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Northrop Auditorium, a U icon and white elephant, transforming for 21st century

Northrop Memorial Auditorium is a familiar landmark on the U of M campus.
MinnPost photo by Brad Allen
Northrop Memorial Auditorium is a familiar landmark on the U of M campus.

The University of Minnesota's Northrop Memorial Auditorium has been described as "the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest," "a major icon," an "architectural treasure" and "the second-most-recognized building in Minnesota."

It also has been termed "ponderous" and "embalmed," branded with a reputation for poor acoustics and known as a place most Minnesotans step into maybe once or twice in their lives, for a graduation or concert, never to return.

But an ambitious $100 million renovation launched in 2006 — and about to hit high gear — has promised to transform Northrop into a modern, technology-rich performance space and academic center that would turn the landmark into a hub of daily campus life. 

University officials gave the news media a look inside the massive shell, now totally gutted, to build awareness of the renovation as the final phase of construction is set to begin.

Reconstruction is about to start inside the gutted cavernous shell of Northrop Auditorium.
MinnPost photo by Brad Allen
Reconstruction is about to start inside the gutted cavernous shell of Northrop Auditorium.

The seven-year renovation retains the familiar classical exterior of the massive 1929 building that anchors the north side of the U's main campus mall.

The project is totally rebuilding the interior with improved acoustics and unobstructed sight lines in the performance space. The number of auditorium seats will drop from 4,800 to 2,600, bringing the audience much closer to the stage.

"We are not going to be a competing venue with the Ordway and places like that," explained Michael Denny, director of development services for the university. Instead, Northrop will continue to focus on performances and lectures that would not otherwise find a venue here.  "We're after the lecture [with] international esteem where we can be simulcasting with somebody in Russia," Denny explained.

Michael Denny, director of development services for the university, describes the renovation project.
MinnPost photo by Brad Allen
Michael Denny, director of development services for the university, describes the renovation project.

Communications technology will be a key feature of the revamped building, he said.

"We've actually set up infrastructure in the building — because you can only do this once — to adapt to future technology.  We've got it hooked up for satellite links. You can just come in and hook up to the building and start broadcasting from a trailer if you want."

He contrasts the U's renovation program with a similar restoration effort at the University of Michigan that ran into funding problems. They had a 5-pound budget with 10 pounds of expectations. We were very careful about keeping both those in line," Denny added.

The space gained by shrinking the auditorium will increase the amount of public study and meeting space on the East Bank by 50 percent. The new Northrop will house the University Honors Program, the Institute for Advanced Study and the Institute for Innovation by Design as well as a small theater, seminar and meeting rooms, a café and study space.

Denny said the project won broad support within the university community because of Northrop's expanded role beyond just a performance space.

One well-known Northrop feature, the massive 40-foot-high pipe organ, is not part of the current renovation. The organ's 6,975 pipes have been dismantled and are in safe storage as the U attempts to raise the $3 million needed to restore the organ and re-install it in a space that will be built for its eventual reinstallation.

The first phase, beginning 2006 and costing $15 million, stabilized and restored the building's exterior, replaced windows and repaired the roof. The second phase, demolition work, began in February, when the regents approved more than $80 million for the renovation plan.

Funding for the program comes from a combination of state Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) funds, private donations and university funds. Private donations totaling about $10 million have been raised so far, according to Denny.

The facility is scheduled to open in fall 2013, with the performance space ready in spring 2014.

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Comments (1)

I hope they have different architects and designers that the ones who butchered Coffman Union.