After renovation, Northrop Auditorium is ready to dance again

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2014 - 10:48 PM

Dramatically changed after a three-year renovation, the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium is poised to reopen next weekend.

The transformation is nothing short of astonishing.

A dramatic new Northrop Auditorium has emerged from 38 months of construction, unrecognizable to the faithful who have flocked to the 85-year-old University of Minnesota landmark for concerts, dance performances, lectures and graduations.

From the start, the project was a Ph.D.- level architectural and engineering challenge: Retain the iconic 1929 exterior, demolish the vast majority of the interior and start over.

After seven decades of little more than acoustical Band-Aids and minor cosmetic fixes, rejuvenation efforts began in 2006, when the building’s exterior received a $21 million restoration. In 2011, the university’s Board of Regents approved an $80.8 million remake of the building’s interior. The price tag eventually grew to $88.2 million, and the results debut Friday at a gala event featuring American Ballet Theatre.

Ticket holders might not notice the changes at first glance, because Memorial Hall, Northrop’s three-story lobby, has been meticulously returned to its patrician glory.

“This is the space where people walk in and say, ‘Oh God, they didn’t ruin it,’ ” Northrop director Christine Tschida said with a laugh.

But nearly everything behind Memorial Hall is radically changed. And vastly improved. For starters, anyone who spent the length of an intermission waiting in line outside a lavatory will rejoice at the proliferation of restrooms. But the main event, the auditorium, is the indisputable star.

To HGA architect Tim Carl, the project’s lead designer, the mission was clear: Create a performance venue with superior sightlines and acoustics. His solution was to replace the two-level shoebox configuration with a four-level, horseshoe-shaped layout, shedding 2,147 seats.

What had been a balletomane’s nightmare is now a dream come true. In the narrower, shallower auditorium, 80 percent of the seats are within 100 feet of the stage. In the cavernous old hall, that figure was 20 percent.

With acoustics, there was nowhere to go but up (“Dynamite” was former Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy’s famous suggestion for improving Northrop’s notoriously dreary sound quality). Working closely with acousticians from New York-based Arup, Carl utilized curves — from the overt shape of the balconies to the subtle treatment of stone, wood and plaster walls — to distribute sound. “It’s a complex convexity,” he said.

The test will come Friday evening, when the orchestra pit’s 60 musicians hurl themselves into composer Adolphe-Charles Adam’s score to “Giselle.”

User-friendliness

Northrop’s reboot offers previously unimagined creature comforts: wider seats, more generous legroom, a twofold increase in concession stands, a pair of conveniently located ticket offices, wheelchair accessibility, an honest-to-goodness coat check and 21 public restrooms.

Remote control-operated double doors eliminate the distracting light and sound intrusions that plagued the old auditorium’s single-door system. A soundproof control booth is another Northrop first, and discreetly placed main-floor ramps will facilitate a beloved campus tradition.

“It’s a perfect stage for graduations,” said Tschida. “We already have 18 scheduled.”

An airy new inner lobby — made possible by trimming 38 feet off the back of the old auditorium — is ringed with balconies and tailor-made for people-watching.

“On every level there is activity and excitement,” said Carl. “It’s a place to see and be seen, and that’s a part of going to the theater.”

Enduring materials abound: quarter-sawn red oak, bronze, buff-colored Minnesota limestone, hand-troweled plaster walls and terrazzo floors, all rendered in a timelessly muted color palette. Inside the auditorium, now called the Carlson Family Stage, the seat upholstery and stage curtain are — what else? — maroon. No gold, however.

Backstage, a new crossover lets performers move easily from stage left to stage right; before, they had to go through the basement.

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