A Home for English

Pillsbury Hall has been designated for the Department of English

Image of Pillsbury HallA couple of years ago, junior and senior English major classmates crowded into a makeshift classroom were asked to dream. Imagine a permanent home for the Department of English: what features should it include? What might it offer that 40 years of temporary housing in Lind Hall has not? Nearly all their answers boiled down to one word: community. The possibility for it increases dramatically when the Department of English's 740 majors, 42 faculty, 130 graduate students, and 6000 students annually taking English classes are grounded in one place, a single building with room for offices, classrooms, public readings, and informal gathering spaces.

"English is about more than just reading books," declared one of the students, 2009 graduate Kristi Behnke. "It's about experiencing literature. It would be great to have space to do that--performance spaces, publications labs, and communal areas."

The dreaming, which has involved Department of English faculty and University of Minnesota administration for years, is over. The new home designated for the Department of English is Pillsbury Hall, a sandstone block building a short jaunt up Church Street with 150 years of history behind it.

Pillsbury Hall, built in 1889, is the second oldest building on campus and easily one of the most significant. John S. Pillsbury, Minnesota governor from 1875 to 1881 and a University of Minnesota Regent from 1863 until his death in 1901, first rescued the fledgling institution of higher learning in the 1860s with a reorganization plan that stabilized its financial situation. Then, in 1889, the Minnesota State Legislature was considering sending the land grants available under the Morrill Act for the establishment of an agriculture and mechanic arts college to another location in the state. Pillsbury stepped in with an offer to personally fund a "hall of science" for the University of Minnesota on the condition that the land grants go to the University of Minnesota. His offer was accepted, the hall was built, and Pillsbury Hall has been the home of the Department of Geology ever since. Pillsbury's elegant offer is worth quoting:

"I propose to erect and complete a hall of science at an expense of $150,000 more or less and to present it to the state, and all I ask to know is that these land grants will be kept intact and this institution be made one that this great state can be proud of; that may be adequate to the needs of the state, an honor to it, and a lasting monument to the progress which is characteristic of this state now and in the years to come--some assurance that when I am dead and gone, this institution shall be kept for all time, broad in its scope, powerful in its influence, as firm and substantial in its maturity as it was weak and struggling in the days that saw its birth." John S. Pillsbury
Image of main arch of Pillsbury HallWith its arched entryways and patterned sandstone, Pillsbury Hall has been called "the best remaining example of 19th Century architecture on the Minneapolis campus." Designed by LeRoy S. Buffington in the Romanesque style of Henry Hobson Richardson, it is considered his finest work still in existence. Buffington also designed and constructed Burton Hall (1894), Nicholson Hall (1890), and Eddy Hall (1886). In addition, John S. Pillsbury contracted Buffington for the Pillsbury "A" Mill. Harvey Ellis, an associate at Buffington's firm, is believed to have been the draftsman for the Pillsbury Hall project. Roger G. Kennedy, one-time director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, named Ellis "an elusive American genius"; he is best known for "mission" furniture designs produced by Gustav Stickley's company.

Pillsbury Hall was first suggested as a home for the Department of English in 1996, by College of Liberal Arts Interim Dean Robert Holt. Then Chair Shirley Garner had expressed frustration both with the limitations of Lind Hall's space and the unfeasible options occasionally offered in its place. Holt explained that the Institute of Technology planned to propose a new building for the Department of Physics, which would then open up the Tate Laboratory of Physics for the Department of Geology and Geophysics. The facilities needs of modern geologic research had become increasingly problematic for Pillsbury Hall.

Pillsbury Hall fit the Department of English very well, however, as space assessments have shown. Its 48,538 square feet match the requirements of the department for faculty and graduate student offices, while also providing classroom space; Department of English faculty and students would no longer have to chase their classes around the East Bank. The building also includes room for public readings, lectures, and performances: the Department of English offers one of the fullest event schedules in the College of Liberal Arts. Finally, space is available, as it never has been in Lind Hall, for a commons and a publication lab where students can work on group projects, meet between classes, and otherwise feel a sense of communal identity and ownership within the third largest major of the College of Liberal Arts.

The fit between Pillsbury Hall and the Department of English is not merely a matter of space. The Old Campus Historic District (the Knoll area) of which Pillsbury Hall is a part has emerged as a center for the humanities, with Folwell Hall encompassing language departments, Nolte Center housing the Institute for Advanced Study and the Center for Medieval Studies, and Nicholson Hall providing homes for Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature and the Writing Center. Meanwhile, the Department of English shares Lind Hall with the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) and the College of Science and Engineering. The prestigious IMA, one of only eight National Science Foundation Mathematical Sciences Institutes in the United States with visitor programs attracting over 1000 scientists per year, has indicated that it would like to expand further into Lind Hall.

After hearing Dean Holt's suggestion, Professor Garner recruited now Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether, and the two began to research the possibility of a move to Pillsbury Hall while reaching out to University of Minnesota administrators and community leaders who might assist in the process. A Pillsbury Hall Committee was initiated within the Department of English, including members of the Department of English Advisory Board.

Image of students in front of Pillsbury Hall a century agoAn investigation into the soundness of the structure revealed that Pillsbury Hall, while solid, needs serious interior renovation. Layers of remodeling projects bear the marks of various decades, jarring with the historical character of the hall. Mechanical and electrical systems require updating. Shadowy spaces call out for more light. The total package for a re-envisioned, renovated, and furnished Pillsbury Hall is estimated at $24 million.

Precedent for renovation surrounds Pillsbury Hall. Other historic buildings nearby were once slated to be "decommissioned," their space no longer assigned to departments. But University President Mark Yudof (1997-2002), an early supporter of the move of the Department of English to Pillsbury Hall, pushed for a master plan for the Minneapolis campus in which historically significant buildings were restored and brought into active use. In 2005, Jones Hall (1901) reopened as the elegant new freshman welcome center, with its skylight restored, its timber roof structure replaced to meet fire code, and its exterior brick and terra cotta masonry preserved. Soon after, Nicholson Hall showed off a sleek, slimmer self, shorn of a decaying wing and auditorium, its turret reconstructed and its art deco lobby restored.

Celebrating the revival of Nicholson Hall as a home for the humanities, then College of Liberal Arts Dean Steven Rosenstone saw the Old Campus Historic District transformed: "When our vision is fully realized, we'll have a vital, historic humanities district that will be the culmination of literally decades of planning and dreaming," said Rosenstone, now Vice President of Scholarly and Cultural Affairs. "I like to think that 50 years or a century from now, students who walk the halls of these venerable buildings will thank this generation of Minnesotans for their commitment to preserving the University's heritage."

Image of recent undergraduate in front of Pillsbury HallIn 2006, Professor Sprengnether organized a field session for the 2007 National Preservation Conference in St. Paul focused on exploring the Old Campus Historic District. With the assistance of the Weisman Art Museum, the Pillsbury Hall Committee staged an exhibit of architectural drawings from the University of Minnesota's Leroy S. Buffington collection in conjunction with the field session. Members of the Pillsbury family were invited to a special exhibit reception, which highlighted Pillsbury Hall and the plans for renovation.

In the first public airing of their support, University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks and Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs E. Thomas Sullivan co-hosted the event and spoke enthusiastically of Pillsbury Hall as the new home of the Department of English. Proclaimed President Bruininks with relish: "It's a go!"

Since 2007, Provost Sullivan has been leading fundraising efforts particularly with a goal to achieve a lead gift towards the Pillsbury Hall interior renovation on behalf of the entire Pillsbury family. Significant results have been achieved through major gifts by Philip and Nina Pillsbury, the Southways Foundation, and Ella Crosby, among other family members.

With the 2010 Minnesota State Legislature approving four million dollars toward planning the Physics and Nanotechnology building, the long dream of a permanent home for the Department of English is becoming reality. One of those English majors fantasizing a road out of Lind Hall may have put it best: "It is only appropriate," noted Becky Palapala (BA 2010), "that two of the oldest, most esteemed aspects of University of Minnesota tradition--Pillsbury Hall and the Department of English--should find new life in one another."

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Sutton published on December 7, 2010 1:47 PM.

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