University of Minnesota Alumni Association

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Reclaiming the Castle

After decades of waiting, the time may be ripe for a renovation of Pillsbury Hall.

Photos by Easton Green

The space feels more like a barn than the attic of a university landmark. But instead of haylofts and milking cans, the massive top floor of Pillsbury Hall is crowded with the castoffs of the building’s former life as the home of the U’s department of Earth Sciences. Rolls of yellowing maps—presumably now either out of date or digitized—spill off tables. Metal boxes crammed with rock samples are caked with dust. Oak flat files stand empty.

In October, a group of roughly 20 state legislators and staff made its way through the clutter to an unfinished round room beneath the 1889 building’s turret. There, they were greeted by an actor playing John S. Pillsbury, the former governor and U regent, who moved to Minnesota in 1855 and eventually cofounded the C.A. Pillsbury and Company, which became the largest flour milling business in the world.

The actor, donning a top hat and period clothing, was on hand to entertain legislators, but also to convey a message using the gravity of history: Now is the time to renovate Pillsbury Hall, so the Department of English can finally have a home after squatting in Lind Hall for five decades. The renovation, which is expected to cost $36 million, would require approximately $24 million in state funding. The U’s 2018 capital request for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in February, also includes $200 million for general maintenance and improvements; $10.5 million to update campuses in Crookston, Duluth, and Morris; and $4 million to create a matching fund to preserve Duluth’s Glensheen mansion.

Pillsbury had a limited education—he didn’t go to high school or college. But when the governor sent him a note asking the businessman to become a regent, he agreed. And when a new building that had been approved by the 1887 Legislature was half-destroyed by a fire, Pillsbury, by now the state’s former governor, offered to donate $150,000—$4 million today—to complete what would become a science building. 

An actor playing John Pillsbury brought history to life during a tour of Pillsbury Hall in October.

The gift, however, had strings attached: The U needed to agree not to relocate the agriculture and mechanic arts education schools to another location 40 miles away. The agreement secured the University’s land grant status and stabilized its shaky financial situation.

“Pillsbury Hall is a magnificent, iconic building much in need of interior renovation,” says Madelon Sprengnether, an English department Regents Professor Emerita, who accompanied the legislators on the tour. “It is on the National Register of Historic Places, not only because of its architectural distinction but also because of its significance in the history in the founding of the University. For [John S. Pillsbury’s] untiring efforts, he was named a lifetime regent and is known as the ‘Father of the University.’ No building better symbolizes the founding of the University than Pillsbury Hall. To celebrate its restoration is to celebrate the University itself.”

Today, Pillsbury Hall is the second oldest building on campus. But while the ornately detailed sandstone exterior—considered the greatest example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in the state—is nothing short of stunning, the interior has the hollowed-out feel of a ghost town, with outdated drop ceilings and only one set of bathrooms, hidden away in the basement.

That’s set to change if Sprengnether and her colleagues in the English department realize their 20-year dream to relocate from Lind Hall, where they struggle to accommodate the approximately 6,000 students who take English classes in a building belonging primarily to the College of Science and Engineering. Students regularly study on the hallway floors.

The plans for Pillsbury Hall are grand. In addition to housing classrooms, study spaces, production labs for video and digital storytelling, and offices for professors and teaching assistants, the English department would turn the building’s dusty, cluttered attic into an above-the-treetops public space for readings, lectures, and other community events. 

The English department has launched a public opinion campaign in support of the project, making the case that now—since Earth Sciences moved into the newly renovated Tate Hall, leaving Pillsbury vacant—is their moment. They are encouraging supporters to write and Tweet messages to legislators, tagging them with #Driven4MN and #UMNProud.  

Supporters note that theirs is one of the top-ranked M.F.A. creative writing programs in the country. And, as department chair Andrew Elfenbein remarked when welcoming legislators to the building in October, English has provided the formative training for many prominent entrepreneurs and CEOs. “Our alums teach your children, manage your businesses, lead your faith communities, and write the words Minnesotans are reading,” he said. “Now is the perfect time for the renovation of Pillsbury Hall. It will immeasurably benefit not only the arts and the humanities, but science and technology as well. We are so excited about what this renovation will allow us to contribute to Minnesota.”

Or, as John Coleman, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, put it during the tour: “We live in a time where there is a need to empathize. And that’s what literature teaches.”

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is Minnesota Alumni's senior editor.

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