U officials warn that without renovations, the building will close. Funding was approved Thursday.
If recent work on Northrop Auditorium's exterior qualifies as a face-lift, then the building is about to get a heart transplant.
An ambitious $80.8 million plan to replace the iconic building's guts and transform its purpose got a key go-ahead Thursday. Work on the University of Minnesota landmark will begin this month.
The U will pay for the project through a mix of private fundraising ($12.9 million), university debt ($45.4 million) and already-obtained state funding for repair projects ($20 million). A regents committee approved that funding Thursday. The full board will sign off Friday.
U officials say the 82-year-old building is "egregiously out of compliance with code" and its electrical and structural systems could fail at any time.
"Simply put, Northrop is in trouble," U vice president Steven Rosenstone told a Board of Regents committee Thursday.
But the plan goes far beyond bringing the building up to code. The U hopes to transform Northrop into a "vital academic center of distinction and discovery that enlightens, challenges, and engages students, faculty, and the community," according to a project description.
Right now, the building is used just 51 days a year -- including for commencement ceremonies. The U hopes that by adding study space, the U's honors program, a lecture hall and a cafe, it will become a destination.
In short, students' first visit to Northrop won't occur the day they graduate.
To make room, the 4,800-seat, "dreadful" performance space will shrink by half, Rosenstone said. The resulting 2,800 seats will benefit from better acoustics and sightlines.
In the past, some regents and professors have questioned whether it is responsible to embark on such a project at a such a tough financial moment.
But U President Robert Bruininks and Rosenstone stress that bringing Northrop up to code -- without doing the larger renovation -- would actually be more expensive. They say that any increased operating costs will be erased by gained efficiencies. They warn that doing nothing would mean shuttering Northrop, turning it into "a mausoleum."
Northrop is scheduled to reopen in fall 2013.
In the meantime, students will graduate somewhere else -- this spring in Mariucci Arena.
Abdul Omari, a student representative to the board, said that when he was an undergraduate, it was meaningful for him to graduate at Northrop. The U must help disappointed students see that while they might miss that experience, the new Northrop will benefit students in the long run, he said.
"We have to communicate why this project is important," said Omari, a doctoral student in comparative and international development education. "Because I think it's extremely important."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168