From Endangered to Enviable: Pillsbury "A" Mill Complex
A historic mill is transformed into popular loft space for artists
When Minneapolis’ Pillsbury “A” Mill complex was named to the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Places list in 2011, it had already been vacant for eight years. After a failed effort by local developers to convert the National Historic Landmark structure into luxury condominiums, the mill remained shuttered until 2013 when affordable housing developers Dominium Inc. began work to convert the previously foreclosed structure into artist lofts.
Built in 1881 for flour magnate Charles A. Pillsbury, the Pillsbury Mill complex was considered the largest and most advanced milling facility in the world, its original capacity reaching 4,000 barrels a day. Powered by water diverted from the nearby Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River, the “A” mill was constructed with large limestone blocks and timber. By the early 1900s the wooden frame was replaced by steel columns and beams to combat the constant vibration of the milling equipment that had already weakened the structure.
When Dominium finally began work, the outdated mechanical and electrical systems had already been decommissioned and many of the floor assemblies were failing. With an overall budget of approximately $100 million including national and Minnesota historic tax credits, the team was able to save the subterranean hydropower infrastructure, providing green, sustainable energy to the complex; repoint the exterior stonework; repair and replace floor joists; and convert interior space into studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments.
“There were a few flour bins still left in the building that we were able to save and leave suspended from the ceiling so that people could understand how the grain moved vertically and horizontally through the building,” explains Dominium developer Owen Metz.
After nearly two years of construction, the A-Mill Art Lofts opened in 2015 and filled to capacity within months. In addition to traditional apartment amenities, Dominium converted much of the basement space into workspace that includes a clay studio, painting studios, photography studios, and dance studios for its residents.
We talked with a few artists who now call the “A” Mill home about the impact the historic structure has had on their work. Read on for their first-person accounts.
How does working in a former mill inspire you?
Sarah Jackson (singer): As a classical soprano, the music I that specialize in—Baroque music, written between 1600 and 1750—is incredibly special in that its sonic beauty is also based on its architecture. It is music built on an elegant architectural frame, and the singer’s job is to find all of the graceful arches, lines, and ornaments inside the architectural plan, and fully realize them in glorious sound in a performance.
To live at A-Mill is to live surrounded by tangible examples of such graceful arches, beautiful lines, and inspiring spaces. It’s impossible not to be inspired in my creative work by these constant manifestations of architectural beauty!
Kyle Pettis (painter): Working in the former mill is very inspiring. Being on top of the silo makes for a dream studio! I feel really lucky to have a home with such great lighting for my paintings. I often think about all of the hard work that happened in my space for so many years. I think about those workers. What would they think about a painter being here using it as a studio? I don't think they would believe it. That really puts it in perspective. I'm lucky to have this opportunity.
How have the Artist Lofts contributed to the northeast Minneapolis community?
Diana Albrecht (photographer): Our A-Mill community is welcoming and proud of who we are. Members are always trying to collaborate, work with, or support other artists inside and out of their own immediate circles, which is something we as artists or small businesses need more than anything else. It's important for photographers to reach outside of their photographer community and meet actors, [for] dancers to meet designers, and [for] designers to meet chefs. We can all learn something from one another, and a lot of us have taken full advantage of that in order to expand our own communities and further progress our work. We've created a network of various artists, makers, and creators that support one another in their work, but also in our personal lives.
What is unique about the Pillsbury “A” Mill building?
Jackson: Because it was designed to be visually pleasing as well as functional, the “A” Mill seems to welcome and foster the creative energy of artists. In addition, I find it absolutely amazing some of our heating and cooling is also provided through the flow of the Mississippi River through the building!
Has your art or process evolved since you started working in the Artist Lofts?
Pettis: My work has evolved a lot since working here at the "A" Mill. Having this space has allowed me to work on larger pieces like a 6-foot by 6-foot painting recently. I have done a lot of paintings inspired by the architecture and views from the building.