For fans of Pillsbury Hall, 2018 could be remembered as the year when the second-oldest building on the University of Minnesota campus receives a much needed $36 million renovation.
The project — more than 20 years in the making — also would transform the 1889 beauty into the home of the university’s English Department, which has been making due in “temporary” quarters in nearby Lind Hall for more than a half-century.
Pillsbury Hall has a place of pride and affection among architecture buffs and the U community. President Eric Kaler has said it’s his favorite building on campus. It’s also a physical symbol of a pivotal moment in the U’s history.
John S. Pillsbury, a former governor, the co-founder of the precursor to the Pillsbury Co. (now General Mills) and a 38-year university regent, donated the 2017 equivalent of roughly $4 million for a science building. The gift came with a savvy caveat: that a proposal to split agricultural and mechanic arts education to another school would be shelved. The university’s land grants remained intact, and a landmark — named, in gratitude, for the “father of the university” — rose on the young campus.
“Without that building and the governor, there wouldn’t be a university, period,” said Madelon Sprengnether, an English Department regents professor emerita and an early and ardent advocate of the Pillsbury Hall project.
In the building’s early years, soot from an adjacent heating plant smudged the exterior into the Pillsbury Hall that was familiar to generations of Gophers: a glowering, blackened fortress. In 1985, the grime was scrubbed away, revealing the building’s long forgotten beauty.
With two shades of rough-hewed, Minnesota-mined sandstone as its primary materials, the building’s colorful facade is the antithesis of the U’s standard “brick lump” that starchitect Frank Gehry was asked not to replicate when he was commissioned to design the nearby Weisman Art Museum.
Deep arches, steep staircases, a turret and a granite-trimmed portico all stand out. Eaves are trimmed in copper, and whimsical decorative elements — gargoyles, a Medusa, intricately carved pilasters, checkerboard and floral patterns, state and university emblems — continually reveal themselves.
The architect credited with the building’s design is LeRoy Buffington; he also designed the Pillsbury A Mill (1881) on the Minneapolis riverfront and the university’s Eddy Hall (1886), Nicholson Hall (1890) and Burton Hall (1894), and it’s his name that’s carved into Pillsbury Hall’s facade.
But it’s widely believed that his associate Harvey Ellis is responsible for Pillsbury Hall’s romantic brew of Richardsonian Romanesque, Victorian, Arts and Crafts and Gothic styles.
A $36 million price tag
The remake will require the Legislature to appropriate $24 million as part of the biennial bonding bill, and for the university to raise an additional $12 million. Naturally, delays have proved costly. In the late 1990s, the project required an estimated $24 million.
“The total budget keeps going up each year that it’s not funded,” said English Department Chairman Andrew Elfenbein. “As any homeowner knows, houses don’t get cheaper if you don’t maintain them. Keeping Pillsbury up is a chance to make sure that an old, architecturally breathtaking building on campus gets a new lease on life.”
The outlook is positive. Pending next month’s approval by the school’s Board of Regents, Pillsbury Hall will rank third on the university’s roster of three capital requests to the Legislature. Last time around, Pillsbury Hall was sixth out of seven; four were funded.
“It’s climbing up the list,” said J.D. Burton, the U’s chief government relations officer. “If there is a bonding bill, and we hope that there will be, we’re optimistic that Pillsbury will be included.”
Carving out a new home for the English Department in Pillsbury Hall has required a complex, expensive and patience-testing game of musical chairs.
“It should be a made-for-TV movie,” Elfenbein said with a laugh.
Follow along. After occupying Pillsbury for more than a century, several Earth Sciences departments just moved into their new home in Tate Science and Teaching, a 1926 edifice on Northrop Mall that was recently renovated and expanded to the tune of $92.5 million.
(The Geology Department’s rock garden, a fixture outside Pillsbury’s front door for decades, made the move, too; the cylindrical, 2.7-billion-year-old Ely Greenstone was relocated a few weeks ago to its new perch outside Tate on SE. Church Street.)
That move was made possible after Tate’s previous occupants relocated two blocks to the east into the $84.5 million Physics and Nanotechnology Building in 2014.
The dance won’t stop if/when the English Department lands in Pillsbury Hall.
“Once we get our wish fulfilled, the College of Science and Engineering will also see its wishes fulfilled,” Sprengnether said. “There’s great demand for computer science, but there’s no space for faculty and students, which is why they have their eye on our space in Lind.”
‘Gravity and solidity’
Why, back in the mid-1990s, did Sprengnether and her English Department associates turn their considerable attention to Pillsbury Hall?
“First, it’s gorgeous,” she said. “It has presence, beauty, gravity and solidity. It’s magnificent.”
Coincidentally, it’s the perfect size for a department that serves 6,000 students annually. The shortcomings of the department’s Lind Hall facilities could be filed under D, for Don’t get me started.
“We’re invisible,” Elfenbein said. “We’re in a building that says, right over the top of the front doors, ‘College of Engineering.’ There’s no reference to the fact that there’s an excellent, extremely prestigious English department hidden inside the building. Then, once you’re inside, it’s impossible for students to find us. We’re all over the place.”
That would change at Pillsbury Hall. Its 30,000-plus square feet of space would be redesigned for classrooms, offices, study spaces and production facilities for the school’s two literary magazines. In other words, a custom-built home to serve a popular undergraduate and graduate program.
There’s also gold — of the academic kind — beneath the building’s steeply pitched, clay tile-covered roof.
“Someone once described it as ‘the mother of all attics,’ ” Sprengnether said. “It’s a completely open space that has only been used for storage.”
The plan — as proposed by St. Paul architectural firm Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson Lindeke — would transform the airy aerie into a performance hall, one that would accommodate the many lectures, readings and other events the department is forced to host in rented facilities elsewhere.
Unlike Pillsbury Hall’s carefully maintained exterior, the interior shows little concern for historic sensitivity. Once grand rooms have been divided into cramped spaces. Mechanical and electrical systems are well past their sell-by date, and irreplaceable quartersawn oak is buried under layers of paint. The entire building is served by a single restroom.
“To use the jargon of the university, the university has not, in past years, quote-unquote overinvested in maintaining the interior of Pillsbury Hall, so the prospect of having a real redesign of the entire interior is very exciting,” Elfenbein said. “Our students are the best, and that’s what I want for them. This can be a 21st-century space that will serve the needs of our many, many students, and the community.”
Stay tuned. And, Pillsbury Hall fans, contact your legislator.