A lot of Minnesota hopes and dreams go into requests for the state bonds expected to be authorized by the 2016 Legislature. In one case, a lot of history is on the line as well. The University of Minnesota is seeking $22 million for the renovation and repurposing of Pillsbury Hall.
Generations of students on the Twin Cities campus have admired the towered sandstone building that houses the Department of Earth Sciences (formerly geology). What they may not have known is that Pillsbury Hall also represents a turning point in the history of the university and, arguably, of Minnesota.
On April 16, 1889, a joint meeting of legislators and members of the Board of Regents had been called to decide the fate of applied sciences higher education in Minnesota. A $100,000 building to house such programs on the three-building U campus had been authorized by the 1887 Legislature, but while still under construction, it was half-destroyed by fire. Legislators balked at providing the $150,000 regents sought to resume construction and make the building fireproof. Pressure was on to do instead what other states had done: split the university in two and send applied sciences to a second campus elsewhere in the state.
Finally, the regents’ chairman rose to speak. Former Gov. John S. Pillsbury announced that he would donate $150,000 for a “complete science hall” on one condition: There would be no division. The University of Minnesota would remain intact, offering both “pure” and applied sciences.
Pillsbury enlisted Leroy S. Buffington, the architect of the iconic Pillsbury A Mill, to design a building that would endure. That it has. Today it’s the second-oldest building on campus. Because John Pillsbury’s condition was met, the university grew rapidly and contributed to the development of a true metropolitan area, with this state’s centers of commerce, government, education and transportation all in one locale. Because applied and natural sciences stayed in proximity, today’s university offers rich interdisciplinary opportunities that continue to serve this state well.
That history alone justifies Pillsbury Hall’s preservation. The proposal to make it a modern home for the English Department justifies its renewal. Here’s hoping that lawmakers fit it into their bonding plans.