take into account the enormous amount of hand-crafted woodwork and plasterwork seen throughout the house that would cost considerably more to create today, if it could be done at all.  The woodwork, stained in relatively dark tones, proved very difficult to capture, and I didn't retain any of those shots.  But the plasterwork, being lighter, was easier to shoot, and I was happy with some of those, including the following.

These are my favorite shots from the shoot, as the work was being illuminated from windows to the side, creating a nice contrast that served to highlight the detail work.  These were shot at f/6.3 for 1/20th, 1/40th, and 1/25th second, respectively, at an ISO of 1250.

Finally, here is one of a number of portraits of Hill in the house.  

It's hard to know what kind of guy he was, though he must have been extremely driven to have built the fortune that he did and have fathered--and raised 10 children--while doing so.  My guess is that he had little patience for lack of ability.


1 comment:

  1. What a tour that must have been. Great pictures. I would love to see this house.