University of Minnesota Alumni Association


A Place for Words

The English and creative writing departments now have a permanent home in a newly renovated Pillsbury Hall.

U of M student Annie Zheng spent much of her college career hustling from building to building to attend her English classes. With the revamp of Pillsbury Hall, she and others like her now have a dedicated spot to call home.
Photo Credit: Eric Miller

On the first day of my sophomore year in 2019, I showed up to class more than an hour early. As a result, I spent the first 30 minutes sitting bored in the fancy aeronautic display-lobby of Akerman Hall before migrating upstairs to wait outside my classroom. There, I observed several others in the hallway looking like they were more likely to roll back into bed than into class.

One girl sat on the floor a couple of feet away from me. She struck up an easy conversation as she ate chunky pasta out of a heated Tupperware container.

“English?” she asked, as if intuition had made her right all her life.


“Are you here for the magazine class?”

At that point, it was like a light had gone off. A kinship formed.

“Yeah, actually.” Then I picked up my backpack to scoot closer so we could talk.

The girl had an intense, zany interest in critical theory; meanwhile, my history with literature was Young Adult novels shelved near the back of a public library. She knew right away she wanted to do English; I stumbled into it through my love of creative writing.

At that point, the number of people I knew in the English Department was limited. Likely because of that, and despite our differences, she and I latched onto that connection.

Right inside the aerospace building.

During my freshman year, I had had three psychology majors as neighbors. Business majors dominated the West Bank, and an endless stream of computer engineers crowded the outlets inside Memorial Union. If you walked inside a library on East Bank, odds were that at least half the people scrambling for desk space were in a STEM field.

A large portion of the fourth floor of Pillsbury Hall previously used for storage has been transformed into an 85-seat classroom. The $36 million dollar remodel of the building included multiple renovations to turn the historic structure into a vibrant center for the U of M English department and its students.
Photo Credit: Eric Miller

But English majors were harder to find.

Sometimes we were in the Science and Engineering Hall. And sometimes, we were randomly scattered in any one of the tall buildings that fanned out from Lind Hall, reaching as far as the northernmost part of campus.

Our pool of English majors was smaller, which meant we went unnoticed; and our camp was temporary, which meant we were always mobile.

We weren’t like other departments, who had a permanent base.

We came and we went, in and out of buildings and classrooms, like each was only a nostalgic residence we cherished fleetingly. And likewise, people came and went.

As a result, any chance of a burgeoning community was slim. After all, people who were hard to find were even harder to keep track of.

The first time I heard about the idea of a permanent residence for the English Department at Pillsbury Hall, I was in in the basement of Lind in the media lab working on the U of M’s art and literary magazine, The Tower, packing up to catch the late-night train.

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said, disinterested.

My friend laughed. “Just ‘cool’? You’re probably the only one of us who’ll ever get to experience [the new building].” I was the youngest person in that class.

At that, I wrinkled my nose, and then we went our separate ways. Out of the engineering building.

Looking back, those others had probably been more than a little annoyed with my unconcerned attitude—but I understood what they meant.

Because the thing with being an English major is, you become used to the fringe-ness of it all. Funds get cut, classes get condensed, and by the end of four years, some scoff that we have a reputation for “the most expensive tuition for the least profitable turnaround,” with zero recognition as a reward for coming out the other side.

But we stay with it.

We stay with it despite all of that. And we stay with it because—at the end of the day—conversing about critical theory, or working toward earning a publishing certificate, or simply raving about the latest New York Times bestseller (even if it is a YA novel), is something we do because we love it earnestly. I’m now a senior and plan to continue this quiet passion of mine by finding a job in publishing after I graduate.

So having a new hall dedicated to the English Department is a two-fold reward: One, we have a space of our own—to congregate and commune, to find interests and others like us; and two, a recognition that, though small and often scattered, passive yet quietly passionate, we’re here. And we’re seen.

A Storied History

Named after John S. Pillsbury, who was Minnesota’s governor from 1875 to 1881, Pillsbury Hall is the second oldest building on campus. A standout example of Richardsonian Romanesque style, the building was designed by architect Harvey Ellis and built in 1889. It has been home to several different departments, including animal biology and botany; in the 1920s, Pillsbury’s basement was the student health service. The Department of Geology and Geophysics and the Limnological Research Center called Pillsbury home until 2017.

The opportunity to turn Pillsbury Hall into a permanent home for English and creative writing became a reality in 2018, when the legislature approved the 2018 capital projects bill, thereby securing $24 million toward the renovation. The remaining $12 million needed was provided through a fundraising campaign spearheaded by the College of Liberal Arts. Minneapolis-based public artist Seitu Ken Jones has designed a permanent art installation for the building’s interior.

The resulting renovation, which opened this past summer, gives the English department a permanent home after 50 years in temporary quarters and a beautiful, welcoming space for the greater Twin Cities literary scene for readings and events—important given that the department’s masters in fine arts in creative writing is one of the top programs in the country, with alumni and current students completing 19 published novels, memoirs, and poetry collections in 2021 alone.

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