After razing its aging theater building last fall, Macalester College this month began work on a $32 million replacement — the third and final phase of a long-range plan to upgrade all of its fine-arts facilities.
There's now a hole where the 1960s-era theater building once stood on Macalester Street as part of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center. By spring 2019, a sleek new structure designed by Minneapolis-based HGA Architects and Engineers will open in its place, completing an eight-year process that earlier saw extensive renovations to the college's music and art buildings.
With a crane visible overhead and workers from McGough Construction placing its footings, the prospect of a new theater building is becoming more real for Macalester students and faculty, who are seeking not only improved arts facilities but also more and better classroom space — a need made more acute by steadily rising enrollment.
In addition to a state-of-the-art performance space and other theater-related uses, the new building will include nine new classrooms available on a schoolwide basis. They will be open to any professor on campus but seem likely to be used most frequently by science students spilling over from the next-door Olin-Rice Science Center via a newly built skyway connection.
"In the last 20 years or so, our enrollment has risen from around 1,650 to 2,100 students, and in that time, we have not added very many classrooms," said Karine Moe, Macalester provost and faculty dean. "We've been feeling a classroom crunch for some time now where demand for classrooms is high, especially during peak teaching times."
Enrollment growth has been highest in science-related majors, especially mathematics and computer sciences, where classes at the Olin-Rice Science Center are conducted in old-fashioned, tiered layouts that hinder collaborative teaching methods now favored by educators. Thus the need for flexible new classroom space dovetailed with the project to improve the school's arts facilities.
In fact, the original plan for the final phase of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center upgrade was not a new theater building at all, but rather to renovate the existing one much like the work done earlier on the art and music buildings, complemented with the construction of just a small addition providing a handful of new classrooms.
But David Wheaton, Macalester vice president of administration and finance, said that as the numbers were crunched and the need for new classrooms became more acute, officials ultimately signed on for a new theater building with nine classrooms as the most cost-effective way to address both priorities.
"Only about half of the classrooms on campus are now shouldering the bulk of the teaching load, with the rest either too antiquated or specialized to be used regularly," he said. "We determined that if we could construct around 10 new, flexible classrooms, we could convert some of that underutilized classroom space into other uses, such as academic offices."
Still, despite answering collegewide space planning priorities, the new building's biggest beneficiary will be the Department of Theatre and Dance and its new chairwoman, Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento. She recently came to the school from Wesleyan University and predicted the project will be a game-changer for Macalester's arts program.
"The reason I came here is that it became clear to me that Macalester is interested in investing a lot into the arts," she said.
Among her favorite features will be its 3,000-square-foot flex theater performance space, which will allow for various seating and stage configurations; an overhead wire tension grid system to train theater technicians; a 2,400-square-foot dance studio on the main level, replacing a dark basement space in the former building; a box office within a new commons space; and a spacious scene shop for set construction.
To finance the building, the school is raising $10 million from donors and has sold bonds to cover remaining costs.
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Real Estate Journal.