The James J. Hill Center, located in Saint Paul, MN, is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) business reference library founded in 1921. The organization began using a new name, James J. Hill Center, in 2013 to envelop the diverse ways the organization supports entrepreneurs and small business owners.
James J. Hill’s most significant gift to the city of Saint Paul, the Reference Library, was designed in the Italian Renaissance style, in keeping with the urbane Beaux Arts Neoclassical mode, which was in vogue during the late Progressive Era. The exterior is pink Tennessee marble, while massive columns of Kettle River sandstone frame the building’s “Great Reading Room.” Hailed by modern critics as a “high point in Beaux Arts architecture in Minnesota,” the library broke ground in 1913, opened to the public in 1921, and was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
As early as 1887, Hill had begun consideration of a library, corresponding with Edward Duffield Neill at Saint Paul’s Macalester College. Five years later, when the City proposed a lavish celebration to commemorate completion of his Great Northern Railway to Seattle, Hill responded that he preferred that Saint Paul put the money toward a public library. “I will add twice as much more, and a good library building can be put up at once,” he declared.
Faced with the severe economic depression of the 1890s, the city could not match Hill’s offer.
In 1911, as he neared retirement, Hill tried again, approaching New York architect Electus Litchfield, whose father was president of one of the Great Northern’s predecessor companies, to draft formal plans for the long-considered reference library.
“My idea is to have good material and plain design avoiding all useless ornamentation,” Hill insisted, although he decided to model his library after that of his principal financial ally, J.P. Morgan. “You have set us a high standard in taking this building for comparison,” Litchfield responded, “but I shall do my darndest.”
Construction began in 1913, but Hill’s sudden death three years later delayed construction. Work proceeded intermittently on the interior for the next five years. Mary T. Hill (his widow), Clara Hill Lindley, Louis W. Hill, Rachel Hill Boeckmann and Charlotte Hill Slade formed the first Board of Trustees for the new nonprofit corporation and took an active role in finishing the Library’s interior.
The James J. Hill Library officially opened with great fanfare on December 20, 1921, one month after Mary’s death.
It was always Hill’s intention that his Library collect only the latest and most authoritative reference books. He excluded only medicine, law, genealogy, and popular fiction. Every other subject – history, science, economics, art, music, geography – was to be represented. It was the founder’s dream that the Library would provide the answers to any questions “from the origins of art to the electric current, from the philosophies of the sages to soap.”
In 1976, the Board of Directors decided to specialize in business reference services, building on a legacy that the Library had secured half a century earlier. In 1929, one observer reported that “merchants call for the addresses of firms all over the world. The Library’s trade catalogues contain the names of importers in every nation. The Harvard Business and the Poor Financial Services are used frequently by investors.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the computer revolution made possible the accumulation and dissemination of detailed business and economic information undreamed of in James J. Hill’s day. Strange as these new instruments might have seemed to him, they made feasible at last Hill’s great desire to have only the most current and accurate knowledge available on demand at the institution that bears his name. The Hill Center for Ethical Business Leadership also assisted in fulfilling the Library’s mission by helping businesses prosper through a strategic commitment to ethics and social responsibility.
Because of the growth of programs and services over the years the James J. Hill Reference Library officially became the James J. Hill Center in 2013.
For nearly a century the historic Reference Library has provided a blend of services that enables business people, students and scholars alike to access the best in practical business information. We look forward to building the the economic value of our community by providing a complete host of library services and a gathering space where the next great idea will be born.