History of the Pillsbury Project

Image of Pillsbury Hall
The architect behind Pillsbury Hall's red clay roof and patterned sandstone was Harvey Ellis

A Home for English

A few 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 almost 50 years of temporary housing in Lind Hall has not? Most of their answers boiled down to one word: community. The possibility for it increases dramatically when the Department of English’s nearly 500 majors, 35 faculty, 110 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 more than 20 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 the most iconic. John S. Pillsbury, governor of Minnesota 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 planned to transfer the land grants available under the Morrill Act to an agriculture and mechanic arts college at 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. His offer was accepted, the hall was built, and it was named in his honor. The Department of Earth Sciences (formerly Geology) inhabited Pillsbury Hall until 2017.

With 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 design architect 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.

Serving Students

Image of Pillsbury Hall from back

Pillsbury Hall was first suggested as a home for the Department of English by Interim Dean of College of Liberal Arts Robert Holt in 1996. Then Chair Shirley Garner had expressed frustration both with the limitations of Lind Hall’s space and the inadequate alternatives occasionally offered in its place.

Pillsbury Hall fits the Department of English very well, as space assessments have shown. Its 30,000 assignable square feet will accommodate faculty and graduate student offices; house the Undergraduate, Graduate, and Creative Writing Programs; and provide for classrooms. Department of English faculty and students will no longer have to hike to classes all around the East Bank. The building also will include spaces for public readings, lectures, and performances: The Department of English offers one of the fullest events schedules in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). Finally, space is available, as it never has been in Lind Hall, for a publication lab where students will produce two literary magazines and for a Commons where they can work on group projects, meet between classes, and feel a sense of community within the largest humanities major of CLA.


The fit between Pillsbury Hall and the Department of English is not merely a matter of space. The Old Campus Historic Knoll where Pillsbury Hall is located has emerged as a humanities district, with Folwell Hall encompassing language departments, Northrop housing the Institute for Advanced Study, 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 (CSE).

After hearing the Pillsbury Hall suggestion, Professor Garner and Professor Madelon Sprengnether 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. Garner and Sprengnether formed a Pillsbury Hall Committee that included members of the faculty and the English Department Advisory Board. They also commissioned two design studies by architectural firms.

An 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 was estimated at $24 million in the late 1990s.

Creating a Humanities Hub

Detail from Pillsbury external wall

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 Department of English move to Pillsbury Hall, pushed for a master plan for the Minneapolis campus, in which historically significant buildings would be 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 CLA 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, who became Chancellor of MNSCU before retiring. “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.”

The push to settle English in Pillsbury received a great boost during President Robert Bruininks’ administration (2002–2011). The Institute of Technology proposed a new building for the Department of Physics, which would depart the Tate Laboratory. Kathleen O’Brien, then Vice President for University Services, saw that Earth Sciences needed updated labs and could move into a renovated Tate Lab, leaving Pillsbury open for English.

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

Then 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. During his tenure as Provost, Sullivan led fundraising efforts particularly with a goal to achieve a lead gift towards the Pillsbury Hall renovation on behalf of the entire Pillsbury family.

The Path Forward

Piyali Nath Dalal, BA 2001 summa cum laude; MA 2008 Public Policy
In 2010 and 2011, the Minnesota State Legislature approved planning and construction funds for the Physics and Nanotechnology building, which opened in 2014. In spring 2014, the Legislature approved funds for the renovation of Tate Laboratory; Earth Sciences  moved into Tate in fall 2017.

In 2012, then Chair Ellen Messer-Davidow formed a Pillsbury Hall Executive Committee (including Garner and Sprengnether with members of CLA and CPPM/Capital Projects and Program Management), which defined the kinds of spaces that we need: to serve our nearly 500 majors and the 6,000 students we teach annually; to provide spaces for collaborative and inter-disciplinary projects for faculty and students across the humanities; and to assist the college and the University in the Pre-Design process. 

Because of its status on the National Register of Historic Places, the Pillsbury Hall renovation project was submitted to the Minnesota State Designer Selection Board, which vetted Pre-Design proposals from local and national architectural firms. The unanimous selection of this board and the University was Rafferty, Rafferty, Tollefson, Lindeke, in collaboration with the technical and educational resource firms of Goody/Clancy and Rickes Associates.

Beginning in 2015, President Eric Kaler made the project a priority (as he told legislators, "Pillsbury is my favorite building on campus"). In October 2017, the Board of Regents approved the 2018 Capital Budget Request, which included the renovation of Pillsbury Hall. The cost estimate of this project is $36 million, a relatively modest amount in terms of the expense of constructing a new building. Current English Chair Andrew Elfenbein continued the department's campaign with outreach to legislators and interviews in local media, including The Star Tribune. Our English Advisory Board members, students, and alums testified on the importance of Pillsbury through letters, emails, calls, and face-to-face meetings with lawmakers.

Victory at the Capitol

After the funding request was presented to Minnesota lawmakers, the House, Senate, and Governor Mark Dayton all featured the Pillsbury Hall renovation in their respective bonding bill budget proposals. On May 30, 2018, Governor Dayton signed the 2018 capital projects bill passed by Minnesota legislators, thereby securing $24 million for the renovation of Pillsbury Hall. We in English, CLA, and the University at large are committed to engaging our loyal base of donors and our 10,000 alumni to help meet the University’s $12 million debt obligation for this transformative project.


With the Governor's signature, the dream of a permanent home for the Department of English drew much closer to 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.”

How Can You Help?

Your contribution today helps the dream of a home for English become reality. For information about giving, go to http://z.umn.edu/renovatePH

Thank you to everyone who emailed, called, or sent a letter to their state representatives! We couldn't have done it without you.