If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, the Gilded Age or anything historic, you will want to add James J. Hill House to your Twin Cities bucket list.

As a guest of the Minnesota Historical Society, I had the opportunity to take the Nooks and Crannies tour of the 36,000-square-foot historical home of James J. Hill, the railroad magnate. All opinions are my own. And I highly recommend the James J. Hill House as one of the best places to visit in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.


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James J Hill House St Paul Minnesota
Front entrance to the James J. Hill House – St. Paul, Minnesota’s very own Downton Abbey.

Several of the Minnesota Historical Society walking tours, including the James J. Hill House Nooks and Crannies Tour and the Summit Avenue Walking Tour meet at the entrance of the mansion.


Who was James J. Hill?

Not sure how I lived in Minnesota for 26 years and had never heard of James J. Hill. That is, not until the Minnesota Historical Society hosted me on a series of history walking tours .

James J. Hill was kind of a big deal.

Aerial view of the James J. Hill Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis
View of James J. Hill’s Stone Arch Bridge and Minneapolis skyline from the Mill City Museum Observation Deck

James J. Hill – the Empire Builder and railroad magnate

Hill, aka The Empire Builder, was a railroad magnate back in the day and responsible for building the transcontinental rail system, Great Northern Railway. It ran from St. Paul across the Stone Arch Bridge (pictured above) to Minneapolis. This railroad continued westward all the way to the state of Washington.


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James J. Hill Stone Arch Bridge – a National Historic Engineering Landmark

Fun fact: While widely known simply as the Stone Arch Bridge, the official name of this historic bridge is the James. J. Hill Stone Arch Bridge. It was constructed in 1893 for $650,000 (or nearly $18 million today). The James J. Hill Stone Arch Bridge is the only stone arch bridge and the second oldest bridge on the Mississippi River.

The Stone Arch Bridge, a National Historic Engineering Landmark, was built by Hill in the 1880s to allow his railroad to cross over the Mississippi River near St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. The Stone Arch Bridge served rail service for many decades and was later restored and now serves as a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists.

Construction notice

The Stone Arch Bridge is undergoing renovation and half will be closed to pedestrians and cyclists beginning in Spring 2024.
A three-story pipe organ made of mahogany wood with paintings and artwork on the walls and on display
James J. Hill House features a two-story art gallery with a three-story pipe organ

James J. House Nooks and Crannies Tour highlights

House?

Ok. The James J. House is a little bigger than a house. In fact, it’s known as The Gilded Mansion of the Empire Builder.

Fun fact: Nooks and crannies is an idiom for something small or remote. I find that interesting as there is nothing small about the James J. Hill House.

Flowers in front of a window overlooking the Cathedral of Saint Paul.
Sometimes an imperfect shot tells a perfect story.
I was initially disappointed that this image of the Cathedral of Saint Paul taken from the James J. Hill House didn’t turn out as I had hoped. However, it seems fitting as the Hill family did not have this view for many years. While the James J. Hill House was completed in 1891, the Cathedral’s exterior wasn’t completed until late 1914.

What’s near the James J. Hill House? How long did it take to build the James J. Hill House?

The 36,000-square-foot James J. Hill mansion that sits on three acres on historic Summit Ave in St. Paul, Minn. and kitty-corner from the Cathedral of St. Paul took three years and 300 workers to build.

View of the side of the James J. Hill House from the yard with the Cathedral of Saint Paul in the background
You can catch a glimpse of the Cathedral of Saint Paul on the grounds of the James J. Hill House.

When was the James J. Hill House built? How many rooms are in the James J. Hill House?

Completed in 1891, the James J. Hill House features 19 bedrooms, 22 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms (with hot-and-cold water). Additionally, this St. Paul mansion includes 16 chandeliers, a three-story pipe organ, two-story art gallery, servant quarters, and intricate oak and mahogany woodcarving throughout.

James J Hill House Staircase St Paul Minnesota
My favorite part inside the James J. Hill House is the grand staircase. This feature is worth the price of the tour admission..

This grand staircase is my favorite part of the entire James J. Hill House Nooks and Crannies Tour. And you can also see it during your self-guided tours.

Beautiful woodward on a historic grand staircase
The beautiful mahogany grand staircase at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota.

James J. Hill Historical Home Nooks and Crannies Tour on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota

Interpretative sign outiside the gates of the James. J. Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Historic James J. Hill House is the focal point on the Summit Ave. in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was constructed over three years in the 1880s.

Does the James J. Hill House offer tours?

The Minnesota Historical Society offers several different tours year-round where you can learn more about Hill’s role in the success of St. Paul as well as a look inside this beautiful home. Check their website for the latest tour options. See my related post: Best historical home Christmas tours in Minnesota.


James J Hill House Attic St Paul Norks and Crannies Walking Tour
James J. Hill Nooks and Crannies Tour includes the attic, which features the original theatrical stage. The Hill children used this area as a playroom.

The James J. Hill House Nooks and Crannies tour provides a behind-the-scenes look. Visitors have access to a back staircase and secret wall panels. Additional tour features include a silver safe, the gatehouse, an attic with its original theatrical stage, dust chutes, coal cave in the boiler room, and more.


Library of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of books and a secret door.
James J. Hill House Nooks and Crannies Tour takes you through the library with a secret door.

A library with a secret door – isn’t that what all book enthusiasts want? The James J. Hill House Nooks and Crannies Tour will inspire you on how to make that happen.


A female household staff or servant uniform on a form with an open door leading off the dining room.
Secret wall panel in the James J. Hill House dining room.

And you’ll find a secret wall panel in the James J. Hill House dining room, which allowed household staff to come and go discreetly.


Warm woods, fireplace, table and chairs and a chandelier
Just one of the 22 fireplaces and 16 chandeliers you’ll find during the James J. Hill House tour.

How many fireplaces does the James J. Hill House have?

The beautiful James J. Hill House features 22 fireplaces and 16 chandeliers. While I love both, all I could think was how long it would take to clean everything. But then I remembered. The James J. Hill House is St. Paul’s Downton Abbey. They had people for that.


Wide hallway with inlaid marble floor at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota.
James J. Hill House basement is kinda fancy with its inlaid marble floor.

What can you find in the basement of the James J. Hill House?

Even the basement in the James J. Hill House is big and beautiful. During the Nooks and Crannies tour, you’ll walk along the very wide hallway with an inlaid marble floor. Here you’ll find the servant quarters, a kitchen with a dumbwaiter, a pantry, a laundry room, and boiler room. They even have special area where they hand-pumped the pipe organ bellows. Yes, that was a job at the James J. Hill House.


Servant quarters kitchen at the James J. Hill House
James J. Hill House Nooks and Crannies Tour includes a walkthrough the kitchen in the servant quarters.

Additional James J. Hill House tour options

While this special Crooks and Nannies tour of the James J. Hill House was only offered in the summer, you can take other tours to get your Downton Abbey fix. Check the MNHS website for the most current dates, times and tickets.


View in front of the James J. Hill House from the front steps.
View from the front door of the James J. Hill House.

The James J. Hill House was one of my favorite walking tours I participated in the summer and fall of 2019. I highly encourage Minnesotans and visitors alike to take one of the tours . You will not be disappointed as you appreciate the timeless beauty and history of the James J. Hill House.

ADA accessibility: Please note that the James J. Hill House elevator is currently out of commission.


Best historic home tours in Minnesota

Looking for another Downton Abbey fix or interested in historical buildings in general? Here are a few other historical homes in Minnesota that you can tour during normal times.

Alexander Ramsey House; St. Paul, Minn.

The 1872 Victorian home of Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s second governor, mayor of St. Paul, U.S. senator and secretary of war, is located in St. Paul, Minn. It’s nearby the James J. Hill House – only 1.2 miles away.

Charles Lindberg House and Museum; Little Falls, Minn.

The historic childhood home of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. is located in Little Falls, Minnesota.

You can can tour the childhood home of aviation pioneer, inventor, and environmental activist Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Comstock House; Moorhead, Minn.

The Comstock House in Moorhead, Minn. is an 1882 Victorian home of railroad and academic pioneers.

Folsom House, Taylors Fall, Minn.

Another historic tour is the Folsom House in Taylors Falls, Minn. It’s the 19th-century home of the lumber baron W.H.C. Folsom.

Glensheen Mansion; Duluth, Minn.

Glensheen Mansion exterior back garden view and fountain
Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, Minn. is one of the top historic homes to tour.

The historic Glensheen Mansion is located in Duluth, Minnesota. So grateful Glensheen Mansion hosted me twice – in December and in July – so I was able to experience two very different sides of the state’s most popular historic home tour. This 39-room mansion built in the early 20th century sits on 12 acres overlooking Lake Superior. Please see my post for my incredible tour of the Glensheen Mansion.


Hormel Historic Home; Austin, Minn.

Hormel Historic Home Exterior during summer
The Hormel Historic Home, home of the Hormel Foods founder – George A. Hormel – is located in Austin, Minn.

Hormel Foods founder, George A. Hormel, built his home in 1871 and remodeled in 1902 (See my related post: Daytrip from Minneapolis: Explore SPAM Museum and more in Austin, Minn.)

Mayowood Mansion; Rochester, Minn.

Front exterior image of the Mayowood Mansion in Rochester, Minnesota
The historic Mayowood Mansion, home of one of the founders of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, is located in Rochester, Minn.

One of the top things to do in Rochester, Minn. is to tour the historic Mayowood Mansion – former home of Dr. Charles H. and Edith Mayo (of the Mayo Clinic). The 38-room home was built in 1911. Please see my post about our experience touring the historic Mayowood Mansion in Rochester, Minn.

Plummer House; Rochester, Minn.

The former home of Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer and Daisy Berman Plummer, the Plummer House features 11 acres of landscaped grounds, formal gardens, a quarry and water tower. The Plummer House is typically open for tours and special private events. Please check their website for details.

Sibley Historic Site; Mendota, Minn.

Not quite Downton Abbey, but the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota, Minn. features Minnesota’s oldest buildings named after Minnesota’s first governor.



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Behind-the-scenes look at St. Paul’s Downton Abbey – Nooks and Crannies Tour of the James J. Hill House on Summit Ave.

One of the best places to visit in Minnesota: James J. Hill House – nooks and crannies historic home tour.
Author

Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller

36 comments

  1. You have toured some really cool places. I love historical travel and learning all about the people you lived in these places

  2. This is another amazing house. I love the comment – just 1 of the 22 fireplaces. Can you even imagine the time of day the servents got up to get all of them lit? I can’t even imagine. I can, however, imagine sitting on that front porch. Just lovely.

  3. Holy cow that staircase!!! I can see why you loved it. I did watch Downton (and plan to see the movie next week) and a lot of things about this house “felt” like the set. I could almost hear Mrs. Patmore fussing at Daisy. LOL

  4. I love Downtown Abbey-like houses. So much history and luxury. And the behind-the-scenes tour sounds like so much fun! I also like how you listed other similar attractions in the area. I may steal that idea for my posts.

    1. They made a point about the hot and cold water plumbing – pretty revolutionary for that time period. Loved getting the behind-the-scenes tour to learn even more.

  5. Wow, I know everyone is saying it, but that staircase! What a great place. I am probably one of the few that have not seen this show, but I still could get a feel for it with your post. Awesome job!

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