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.”
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.
Northrop regulars will recognize a few key salvaged elements. The six colossal urns that once flanked the stage were removed, restored and reinstalled outside the hall, greeting patrons as they climb the stairs to the first balcony.
Five enormous plaster medallions from the top of the proscenium arch, each depicting a different college, were restored and installed in the new lobby. Their acoustic-friendly replicas, made with a durable resin, are indistinguishable from the arch’s remaining original panels.
Center of attention
Once a campus dead zone used an average of 51 days per year, Northrop will now see significant daytime foot traffic. More than 13,000 square feet have been repurposed for student lounges and three academic programs. A cafe (operated by Surdyk’s) will open later this year.
Tucked beneath the uppermost balcony is the 168-seat Best Buy Theater, a new venue for film, recitals and lectures.
The building’s Ionic-columned facade wasn’t touched, but an addition in the rear of the building added 15 much-needed feet to the stage’s depth.
The expansion also created room for a posh events space, a seminar room and a large rehearsal studio. Tall windows let passersby actually see into the big brick barn, while those inside are treated to postcard-worthy views of historic Pillsbury, Folwell and Nicholson halls.
“I’m proud of the way the addition blends with the original building,” said Carl. “The details are contemporary, but it fits.”
Design considerations doomed one of the auditorium’s most memorable fixtures, its massive chandelier, which was meticulously dismantled, documented and placed in storage. “We concluded that it would block the views of at least a third of the third balcony’s seats,” said HGA project manager Jim Moore.
Gone but not forgotten is the state’s second-largest pipe organ, its 6,975 pipes sitting in carefully catalogued storage. They await reinstallation, but that project requires an estimated $3 million fundraising campaign.
Another musical instrument on the wait-and-see list is the building’s seven-octave electronic carillon, which for decades chimed melodiously across Northrop Mall through speakers on the building’s roof. “We are investigating whether the speakers are being reinstalled to activate the carillon again in the future,” said Northrop spokeswoman Cari Hatcher.
Preserving the richly detailed proscenium arch — the auditorium’s only remaining original component — was a top priority. During a tour last week, Carl got his first glimpse of the arch as it was bathed in the spotlights it so richly deserves.
“I’m totally thrilled,” he said. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”
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