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At the University of Minnesota’s Pillsbury Hall, everything old is new again


Behind the familiar building of Pillsbury Hall lies an extraordinary transformation.

From the day the doors first opened in 1889, the building’s craggy, romantic presence has made it the architectural soul of the University of Minnesota campus. Outside, anyway.

“The most disappointing aspect of the building is that the excitement of the exterior was completely lost by the time you got inside,” said Craig Rafferty of Architecture Advantage, the St. Paul-based firm Duluth who spearheaded the building’s recent renovation. “It’s exciting to see new educational opportunities in this old building. We wanted the interior to become a statement of its own time, new use and new vitality.”

Mission accomplished.

It was only fitting that this priceless pile of sandstone was the longtime home of the university’s geology department, which seemed to take a low-key, lived-in approach to its sleeping castle.

In its new role as the long-awaited, custom-built home of the English department and its thousands of students, Pillsbury Hall now pulses with a life commensurate with its prized location at the center of campus and its historic profile.

For a busy and popular department that had been relegated to cramped, faceless quarters in an engineering building, Pillsbury Hall 2.0 is a well-deserved upgrade.

The interior of the building is now a beautifully appointed liberal arts dreamscape, notable for its flexible and comfortable classrooms, state-of-the-art laboratories, spacious student gathering spaces, and faculty offices. quiet. Required service items – restrooms, kitchenettes, stairs, elevators – have also been added.

Although the overall look is clean, contemporary and durable, well-placed echoes of the building’s past emerge: beautiful, long-hidden sandstone walls and cast-iron columns now enjoy central status, and doors and millwork in oak were fashioned. to suggest rather than outright replicate their predecessors.

The crowning of the building literally occupies the top floor. The geology department used the attic as a warehouse. But the soaring space (at its peak, the ceiling reaches almost 50 feet from the floor) deserved better.

It has been brilliantly redesigned as a one-of-a-kind venue suitable for the department’s parade of author readings and guest lectures. The airy literary playground makes the most of the roof’s original wooden supports and natural light streams in through the south-facing windows which are surrounded by beautiful stone and masonry walls.

“This piece was an undiscovered resource,” Rafferty said. “The English department is particularly appropriate for this building because both have the romance of another era. But the department also constantly organizes special events, and this is the perfect place for that. They no longer have need to rent space elsewhere.”

Another remarkable element is the staircase which winds through the monumental tower of the building. It hangs from a steel frame that has been constructed within the curved walls of the tower and, unlike its utilitarian predecessor, connects to all four floors of the building. Crafted from sleek stainless steel, terrazzo and oak, it’s a striking juxtaposition to the tower’s rough masonry.

“Now you can see from floor to floor,” Rafferty said. “It’s a completely new piece, and it’s meant to express today’s materials.”

make it work

Accessibility concerns dictated some minor alterations to the exterior, which is one of the most spectacular incarnations of the area’s Richardsonian Romanesque style.

Because the original front doors are located on the second floor, perched atop large exterior staircases, a new ground floor entrance has been discreetly fashioned into a vaulted arcade.

A new plaza overlooking Pillsbury Drive SE. guides visitors to the new entrance, and the low stone retaining walls – which double as seating – create subtle visual barriers that quietly discourage people from climbing the stairs. Original entrance doors are now exit portals only.

A second ground floor entrance was created on the south side of the building, and a third entrance, invisible from the outside, was added when the building was finally connected to the university’s underground walkway system.

This connection below ground level is part of an important and unseen segment of the Pillsbury Hall rejuvenation. A delicate effort involved digging under the footings of the building to create a hidden space for the upgraded mechanical and utility systems. A happy benefit of the complicated scheme was that it dictated the removal of a sloping, concrete-clad pedestrian ramp into the underground Williamson Hall, healing an intrusive scar that had separated Pillsbury Hall from the neighboring (and equally historic) Nicholson Hall ever since. the mid 1970s.

Running the mechanical, electrical, and communications systems through the building represented additional vexations for a small army of engineers and construction manager JE Dunn, the company behind the complex remake of the Northrop Auditorium. These unglamorous but necessary investments took a bite out of the project’s $36 million price tag, a generous budget for a square footage that could fit in a Cub Foods store.

But savings have been made where possible. The 19th-century structural system required extensive testing and replacement, and some of the old salvaged wood is being repurposed by St. Paul artist Seitu Jones into sculptural pieces that will be installed throughout the building.

Rating: A

The English department moved in late last summer, and to say the collective response has been positive is an understatement.

“We are thrilled,” said Andrew Elfenbein, department chairman. “It’s a beautiful building. But we’re also in a strange time. Given the pandemic, we, along with the rest of the global workforce, are trying to figure out how to negotiate space. It’s going to take a some time to fully grow into it.”

The building is named after its benefactor, John Sargent Pillsbury. Minnesota’s three-term governor and milling magnate funded the cost of a much-needed science building for the cash-strapped university. Pillsbury died in 1901. His namesake gift now lives on to serve new generations of students.

The campaign to secure Pillsbury Hall for the English department began to percolate in the 1990s, and the patience-testing process eventually spread through the administrations of five college presidents. Architecture Advantage signed nearly eight years ago and construction took two years.

The stellar results are worth the wait.

“When you work on a publicly funded project, you start, and you stop, and you start, and you stop,” Rafferty said. “These projects become your children. You have to figure out how to bring them to life and how to nurture them. That’s what an architect lives for.”


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