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

Since 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. On the outside, anyway.

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

Mission accomplished.

It was fitting that this priceless pile of sandstone was the longtime seat of the university's geology department, which seemed to take a low-key, lived-in approach to its sleepy 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 treasured center-of-campus location and landmark profile.

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

The building's interior is now a handsomely appointed liberal arts dreamscape, notable for its flexible and comfortable classrooms, state-of-the-art labs, roomy student gathering spaces and quiet faculty offices. Requisite service features — restrooms, kitchenettes, stairways, elevators — were also added.

Although the overall look is clean, contemporary and durable, well-placed echoes of the building's past pop up: beautiful and long-hidden sandstone walls and cast iron columns now enjoy front-and-center status, and oak doors and millwork have been fashioned to suggest rather than flat-out replicate their predecessors.

The building's crowning glory, literally, occupies the top floor. The geology department used the attic as a warehouse. But the soaring space (at its apex, the ceiling reaches nearly 50 feet from the floor) deserved better.

It has been brilliantly reimagined as a one-of-a-kind venue tailored to suit the department's parade of author readings and guest lectures. The airy literary playground makes the most of the roof's original timber supports, and natural light floods in from south-facing windows that are surrounded by gorgeous stone and masonry walls.

"This room was an undiscovered resource," said Rafferty. "The English department is uniquely appropriate for this building because both have the romance of another era. But the department is also constantly doing special events, and this is the perfect spot for that. They no longer have to rent space elsewhere."

Another showy element is the staircase that spirals through the building's monumental tower. It hangs on a steel framework that was constructed inside the tower's curving walls and, unlike its utilitarian predecessor, connects to all four floors of the building. Fashioned 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," said Rafferty. "It's a completely new piece, and it's intended to express today's materials."

Making it work

Accessibility concerns dictated a few minor tweaks to the exterior, which is one of the region's most spectacular embodiments of the Richardsonian Romanesque style.

Because the original front doors are located on the second floor, perched at the top of grand outdoor staircases, a new ground-floor entrance was discreetly fashioned within an arched arcade.

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

A second ground-floor entrance was created on the building's south side, and a third entry, unseen from the exterior, was added when the building was finally linked to the university's underground walkway system.

That below-grade connection is one element of a significant, unseen segment of Pillsbury Hall's rejuvenation. A delicate effort required digging below the building's footings to create hidden space for upgraded mechanical and utility systems. A happy benefit of the complicated scheme was that it dictated the removal of a sloping, concrete-lined pedestrian ramp into subterranean Williamson Hall, healing an intrusive scar that had separated Pillsbury Hall from neighboring (and equally historic) Nicholson Hall since the mid-1970s.

Threading the mechanical, electrical and communication systems through the building were additional vexations for a small army of engineers and construction manager JE Dunn, the firm behind the complex remake of Northrop auditorium. These unglamorous but necessary investments took a bite out of the project's $36 million price tag, a generous budget for square footage that could fit inside a Cub Foods store.

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

Grade: A

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

"We're thrilled," said Andrew Elfenbein, the department's chairman. "It's a stunning building. But we're also in a weird moment. Given the pandemic, we, along with the rest of the global workforce, are trying to figure out how to negotiate the space. It's going to take a while to fully grow into it."

The building bears the name of its benefactor, John Sargent Pillsbury. The three-term Minnesota governor and flour milling magnate underwrote the cost of a much-needed science building for the cash-strapped university. Pillsbury died in 1901. His namesake gift now lives anew to serve new generations of students.

The campaign to secure Pillsbury Hall for the English department began percolating in the 1990s, and the patience-testing process eventually stretched across the administrations of five university presidents. Architecture Advantage signed on nearly eight years ago, and construction lasted two years.

The stellar results are worth the wait.

"When you work on a project that's state-funded, you start, and you stop, and you start, and you stop," said Rafferty. "These projects become your children. You have to figure out how to give birth to it and how to nurture it. That's what an architect lives to do."