The stately home of railroad baron James J. Hill has loomed large on the eastern end of Summit Avenue since 1891. Easily the largest private home in Saint Paul, the imposing structure boasts 36,500 square feet and a slew of other mind-boggling statistics (watch the short video below for a whirlwind tour packed with stats). It’s rather appropriate that the Historic Hill neighborhood is capped by the impressive Hill House.
The comparison to Downton Abbey is quite apt, made by the Minnesota Historical Society itself, which also owns and manages the property. If Downton Abbey housed the landed, titled gentry of aristocratic Britain, then surely the Hill House did the same for one of the wealthiest families in the region. While Downton Abbey receives royalty in the fictional film that premieres on September 20, the Hill House in fact received a presidential visit from William McKinley in 1899 – further proof that America’s royal line is wealth, not blood.
Electricity, running water, a servant call system, a security system, one of the first telephone systems in the state: James J. Hill’s final home was on the cutting edge of the era’s technological advances. And yet, it was one of the last of its age. A mere 14 years after the completion of Hill’s house, the epic home of his late neighbor Norman Kittson was torn down to make way for the edifice which truly dominates the hill: The Cathedral of Saint Paul. The Gilded Age was over, and the new age had little use for such sprawling estates.
James J. Hill lived the rest of his life in the home, dying in 1916. The Historic Hill neighborhood began an inexorable transformation from mansion-filled proclamation of American wealth to a crumbling crossroads of harsh economic realities and deferred maintenance. The Hill house avoided the fate of so many homes in the Historic Hill area by passing safely from Hill family ownership to the auspices of the Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul in 1925, and finally to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978. The neighborhood has bloomed again, brought back by everyday folks interested in salvaging yesterday’s derelict structures into tomorrow’s priceless treasures. And the James J. Hill House stands at the front of the line, projecting status and prosperity across the city.
So as the house lights go down in the movie theater and the opening scenes of the Downton Abbey film begin to roll, imagine similar scenes playing out in the gilded spaces of Minnesota’s own Downton Abbey.
Learn more about the Historic Hill neighborhood in St. Paul’s Historic Hill: Salvaging a Gilded Past.
In addition to serving as the parlor of the rich, Saint Paul was also the playground of the nefarious, drawing the nation’s top gangsters to Prohibition-era watering holes and hotels. Discover answers to the question Why was Saint Paul a good place for bad guys?
Step inside Neumann’s Bar: MN’s oldest, continually active watering hole. Opening its doors in 1887, the bar became one of the notorious speakeasies of the 1920s – and let’s just say that gangsters found their way inside.