History on the Hill
By Megan Malugani
San Francisco has Nob Hill,
Chicago has the Gold Coast, and St. Paul has Summit Avenue. Here in Rochester, though, Pill Hill is the neighborhood that’s the stuff of legends. The couple hundred homes clustered on the hill behind St. Marys in the heart of Rochester is revered not only for its elegantly distinguished and architecturally significant old homes but for the identity of the original residents—a veritable Who’s Who of Rochester history—who lived there.
There’s the majestic 47-room home which is now known as the Foundation House that was constructed with an ornate tower for star-gazing by Dr. Will Mayo and his family. There’s the five-story Plummer House, an English Tudor mansion where Dr. Henry Plummer, who invented (among other things) the pneumatic tube, lived with his family. There are two historic Judd homes—one the original home of Cornelius Judd of Weber & Judd drugstores and the other the original home of E. Starr Judd, a surgeon who was an early partner of the Mayos. And that’s to name just a few of the notable owners of the historic homes located in the neighborhood that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
On the outside, Pill Hill homes look much the same as they did when they were first built in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. They’re mostly three-story behemoths (many around 3,000 square feet but some as large as 6,000 square feet or more) that are situated on large, well-tended lots shaded by huge old trees. (Some Pill Hill blocks host only two or three houses on them.) The homes’ exteriors are meticulously preserved and maintained.
“For the most part, people try to keep the facades as near original as possible,” says Ken Allsen, Olmsted County’s architectural historian. Pill Hill homeowners “are proud of their houses and love their houses. Any smidgen of history they can get on their houses, they love it.”
On the inside, however, the homes reflect how the times, they have a-changed since the horse and buggy days. “One thing that has really changed is that people for the most part don’t have live-in servants these days,” Allsen notes. In the homes’ original designs, the third floors were often the domain of servants, and carriage houses behind the main residence often included living quarters for chauffeurs. In a few cases, the land where carriage houses or tennis courts once stood was parceled off and sold, and smaller homes were built in those spaces. In the original Pill Hill homes, other common updates include modern kitchens and central air conditioning.
The older homes on Pill Hill “have a lot of charm and character, and details that you have to pay a lot of money in newer homes to get,” says 30-year Pill Hill resident Sandy Berndt.
Birth of a neighborhood
Pill Hill was originally called College Hill. That’s because when the city was laid out in 1856, there was supposed to be a woman’s college (actually more of a “finishing school for young women,” Allsen says) located there. The college never transpired. A mansion built by a lawyer, C.C. Willson (known by locals as “Willson’s Castle"), sat at the very peak of College Hill and dominated the surrounding farmland until the castle burned down in 1918.
A few years before Willson’s Castle burned, houses were already popping up on what would soon become known as Pill Hill. “Mayo Clinic was growing by leaps and bounds and lots of young doctors were flooding into town,” Allsen says. Dr. Will Mayo and his family became early residents of the neighborhood, in what is now known as the Foundation House, and Dr. Will encouraged other young doctors to buy homes in the area as well, Allsen says. “Mayo Clinic gave interest-free loans, and sometimes even outright cash gifts” to help doctors buy the homes in the area. “The whole idea was to keep these guys happy,” he says.
Many of the Pill Hill homes were custom-designed by Franklin Ellerbe and his son, who were the architects behind many of the Mayo Clinic buildings, and by Harold Crawford, a local boy who returned from Harvard to make his mark as an architect in Rochester. The Ellerbe firm still operates today (as Ellerbe-Becket) and is known for its design of hospitals, university buildings, and other large structures. Crawford houses are notable for, among other things, their secret places where valuables could be hidden. “All of the Crawford homes have a place hidden in them that doesn’t show up in the blueprints, and they’re impossible to find,” says Paul Belau, a longtime Pill Hill resident who owned a Crawford home. “When you sell it, you tell the next owner where it is.”
Soon after the development of College Hill began, locals renamed it Pill Hill. The nickname wasn’t always affectionate, as it is today. “Rochester in those days didn’t have a middle class. There were the doctors and all the people at the clinic, and there were the other people who worked for them, directly or indirectly, in the service industries, like hotels and restaurants,” Allsen says. “Rochester was a one-horse town in the early 1900s. The have-nots probably harbored a little quiet resentment. Basically the term ‘Pill Hill’ was a somewhat irreverent term for rich, young doctors.”
The people who lived on the hill eventually “adopted the term and made it their own,” however, according to Allsen. When the area was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, the locals were polled about whether they wanted their district to be called the College Hill or Pill Hill Residential Historic District, and the residents chose Pill Hill.
The Hill today
Pill Hill is still an accurate description of a neighborhood heavily populated by medical professionals. Sixteen of the 19 houses that make up the two-block area where Belau has lived since 1972 are currently owned by Mayo Clinic physicians, he says.
The neighborhood has maintained a friendly nature through the years. “It’s a neighborhood where neighbors look out for one another,” says longtime resident Berndt, whose home is located right across the street from the home in which Harold Crawford lived.
All the neighborhood’s advantages have made it historically popular real estate in town. Nita Khosla, an Edina Realty Realtor, moved to Pill Hill 20 years ago and has sold many of her neighbors’ homes through the years. “A couple of years ago, people would tell me their houses were coming on the market. I would have a waiting list, and we’d sell them right away,” Khosla says. Pill Hill homes haven’t been moving as quickly lately, she says, with more choices for comparably-sized houses in newer Southwest Rochester neighborhoods than there used to be. Still, for people who love old houses, mature trees, and closeness to downtown, Pill Hill is in demand. “Every year only a couple of the big, historic houses come on the market. Last year there were two, and there will be maybe one or two this next year. That’s why they will keep their value,” Khosla says. “It’s close to town and it has that ‘old world’ look.”
Khosla expects the future of Pill Hill to be as bright as its past, and historian Allsen agrees. “In some parts of the United States, we saw a period of building when older houses were being bought and torn down and replaced with McMansions which were ostentatious and didn’t fit into the neighborhood,” Allsen says. That will never happen to Pill Hill, he believes. “As long as the houses can be modernized internally to take advantage of new technology, I think those houses will be preserved.”