by Barbara Pierce and Daniel B. Frye
The people at BLIND Incorporated have intentionally planned their center to be the smallest and most intimate of the three NFB adult training centers. For the first two months students were trained in two successive apartments, which meant crowded quarters and lots of inconvenience. Then the center moved to a downtown office building, which provided more space and a great location, but Joyce Scanlan, BLIND’s executive director during these formative years, always dreamed of housing the center in one of the city’s beautiful old mansions, where the extended-family character of the center would be reinforced by the graciousness of a lovely old home. In 1993 she found the Charles Pillsbury mansion, built in 1912 and owned at the time of this sale by the Guthrie Theater Foundation. Joyce decided that it was just what the BLIND Incorporated staff had been looking for. Some in the community resisted the idea of selling the building to a group of blind people on the questionable grounds that they could not appreciate its grandeur. But the NFB of Minnesota prevailed, and on December 27, 1993, BLIND, Inc., bought the property at 100 East 22nd Street. They moved in on March 26 and began the demanding job of transforming it into a modern training center for the blind without sacrificing the charm and beauty of the original structure. Later this year the staff, students, and Minnesota affiliate will celebrate complete ownership of the property with a mortgage-burning party. What follows in words and photographs are highlights of the Charles S. Pillsbury mansion and current home of BLIND Incorporated.
At the turn of the last century Charles Alfred Pillsbury and the Pillsbury family had amassed a fortune, mostly from milling flour. Sometime around 1912 his sons, Charles S. Pillsbury and his twin brother John, flipped a coin to determine which of them would take over the family mansion on East 22nd Street. Charles lost the coin toss and the family home, so he decided to build his own mansion across the street. Over the next two years he did so at a cost of $300,000. The house is basically English gothic with elements of Tudor, Jacobean, and Elizabethan architecture. It appears to be built of gray limestone blocks, but it is actually brick faced with a limestone facade. Charles was interested in the Chicago school of architecture called skyscraper, so he built his home using steel I-beams and poured concrete floors.
The family used rooms on all four floors of the mansion. The family room and a card room next door used by the gentlemen shared the basement with storage areas. The main floor included the central hall, the library, the parlor, the conservatory and dining room, and the kitchen. The floor above housed bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, and personal suites for Mr. and Mrs. Pillsbury and their three daughters and one son. Even today, tucked away in a closet in Mrs. Pillsbury’s suite is the safe for her jewels. Unfortunately the combination is now lost. The top floor included servants’ rooms and a large ballroom with skylights that make the rooms airy and light.
Charles Pillsbury was determined to make his new home memorable even though he was not above cutting corners where he could. The floors in the public rooms appear to be constructed of wide teak boards pegged together, but they are actually teak veneer over poured concrete and oak flooring, which at the time was relatively inexpensive. This would seem to have been a cost-cutting measure. Yet the beautiful oak paneling in these rooms was imported from several English castles. Leaded glass windows grace a number of rooms, including the old conservatory with its bay containing grouped windows in what is now the BLIND Incorporated lunchroom. Painted-glass medallions from seventeenth-century European churches and castles have been integrated into several of the leaded windows on the main and second floors.
Pillsbury also imported a hand-carved quartersawn oak staircase from an English castle for his entrance hall. The parlor contains a massive carved oak fireplace imported from Shropshire, England. The library, now the executive director’s office, is dominated by a sculpted stone fireplace imported from the guild hall in Chester, England.
This fireplace survived the great fire of London in 1666 before being moved to Chester. But it enjoyed one further adventure on its way to the United States. Randolph Hearst actually bought the fireplace for his castle, San Simeon, in California. Charles Pillsbury learned about this find and attempted to buy the fireplace from Hearst. Knowing a good thing when he had found it, Hurst refused to sell, so Pillsbury asked if he could have a replica made before it was dismantled for shipping to the States. Hearst agreed to this, and the replica was made.
As it happened—no one now seems to know whether by happenstance or design—the original and the replica were shipped in the same freighter. Somehow, by accident or slight of hand, the original was delivered to Pillsbury and the replica shipped to Hearst. By the time Hearst realized that he had the wrong fireplace, the original had been installed in the Pillsbury mansion. Hearst sued to have his property returned, but somehow it has remained in Minneapolis and can be seen today in Shawn Mayo’s office.
Though the BLIND staff has made a huge effort to preserve the uniqueness of the Pillsbury mansion, important and necessary renovations have been made. In this post-ADA world, one of the first renovations to be undertaken was installing an elevator. Without this addition the mansion could not legally have served members of the general public. A battle developed, however, because the mansion was on the national register of historic buildings, so the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission was required to approve any proposed renovation. The architect working with BLIND drew up plans that called for an inconspicuous addition housing the elevator at the rear of the mansion.
The commission rejected the plan out of hand. In vain the staff pointed out that the Americans with Disabilities Act required that an elevator be added to the facility. The commission could not or would not suggest any modification that would make the elevator acceptable. So Joyce Scanlan instructed the architect to draw up plans for an elevator to be located in the main entrance hall, where it would be easily accessible to everyone and also conspicuously intrusive and damaging to the historic structure of the mansion. Since an elevator was required by law to be part of the center, representatives from BLIND told the commission that the more convenient and intrusive elevator would be constructed, and they submitted the blueprints to prove that they were serious. Permission to build the elevator in the original location was granted almost immediately.
A number of recent renovations to the mansion would startle a Pillsbury ghost who decided to wander around the old homestead: the up-to-date laundry room across from the elevator, the two kitchens (one electric and one gas), the flower room now used for filing, and the collection of computer and other high-tech equipment filling Mr. Pillsbury’s bedroom. But perhaps the most surprising addition is the Power Showdown table in the central hall of the second floor. Similar to air hockey, the game is played by two people standing at either end of a large wooden table with a six-inch barrier around the edge of the table and a board stretched across above the center, dividing it in half. Each player defends a pocket in front of him or her with a wooden paddle. A ball about the size of a pool ball with beads inside it to make it rattle is batted back and forth down the length of the table. Each player tries to get the ball to drop into the other person’s pocket. The ball careens from side to side, bouncing off the perimeter fence. Sometimes it bounces up and hits the center board. When it does that or bounces off the table, the person who hit it last loses a point. The game is fast and noisy, and some of the students and staff have developed lightening fast reflexes and a deep vein of competitiveness. During mid morning and afternoon breaks and at lunchtime the sound of the Power Showdown ball being hammered across the table and even occasionally bouncing down the stairs can be heard around the building. Neither of us had ever before done anything like playing Power Showdown, as was painfully obvious to everyone when we played. The game is great fun and an excellent way to relieve tension.
Another unusual game that BLIND Incorporated students sometimes play is string ball. Two people play this game, in which a hollow baseball-size ball is threaded on a cord stretched across a large room. The pitcher hurls the ball along the string toward and past the other person, who is swinging a baseball bat. The object is for the batter to connect with the ball as it scoots past. Doing so requires listening carefully and swinging precisely so as to sweep along the cable just as the ball is passing. We thoroughly enjoyed string ball as played in the ballroom, undoubtedly one of the more unusual activities ever undertaken in that rather formal space.
Those who appreciate views are struck by the spectacular vista from the upper windows of the Pillsbury mansion. This home was obviously loved by those who built and grew up in it. New generations of people, students this time, are coming to adulthood and full responsibility for themselves and their destinies within these well-made walls. We are confident that the members of the Pillsbury family who called 100 East 22nd Street home would approve of the family who call it home today.