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MacPhail: a new note for the Minneapolis riverfront

MacPhail Center for Music
Photo by Kris Drake Photography
A two-story cube that angles out toward the corner acts as MacPhail's billboard, says architect James Dayton. On the street level, large glass windows showcase three classrooms/performance spaces.

In Minneapolis' Mill District you can study the city's history, watch a Shakespeare play, eat sushi, buy organic cheese, and climb to the top of a 30-foot-high mound and view the Mississippi River falling over its only waterfall.

Now add music.

This week's opening of the new MacPhail Center for Music near the Milwaukee Road Depot adds another cultural magnet to the burgeoning riverfront. Situated on the same street as the Guthrie Theater, the Mill City Museum, Gold Medal Park and new watering holes and tony lofts, the glass, zinc and steel facility also promises new visibility for the 100-year-old performing arts school — and for its young architect, Minneapolis-based James Dayton.

Performance spaces include the wood-lined 225-seat Antonello Auditorium and a lobby and grand staircase that double as an informal hall. Glass-walled classrooms on the street level and 56 teaching studios stacked in an L-shaped six-story tower maximize the school's activities on its tight corner lot at 501 S. Second St.

"What we're looking at is the future of MacPhail," said David O'Fallon, the music school's president who led the campaign for the $25 million facility. "It's not just do what we did before in a new place. This transforms the organization."

A rocky road to the riverfront
Since 1923 MacPhail was housed in a four-story building at 1128 LaSalle Ave. that became infamous for its lack of amenities. Parents and siblings waited for students in cramped hallways. The fourth-floor auditorium as well as all the teaching and practice rooms lacked air-conditioning. Bathrooms were only available on every other floor—a particularly dire situation considering the large numbers of toddlers enrolled in the school's popular Early Childhood Arts classes.

The organization began discussing a move to new or remodeled quarters in 2000 and secured an option on the lot at Fifth Avenue and Second Street South in 2001, but plans failed to jell. A design by Nagle Hartray of Chicago didn't generate excitement, and the Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Arts were conducting their big-bucks fundraising campaigns. Another plan to remodel the Miller Meister Building on First Avenue North didn't materialize either, and by 2004, money had been spent on two designs without any outcome. The MacPhail organization was demoralized.

Then, as the legendary story goes, discouraged board member Margee Bracken was walking with her friend Peggy Lucas of Brighton Development, who suggested she look at Dayton's model for riverfront condos called The Portland. Dayton, a scion of the Minneapolis retail and philanthrophic family, founded James Dayton Design in 1997.

"Peggy said he has a very nice manner about him," Bracken said, "and I've always loved his design for the Minnetonka Center for the Arts."

Dayton steps on board
With Dayton's help, MacPhail's leaders did some serious soul-searching that crystallized in a new business plan. Part of the new thrust was to take some classes to the school's far-flung audience instead of expecting everyone from the seven-county metro area to drive to downtown Minneapolis in the late afternoon.

Two "access sites" planned for Apple Valley and White Bear Lake meant the downtown flagship didn't need to be as large, Bracken said.

Rob Hunter, James Dayton Design's project manager for MacPhail, said the firm spent three months understanding the school's needs and probably considered 100 different schemes before the design was unveiled in July 2005. Like famed California architect Frank Gehry, for whom he worked for five years, Dayton develops designs through block models rather than drawings.

"The turning point was bringing Jim and the team on," O'Fallon said. "I remember the meeting of the capital campaign where he brought in the model. We were on the third architect. He unveiled the model and people went 'ah.' "

Direct and dynamic
The balsam-wood model showed the building as it stands today.

A two-story cube that angles out toward the corner acts as MacPhail's billboard, Dayton said. On the street level, large glass windows showcase three classrooms/performance spaces. The second floor holds the school's crown jewel — an elegant Douglas fir-lined auditorium focused on an expansive window framing a riverfront view. The window is a beacon on the street.

An L-shaped six-story tower that holds the teaching studios is the backdrop for the cube. Sheathed in 7,000 zinc panels and angling in and out as it rises, the tower has a friendly feel.

The main lobby space stitches the cube and the tower together. Here, at the entrance, is the building's beating heart. A stairway leads up to the auditorium and its inviting lobby, which doubles as a lounge for students' families. Next to the stairway is a set of broader steps that act as seating for the informal performance space tucked into the first-floor lobby. The lobby, which is sky-lit from above and open to the first three floors of the tower, is like an indoor plaza — full of movement and life.

Looking forward
O'Fallon said it's hard to imagine where the building will take the organization.

"We're going from a climate of make-do — hold it together with baling wire and string to 'oh- my-god, we can really do what we want to do for everybody,' " O'Fallon said.

Signs are pointing up. During last weekend's festivities, the registration lines for classes were long. The three-part Minnesota Orchestra Chamber Music Series booked for the Antonello Auditorium sold out in a matter of hours. Bracken said riverfront neighbors are looking forward to stopping by for late-afternoon concerts or music education talks. O'Fallon said students have already played at the Mill City Farmer's Market in the summer, and he's angling to send them out on the Stone Arch Bridge.

In the summer, he plans not just to let music waft out of the building onto the riverfront's streets and sidewalks but also to host outdoor concerts in the facility's green space out front. Bravissimo!

Linda Mack, a former architecture critic for the Star Tribune, can be reached at lmack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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