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. The James J. Hill House is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. So until you can take the tour yourself, here’s a behind-the-scenes look into one of the most beautiful homes on the iconic Summit Ave. in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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.
This post contains recommended links to products and services. While you will not accrue any additional costs to support my blog, I may receive compensation if you purchase these products and services. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. All images taken by kmf are available for purchase via digital download.
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.
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 and westward all the way to the state of Washington.
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.
I’ll share more about this beautiful bridge and the St. Anthony Historic District in a later post.
Right now I’m all about this house – the James J. Hill House.
James J. House Nooks and Crannies Tour highlights
Ok. It’s 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.
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.
Completed in 1891, the James J. Hill House features 19 bedrooms, 22 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms (with hot-and-cold water), 16 chandeliers, a three-story pipe organ, two-story art gallery, servant quarters, and intricate oak and mahogany woodcarving throughout. When you take the James J. Hill Nooks and Crannies tour, your tour guide will show you all the little details as well as the grand ones.
This grand staircase is my favorite part of the entire James J. Hill House Nooks and Crannies Tour (and you can actually see it during your self-guided tours).
James J. Hill Historical Home Nooks and Crannies Tour on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota
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. As mentioned previously, all Minnesota Historical Society tours and most historical buildings, including the James J. Hill House, are temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Check their website for the latest updates and openings.
While you can take a self-guided tour of the James J. Hill House, I chose the summer Nooks and Crannies tour. This option gives visitors a behind-the-scenes access to a back staircase, secret wall panels, a silver safe, the gatehouse, the attic with its original theatrical stage, dust chutes, coal cave in the boiler room, and more.
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.
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.
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.
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, the boiler room and special area where they hand-pumped the pipe organ bellows. Yes, that was a job at the James J. Hill House.
Additional James J. Hill House tour options
Editorial note: All Minnesota Historical Society tours and most historical buildings are temporarily closed due to the pandemic. The following outlines the typical schedule when the historical society resumes the James J. Hill tours.
While this special Crooks and Nannies tour of the James J. Hill House was only offered in the summer, you can take one of the following tours to get your Downton Abbey fix. Check the MNHS website for dates, times and tickets.
- Guided 90-minute James. J. Hill House Tours are offered Wednesdays through Sundays, January through November.
- Self-guided Sunday tours of the James J. Hill House allows you to explore the first, second and third floors of the mansion at your own pace.
- While the Summit Avenue Walking Tour does not go inside the James J. Hill House, it does begin there where you’ll hear a little bit of history about this home as well as see the exteriors of 2 of his 10 children’s homes in this same neighborhood. Check website for details.
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 once we’re free to travel and roam freely again throughout the world and through this beautiful home.. You will not be disappointed as you appreciate the timeless beauty and the 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.
Once normal schedules resume, you 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.
The historic Glensheen Mansion is located in Duluth, Minnesota and currently open for self-guided tours with safety protocols in place. 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 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.
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, is temporarily closed. Until you get an opportunity to visit, 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. However, please check their website for the latest updates in light of the pandemic.
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.