A Story in the Ceilings
Between the magisterial Romanesque pillars, blue Japanese cloisonné vases guarding the back door, and, of course, the hundreds of thousands historic books, it’s easy to overlook a small detail of the James J. Hill Center Reading Room: the ceilings among the stacks. But these ceilings—specifically, their colors—tell a grand story.
When James Hill passed away without a will in 1916, his family took over the final throes of constructing the James J. Hill Reference Library. His wife, Mary Hill, began to actively manage financial affairs, which including contributing to the Hill Library’s endowment to make the library financially independent.
It is believed that Mary Hill left her touch on the decor as well. We know that Louis Hill, one of the Hills’ sons, wrote to his mother and sisters on a number of issues including furnishings and wall texture and color. Tragically, Mary, like her husband, did not live to see the magnificent library complete; she died only a month before it opened its doors on December 20, 1921.
Next time you are in the Reading Room, look up at the ceilings immediately above the third and fifth stacks of books (i.e. right under the second and third floors). You’ll notice the former is a pale yellow and the latter is a pale pink—the very two colors rumored to be Mary Hill’s favorites.
Learn more about Mary Hill in her diaries
, accessible online through the Minnesota Historical Society.
Learn more of the story behind the Hill Center, these images, and the epic building in our Cabinets of Curiosity Tour
every third Thursday at 10:30AM. In this one hour experience you will go back in time, up and down catwalks, through vaults and peek in hidden nooks and crannies. Our December tour is coming up so get your tickets early
Written by Ann Mayhew, Reference & Support Specialist, at the James J. Hill Center. If you have more questions about the reference library our our historic collection at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or [email protected].