New life for the mighty Pillsbury A Mill
“In point of elegance it will probably excel anything yet attempted.”
Not a word you normally associate with a flour mill.
But that’s what The Northwestern Miller newspaper said about the Pillsbury A Mill, on April 29, 1881, just about two months before it began producing flour on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.
But it was unique. Then, and now (as I’ll show you, below).
Upon its completion, The Pillsbury A Mill it was the world’s largest and most technologically-advanced mill, surpassing the size of Cadwallader Washburn’s new mill across the river, built a year before (Washburn’s company was the predecessor to General Mills. Pillsbury was eventually acquired by General Mills in 2001).
The mill looked impressive on the outside. It was six-story cube of blue limestone, with foundation walls 8 ½ feet thick.
But on the inside, make no mistake – it was a flour factory that produced bags and barrels at a torrid pace.
In the Pillsbury A Mill’s nomination document to the National Register of Historic Places, it’s written that it went from a 4,000 barrel-a-day capacity in 1882, to an average daily capacity of 17,500 at its peak, years later.
Put it this way, 17,500 barrels would give you enough 25 lb. flour sacks to form a line that would go for more than 60 miles.
Lori Sturdevant recounts in her book, “The Pillsburys of Minnesota,” that more than a hundred railroad carloads of wheat were once delivered to the mill every day. Water wheels, taking in the Mississippi’s current through a canal dug underneath, powered the machines that milled the flour.
The mill didn’t have electricity, inside, until the 1950s, but in its early years it was known for its electric lights on the outside. Sturdevant writes that those lights on the Minneapolis riverfront “gave the Pillsbury A the look of an illuminated castle, and was such an attraction on summer evenings that a door-keeper was hired to ‘keep snoopy tourists out.’”
As the decades passed and the milling industry declined, the A Mill’s regal presence in Minneapolis remained. It continued to produce flour until 2003, even though its condition had deteriorated considerably.
A developer bought the mill, intending to restore it for higher-end condos. But those plans fell through.
In 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Pillsbury A Mill on its list of the 11 Most Endangered Places.
Its future was unsettled until another developer, Dominium, came forward in 2013 with a new plan to create affordable housing inside, and to preserve the Pillsbury complex – a site that includes the A Mill, a cleaning house, a warehouse and the Red Tile Elevator (rooftop home to the iconic “Pillsbury’s Best Flour” sign, which was just renovated and turned back on, on Nov. 2).
For the last two years or so Dominium, with BKV Group, has been working to provide the Pillsbury A Mill block with a remarkable new look and a noble new purpose.
The company’s project is nearly complete.
It’s now a property collectively referred to as the A-Mill Artist Lofts, with 251 affordable apartments solely for artists (along with numerous rooms where they can work on their art and also foster connections with each other).
I toured the renovated Pillsbury buildings last month with David Lepak, the property’s community manager. I’ve shared some of what I saw, and part of an interview with Lepak, in this video.
Anyone who worked in the A Mill or part of the Pillsbury complex, from 1881 to 2003, would hardly recognize the interior of the buildings today, aside from their limestone or brick walls, or steel or wooden beams.
But for the new occupants on the historic block, living and working in a state-of-the art and environmentally-friendly property, those decades-old walls and beams now provide a visible reminder of what the buildings used to be.
“We wanted to provide history and an opportunity for artists to live affordably,” says Lepak. “This project was a great way to marry the two things – the history of Pillsbury and feeding your body, with a way to now feed your soul with art.”
Because of how the development was funded, artists of many kinds, subject to an approval process, are able to pay vastly lower rent for a mix of studios and one, two, three and four-bedroom lofts in the Pillsbury complex.
The additional rooms they have access to for their artistic pursuits include a dance studio, their most popular for reservations so far.
Also, they designed private or group workspaces for pottery, multimedia, painting, music, culinary arts and photography to name a few.
And, a club room on the top floor, leading to a rooftop deck with a spectacular view of downtown Minneapolis.
On my tour, Lepak also made sure to stress some parts of Dominium’s preservation of Pillsbury’s history on the property.
First, they are restoring the sub-basement of the mill for hydroelectric heating and cooling, as you saw in the video and in the photo below. The improvements will make the property Gold LEED certified. Dominium will wrap up that work under the mill by the end of the year.
“To think of what went into that when the mill opened, the planning and the engineering to do it originally, is mind-blowing. And to be able to showcase and use that again is great,” says Lepak.
The design, in one hallway, also includes some curious circles carved out onto the floor. They are meant to signify the mill’s many flour ducts, Lepak says, that went from floor to floor.
As more of an oddity of the times, Dominium also left a “Humphrey Lift” intact for viewing by the residents. It was an elevator of sorts that A Mill workers would hop on and hang onto for an unconventional ride through the six floors of the building.
And, if you walk by the back of the A Mill you’ll see what Lepak refers to as a “sunken garden.” It’s where a formerly attached building used to stand, where railcars were loaded and unloaded.
“Rather than just excavating the space and disposing of everything there, it was an archeological dig that restored those train and rail artifacts so that we can display them and people can see them,” Lepak says.
The A-Mill Artist Lofts offer one of the most unique addresses for an apartment, for sure.
While Pillsbury no longer has an ownership connection to the company’s historic property – and even its iconic sign high above the Minneapolis riverfront – the people who will live there can’t help but feel a strong tie to its past, every day, as they forge its future.
Today, with its new look and new purpose, the Pillsbury A Mill is as elegant as ever.
Editor’s note: This video from Dominium highlights the artists now living in the mill.
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