Monday, October 20, 2014

Richardsonian Romanesque St. Paul - Part IV

In this last of four installments examining Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in St. Paul, Minnesota, we will look at two of the treasures this city has to offer architecture enthusiasts – the James J. Hill House and Laurel Terrace.

James J. Hill House
240 Summit Avenue
Peabody, Stearns, and Furber, architects

The largest house on Summit Avenue and in St. Paul is the imposing James J. Hill House.   Hill made his fortune in the railroad industry, becoming one of its most prominent and successful advocates.  His big break came in 1878, when he purchased the struggling St. Paul and Pacific Railroad with several other investors.  By 1890, he had greatly expanded the railroad from Canada to the Pacific Ocean, renaming it the Great Northern Railway.  He was active in numerous other businesses as well, amassing a fortune estimated at $63 million by the time of his death in 1916 – truly one of the most powerful figures of the Gilded Age. 

Rear of the Hill House

The house derives its power from its size and massing.  Faced in East Longmeadow sandstone from Massachusetts, the structure contains 36,000 square feet of living space including 42 rooms (not including 13 bathrooms, a fourth floor theater, and numerous cellars and storerooms).  The most prominent interior spaces include the reception hall nearly 100 feet long and the two-story skylit art gallery.  

Front entrance beneath porte cochere

It took three years to complete construction, and the final cost was $522,000.  An additional $400,000 was spent for the three acres of land, interior decoration, furnishings, landscaping, separate gatehouse, conservatories, power plant and “mushroom cave.”  At its completion in 1891, it was the largest and most expensive home ever built in Minnesota.

Hill was intimately involved in the design and completion of his home, rejecting Tiffany’s designs for the stair hall windows and even dismissing the architects and hiring another firm (Irving and Casson of Boston) to complete the interiors.  His desire was for a home that portrayed his success, but was not overly ornate – preferring scale over excessively detailing to impress visitors.  Even so, the interior contains 22 fireplaces, 16 chandeliers and elaborately carved oak and mahogany woodwork.

His widow remained in the house until her death in 1921.  Four years later, the family presented the home and some of the furnishings to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul (Mrs. Hill was a devout Roman Catholic).   It was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978 and has been open to the public since that time.   Tours are offered on a regular basis, and include the expansive basement level highlighting the work spaces of the large live-in staff such as the intact laundry room and boiler room.

Basement window design similar to Glessner House

For more information, visit

Laurel Terrace
286-294 Laurel Avenue
Willcox and Johnston, architects

One of the unexpected surprises in St. Paul is Laurel Terrace, which is described in the AIA Guide to St. Paul’s Summit Avenue & Hill District as “one of the finest Victorian row houses in the United States.”  Featured in several major guidebooks to American architecture, the grouping of seven row houses is Richardsonian Romanesque at its finest in terms of materials, massing, and details.  It is the work of William Willcox and Clarence Johnston, local architects whose brief partnership in the late 1880s produced a number of significant buildings in St. Paul, of which this is generally regarded as their masterpiece.   The total cost of construction was $75,000.

Laurel Terrace is situated at a skewed intersection of Laurel Avenue and Nina Street, giving it a commanding presence at a corner that extends greater than 90 degrees.  Centered by a stately turret at the corner, the Terrace is distinctive both from a distance where the overall massing can be appreciated, as well as up close, where the numerous details delight the eye. 

The overall emphasis of the Terrace is horizontal with the recessed entry porches set beneath arches of varying heights in a regular pattern.  The second floor consists of groupings of windows in twos and threes; above that the gables set into the steeply pitched hipped roof clearly indicate each of the seven apartments.  The use of the various materials – sandstone, granite, and brick – help to differentiate the various levels as well.

Examining the houses up close, one is treated to the rich variety of ornament applied.  From the elaborate wrought iron of the porch railings to multi-colored stone used for the rosettes set to either side of the porch arches, no detail was overlooked.  

Especially interesting are a series of human faces set into the column capitals, and fanciful carved creatures appearing at various points across the fa├žade. 

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald occupied one of the row houses as a boy with his parents and maternal grandmother during 1908 and 1909.

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