At the turn of the twentieth century, architect I. Vernon Hill's designs shaped the developing city of Duluth. Although his career lasted less than a decade, the buildings he designed would play a central role in defining the architectural landscape of the city.
Isaac Vernon Hill was born in Stanton-under-Bardon, England on May 9, 1872. He immigrated to Minnesota with his family and settled in Duluth when he was sixteen. In 1891, Hill began working as a bookkeeper with the Lakeside Land Company. By 1894 he was working for the company as a draftsman.
By 1896, Hill entered into his first architectural partnership with Wallace Wellbanks. Although the partnership lasted only a year, it launched I. Vernon Hill into the Duluth architectural sphere. After parting with Wellbanks, Hill practiced alone until he joined Gerhard Tenbusch in 1899 to create the firm Tenbusch and Hill. While partners with Tenbusch, Hill developed his personal architectural style. The 1899 design for the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range depot at Endion displays the projecting gables for which Hill would become famous.
As Tenbusch's partner, Hill designed a home for Duluth druggist Arthur P. Cook in 1900. Hill's design for Cook's Colonial Revival house, situated on a rocky lot on what is now Skyline Parkway, called for stone from the site to construct the walls, stairs and terraces. The combination of rocky lot and native stone, overlooking Lake Superior, makes the Cook house one of Duluth's most recognizable homes.
In 1902, Hill ended his partnership with Tenbusch and joined William T. Bray in architectural practice. While partners with Bray, I. Vernon Hill designed several distinctive structures. In 1902 he designed the Crosby house, a two story Viennese Art Nouveau masterpiece. That year Hill also designed a house for his own family. The I. Vernon and Cora Hill House was completed in 1902. The house, a sweeping Tudor revival home with gables and a curving buttress, served as a home for Hill and his family for less than two years. Nevertheless, many argue, it was Hill's greatest architectural endeavor.
During the years of his partnership with Bray, I. Vernon Hill designed several other architecturally remarkable homes. He also worked with Bray to design the red-brick Cathedral Grade School building at Duluth's Sacred Heart Cathedral. However, by the end of 1903 I. Vernon Hill was gravely ill. He moved with his family to California in the hopes that the warm climate might aid his recovery. Tragically, however, Hill did not recover. He died of pneumonia on February 25, 1904 at the age of thirty-one.
In the years since his death, Hill's designs for the depot at Endion and the Sacred Heart Cathedral School have both been recognized as architectural landmarks and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His work is preserved and displayed in the remarkable residences he crafted for Duluth residents at the turn of the twentieth century. Although I. Vernon Hill's architectural career was cut short by his premature death, his legacy lives on in the groundbreaking Duluth architecture that he designed.
Gebhard, David and Tom Martinson. A Guide to the Architecture of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Lathrop, Alan K. Minnesota Architects: A Biographical Dictionary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Scott, James Allen. Duluth's Legacy: Volume 1, Architecture. Duluth, MN: The City of Duluth, 1974.
I. Vernon Hill opens his own architectural practice in 1895, beginning a career that would shape the architectural landscape of Duluth.