As gorgeous a setting as the James J. Hill Center is, it’s a wonder any work gets done.
Since opening in 1921, the center has awed and inspired visitors with its historical intrigue and stunning architecture. On Monday, it received national recognition, being named the “greatest historical treasure” among the nation’s libraries in a nationwide photo contest that coincides with National Library Week (which started on Sunday — you can look it up).
The photogenic center shares the gleaming marble building just off Rice Park with the central branch of the St. Paul Public Library. Known as the James J. Hill Reference Library until last year, it has been a place for serious research and is the most significant gift to the city from the railroad magnate.
But Hill never saw its completion.
In 1892, the city was planning to commemorate the opening of Hill’s Great Northern Railway with a lavish celebration. But Hill demurred, saying he preferred the money go to a research library, an idea he had long been pondering, according to a history of the center. “I will add twice as much more, and a good library building can be put up at once,” he declared.
But the Panic of 1893 and the ensuing depression stalled plans. In 1911, as Hill was nearing retirement, the plans were revived. Construction started in 1913, but Hill’s death three years later slowed progress until his heirs pushed it to completion.
When the Italian Renaissance structure opened, highlighted by pink Tennessee marble walls and massive columns of Kettle River sandstone, it was hailed by critics as a “high point in Beaux Arts architecture in Minnesota.” It was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
It was always Hill’s intention that the library collect only the latest and most authoritative reference books, enough to provide the answers to any questions “from the origins of art to the electric current, from the philosophies of the sages to soap.”
Technology has changed how reference libraries do business, and the Hill Center is no different. But the setting has remained unchanged for close to a century. It was captured brilliantly by Michael Boeckmann, a photographer who lives near Rice Park, who took the winning photos. He took the photos last year over the course of an afternoon, donating several to the library.
“I’ve been enamored with its striking design from the moment I first stepped inside,” he said.