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Public Art at the UW-James J. Hill

From his planter overlooking Stevens Way, his dour countenance glares out over passers-by, and does not seem to approve of what he sees. Who is this person, whose oversized likeness looms over the sidewalk?

James J. Hill: Mogul

James J. Hill, railroad magnate, seems to have only a tenuous connection to the Pacific Northwest, though his impact on the region was widespread. His home, and the home of his most influential corporation, the Great Northern Railroad, was in Saint Paul, Minnesota. However, Hill’s railroads and businesses helped connect the natural resources of the West to markets in the East. Known as “the Empire Builder,” Hill was noted for building a railroad without taking money from the federal government, making him unique among his peers. He would finance the building of towns along his rail lines, ensuring that his lines had markets at both ends. Hill also had a reputation for slashing his workers’ wages and was the target of several strikes.

While Hill displayed many of the quirks of character railroad barons were prone to, many of the people living in the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest owed their livelihoods to him. Hillsboro, North Dakota, Hill County, Montana, and the Hillyard neighborhood of Spokane are all named for him. Hill himself only visited Seattle once, in 1909, to be the keynote speaker at the opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and to witness the unveiling of the statue bearing his likeness.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition's "Court of Honor" established the Rainier Vista as the centerpiece of the Seattle campus.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (henceforth AYP) had a large and lingering impact on the UW. Held on UW land, it established the Rainier Vista as the centerpiece of campus and set the neo-gothic building style that is featured on most of the oldest buildings. The Exposition’s calendar was packed with events, from Smith Family Day (a day to celebrate all the people in the world named Smith) to Hoo Hoo Day (in honor of the Concatenated Order of Hoo Hoo, naturally). When Minnesota Tri Cities Day rolled around, the delegation from the North Star State went all out. Western Washington was home to a large community of former Minnesotans, and they flooded the fairground for the event. Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson was on hand to speak, and it seemed only natural to celebrate one of Minnesota’s wealthiest and most influential residents with a monumental statue. The day was a success all around, and considered one of the highlights of the fair.

Standing on a tall marble plinth, the bust of James J. Hill was one of the largest pieces of its kind ever cast in bronze. It was created by Finn Haakon Frolich, considered the second-best sculpture portraitist in the nation and himself quite a character. An immigrant from Norway, he left home at nine years old to sail on a windjammer. At 14, he survived a plague that killed most of the crew of his ship. In 1886, at the age of 18, he left ship in New York to be a model and protégé to Daniel Chester French, who would later be commissioned to make the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln memorial. Frolich went on to provide statues to the Paris Exposition and the World’s Fair in St. Louis.

A confluence of troubles brought Frolich to Seattle:

I had separated from my first wife, and there didn’t seem to be another sculpting commission for me on the horizon in New York. I came off a drunk one morning in 1908, on 42nd Street in front of Grand Central Station. I went into the ticket office and asked the agent what kind of places they had and he asked, “What kind of place do you want?” The farthest away from here you got. So he gave me a ticket to Seattle. (Frolich, via Margaret Guilford-Kardell)

Upon arriving in Seattle in 1908, Frolich set up shop in an old synagogue and got to work. He was soon named to be director of sculpture for the AYP. As well as contributing designs for the central fountain (it’s unclear if his statue was ever displayed), Frolich contributed a bust of composer Edvard Grieg, commissioned by the Norwegians of Seattle for Norwegian Day, and the James J. Hill monument. The Norwegians paid for the Grieg bust by building Frolich a Viking longship. The Minnesotans presumably paid cash.

James J. Hill in his original location on Klondike Circle, c. 1925. Note the missing plaque

Once you have a statue of one of the richest men in the country, created by one of the nation’s foremost (if eccentric) artists, what do you do with it? For the Fair, the monument was prominently displayed in the center of Klondike Circle, near where Guthrie Hall currently stands. In 1953, it was moved to the terrace between the Engineering & Mining buildings of More Hall, home of the Civil & Environmental Engineering department. Later it was shifted to the north end of More Hall, where it stands today, overlooking Stevens Way. Interestingly, More Hall stands near the former site of the Good Roads Building, which was set up by Hill’s son-in-law, Sam Hill (no relation). Sam Hill was a prominent financier and proponent of good roads in the Pacific Northwest. It would have been interesting to know what the two Hills had to say to each other during the elder Hill’s visit, for Sam Hill’s wife (James Hill’s daughter) lived in Seattle for all of six months before packing up and moving back to Minneapolis with their son.

While the monument enjoys a prominent spot, passed by hundreds-if not thousands-of people every day, it is not well-situated for study. To get a good look at it, one must stand in the street. Shrubbery has grown up the sides, obscuring the plaques on the right side and back (the plaque on the left side, depicting the State Seal of Washington, has been missing since at least 1925). A fitting spot, perhaps, for someone who’s primary legacy was keeping people moving.


3 Responses to “Public Art at the UW-James J. Hill”

  1. Kim T. wrote:
    October 7, 2011

    I think there is a typo about Sam Hill’s wife. Article said she lived in Seattle for six weeks before packing up and moving back to Seattle…huh?

  2. Gregory Flanders wrote:
    October 7, 2011

    Fixed. Thanks!

  3. Casey Peacock wrote:
    December 1, 2011

    The railroad magnate, James J. Hill, was a true inspiration. I really admire him for his great accomplishments especially since he did them without taking money from the federal government. A rarity these days.

    -Casey Peacock
    Webmaster of Waste King 8000

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