Interview with Craig Johnson Part II: Sustainability at James J. Hill House and in Craig's Life

This interview was conducted by Yixuan Cai, our Summer 2015 Sustainability intern. Yixuan co-wrote this post with Shengyin Xu. It was edited by Samuel Courtier.

Drawing room of the James. J Hill House

Craig Johnson: "Yes, it's true that it is a place of conspicuous consumption---they had way too much and no one needs all that---, yet many of the choices they made were much more sustainable than the ones we make today.”

Craig Johnson discusses Sustainability at James J. Hill House and in his personal life.

At first glance, it may appear that James J. Hill House has little to teach us about Sustainability. Indeed, as the Gilded Age mansion of the 'Empire Builder,' Hill House seems to embody extravagance and---borrowing terminology from Craig---'conspicuous consumption.' However, during our interview, Craig shed light on the variety of opportunities he's found for incorporating Sustainability into the Hill House's story and day-to-day operations.

Multi-use Potential

According to Craig, because Hill House offers so many opportunities to explore wide-ranging issues, it has long held the potential to act as a multi-use historic site.

“[Hill House] was acquired and restored by the Minnesota Historical Society not just to be a place of pretty rooms to see the teacups, but to allow us to holistically tell the story of the household and the James J Hill empire.”

Craig pointed out that, by re-purposing the Hill House's existing facilities, money and labor that would otherwise be required to build and maintain new special-purpose ones could be saved. He noted that the house could be used for MNHS offices (on upper floors), for a changing exhibition gallery of Minnesota artists, and for interpretive parts for the household. He also suggested that community engagement could be strengthened:

“After hours it could be rented out for the sake of creating new partnerships---for community events, corporate rentals, non-profit benefits, high school proms, photo shoots, film shoots, concerts, theater programs, etc. We could let the house be used imaginatively by other groups so that people could engage with the space.”

The Hill House Lifestyle

Craig sees opportunities to tell the story of Sustainability all throughout the Hill House.

“I think it’s really interesting to see people examining the ways they lived in terms of Sustainability---the choices, the values, the ideas. What was driving them to live this way? It's getting into every single room in the house---every single story you can tell could be told through the lens of sustainability."

In particular, Craig would like to explore the contrast between the family areas and the servants' quarters within future tours at the Hill House.

"People will first indulge in the the opulence---the grandeur and beauty of the castle-like princess fantasy---, then, seeing the contrast between the family space and the servant space, people may ask themselves, 'Well, does anyone really need a house this big? I mean, honestly... What about those people who are working here too?'”

Craig feels that it is important to address questions of necessity at the Hill House, but he also feels that the sustainable elements of the Hill House lifestyle should be highlighted. Furnishings like dressing tables, armchairs, and writing desks were set up near the windows to make use of natural light, so that "only a small amount of electricity would be used---much less than what we are using today." Roller shades and lace curtains were used to block and filter natural light for more efficient use. Heavy draperies would help retaining heat during the cold winter. Twenty-two fireplaces in the house offered flexible heating, “allowing them to turn the heat off much earlier than we would today, and to use the fireplaces for a little bit of supplemental heat when needed.”

Craig draws attention to the seemingly paradoxical relationship between Sustainability and the Hill House:

"Yes, it's true that it is a place of conspicuous consumption---they had way too much and no one needs all that---, yet many of the choices they made were much more sustainable than the ones we make today.”

Today's Hill House Operations

Along with reflecting on historical sustainable practices, Craig has been considering ways to create a more sustainable working environment and reduce operating costs at today's Hill House. Staff at the Hill House have made tremendous progress with reducing paper use by, for example, reusing scratch paper, using copiers with duplex printing, and setting out trays to collect recycled paper.

“Our paper consumption dropped quite a lot as soon as we dedicated ourselves to it. Those are sort of standard things that some people do, but a lot of people don’t do. So now it's just an anathema to me when someone grabs clean paper to use as scratch paper.”

Craig noted that the light fixtures at the Hill House require expensive light bulbs and that halogen lights on the wall give out a lot of heat that works against the air conditioning.

“Lighting would be the next thing. Can we replace the lights with cheaper ones that are more green and have more sustainable features? That would be something I would love to see happening here.”

Craig brought up the need for air conditioning improvements. Air conditioning is only present in the offices and the gallery. When it gets hot in the summer, staff will prop open the office and gallery doors in order to blow the cool air into the hallway with fans.

Ad hoc cooling at James J. Hill House using fans

“That’s probably the least efficient way to cool the area. The air conditioning system is not designed to blow air into a space where there’s also an open window, so it’s an inappropriate way of using the system---the system hasn’t been adapted. Just putting fans there is a hazard too; for years, people have tripped on them---that’s not good. The fans look ugly, they are noisy, and they are not historic. It’s a bad way to do things, but there still hasn't been any change. Personally, I would love for the Hill House to have air conditioning in other areas, so we could stop using these ridiculous work-arounds and start utilizing more efficient methods."

But Craig recognizes the unique challenge of sustainably providing a comfortable indoor environment while preserving historic construction. Fitting modern facilities and HVAC systems into historic buildings requires special consideration and careful implementation.

"The problem with a building like this is that [HVAC upgrades require] punching through walls and putting in a duct system. How much do we alter the building?"

Institution-wide Improvement

Craig would like to see Hill House's dedication to Sustainability improvement reflected institution-wide.

“Look at all of the brochures we just dump into recycling; we are obviously printing way too much. Can we lower our printing costs to be more reasonable? Do we need all those brochures? Can we be more web-based---just make single panels that direct people to a website? At our coffee station here, we have disposable cups---sure, sometimes you need them---, but we offer alternatives, like using your own mugs or using the guest mugs provided. Obviously you can go on forever with this stuff, but I’d love to see a really good list of things that each site would be willing take further."

Craig believes the Hill House can be used as vehicle for discussing sustainable practice within the context of American aspirational consumerism. He also believes it can be used to examine the balancing act between modern technology and the mission of historic preservation. The way MNHS addresses these issues can change its role in the community, and Craig feels that stakeholders will get on board with the changes the Hill House might inspire.

"There are Sustainability measures that haven't yet been taken, but could be, and they could save us money. That’s a big thing in the end, right? And I think founders, certain members, and individual corporate donors would be interested to know about all the things we are doing to save money, decrease waste, and to be better citizens---for now and for the future.”

Craig's Lifestyle

Craig has been living out his passion for Sustainability at his own house. He's decreased the size of his lawn and switched to a perennial grass that is more sustainable. He now cares for his lawn using a push lawn mower rather than a gas-powered one, and uses organic fertilizers rather than chemical ones. “One thing I really want to do is go solar,” Craig said. He installed solar light tubes in his bathrooms while remodeling them, and has plans to install solar panels on his garage.

We asked Craig if he has specific principles that can guide people in living more sustainable lives. Paralleling Dan Hansen's thoughts, Craig answered, “Go with less.”

“It's not about buying and installing new things. Our economy is entirely built on Americans buying more and more. Media is really focused toward that, and malls are built just to entice us to buy. It's worth asking yourself, 'Do I really need to use that? Does that need to be purchased?' We can make better choices; we can just buy fewer things---we don’t need more stuff.”

Craig also sees a more global need to "go with less" regarding concerns over the population growth rate.

“Deeply, on a more serious level, I decided years ago that I don’t want any children. I think we have lots and lots of people, and it's just putting too much pressure on the environment. They are beautiful, extraordinary people, and I certainly don’t degrade anyone who has children, of course---that’s ridiculous---, but not having children is just one way I can contribute.”

Craig sees how Sustainability needs to take place on a personal level, seeking day-by-day improvements in all facets of life.

"I’m also very active in my church and in my faith. I contemplate my work, my personal life, my faith community, and my political advocacy through the lens of sustainability. I think about climate change, and the hope of living in an increasingly green world---that’s the highest priority to me. I don’t know whether I’m a terrific person about it---I always think that there are more things that I could do and many things that I shouldn't do---, but I try to make improvements every day and, in every way, be mindful of what is very important to me.”

Craig cites climate change as the primary source of his motivation to incorporate Sustainability so deeply into his life.

“I just think that climate change is overwhelming and, indeed, alarming. It is the greatest social and global issue of our time---the biggest one of my lifetime. So I want to contribute to that in a positive way. Sustainability, just by its definition, asks us to consider what will be in place for the next generation. When I leave this place, will it be better than when I first came in? What can I do to ensure that?”

We thank Craig for sharing his time and insight with us, and we thank him for his service to MNHS and the community. His presence will be sorely missed, but we wish him all the best in his coming endeavors.