The iconic Northrop Auditorium portico looks the same from the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus mall. The grand foyer, renamed Memorial Hall, is much as it was in 1929, the year its doors first opened to a cavernous 4,800-seat performance hall.
But the doors now give way to a more elegant and intimate theater, seating 2,700 in clever proximity to a stage that has been the venue for hundreds of thousands of Minnesota memories. The stage is still surrounded by a proscenium arch embedded with medallions representing University of Minnesota colleges and divisions. But light shines through most of them in a way it never did before, revealing that like the hall itself, these familiar-looking features have been transformed.
We came away impressed after a recent preview tour of the new Northrop, which is gearing up for a gala reopening on April 4. The renovation both respects the storied hall’s history and reconfigures it for greater versatility and suitability to contemporary campus and community needs.
The old hall was once berated by a visiting orchestra conductor who, when asked what could be done to improve acoustics, responded “dynamite.” The redesigned triple-balcony hall promises improvement for listeners, while a new 168-seat lecture hall offers “acoustic perfection,” project executive Michael Denny says.
The old hall was said to have a Goldilocks nature, with a front-of-house that was too large and backstage spaces that were too small. That imbalance has been rectified in a way sure to appeal to performers. Bright, glass-walled rooms with stunning views in the northwest and northeast corners are bound to be in demand for events, and will be available for public rental.
The old Northrop was often eerily vacant by day as the campus bustled outside. The new Northrop will be busy day and night, housing three academic programs, lecture halls, art galleries, performance practice rooms and comfortable study space that’s sure to be well-populated. Space is set aside for a small cafe, which awaits funding. So does reinstallation of Northrop’s circa 1930s Aeolian-Skinner organ, one of few in the country.
Notable, too, is the way the $88 million renovation was financed. State taxpayers typically pay for two-thirds of the cost of capital improvements at public colleges and universities, with the institutions tapping their own resources and donors for the rest. This project reversed that pattern. Only 21 percent of project funds came from taxpayers — and that amount was not from a specific bonding authorization but from undesignated repair funds authorized biennially by the Legislature under the rubric “higher education asset preservation and renovation,” or HEAPR.
HEAPR allocations have topped higher-ed capital requests to the Legislature for years. But the Legislature habitually shrinks those requests, sometimes dramatically, believing that the small projects they finance are invisible and postponable.
The beautiful new Northrop refutes those faulty assumptions. HEAPR prolongs the usefulness of facilities that serve this state in meaningful, lasting ways. Not every aging campus building is as storied as Northrop, but many more deserve a new lease on life.