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Northrop - A Transformation in Progress

Oh where to begin...

Perhaps a little history/timeline. Northrop Memorial Auditorium opened in October 1929. It was originally envisioned, to be a large lecture/assembly hall primarily for convocation & graduations. Mrs. Verna Scott, wife of the Chair of the Music department led the effort to get a large stage added to the building for arts programming. The hall itself was a main floor and a large balcony, with a combined capacity of a little over 4800 seats. The balcony held over 2200 seats, and the last row of the balcony was about 180 feet from stage. There were sightline issues and the acoustics were pretty awful. There have been many different sorts of remodeling, updating, etc., over the years. In 2005/6, the outside of the building was restored. In 2011, the approvals were granted for work to 'revitalize' the inside.

There is an excellent history and description of the project at

My department was located in Northrop. At the time, we were part of the 'Northrop' department, but have restructured since then (and may again, as that seems common at the U of MN...) Our group was the last one to move out of the building in March 2011, amidst the already-started construction.

Our first visit back was in August 2011. What a huge difference to see the walls all opened up. You could see across from the east side to the west and the sun streamed in through the windows. The stage, main floor and basement levels were completely gone from the middle of the building. The main feature left there was the huge truss system that supported the balcony. They were getting ready to remove that part of the building very soon. The space felt immense, as we stood there looking at the huge cranes that looked more like toys from our vantage point. We made our way up to the 4th floor "Gallery" that had been a store room. Even that seemed large with the walls opened up.

After that, we had a few meetings to attend relating to our space and furnishing needs, etc. There were some plans that we got to look at and make some suggestions and asked lots of questions. There was worry that our space would be too small. Even though it is about the same square footage as before, it is configured differently. There are worries about steps instead of ramps, there are questions about sightlines. Perhaps some are justified concerns, but some seem like 'fears of the unknown' at this point.

We've wanted to go back, but the timing didn't work out. Today, we were able to be scheduled for a tour after the majority of the workers had left for the day.

What a change from the last visit! We started in Memorial Hall and were greeted by these huge full size models of ceiling structures for the auditorium and for the large reception room. After a short presentation, we were off on our journey of discovery.

Down we went to the street level, to see that entrance and where part of our space will be. Yes, it looks potentially small, but it's difficult to gauge the scale as there is scaffolding and work-in-progress. We would our way up the back service stairs (completely new and a vast improvement over the previous back stairway) up to the 1st floor. We saw space for the Design Institute here. We saw where the light urns from the old Northrop will be placed - almost exactly where they were before, but they are outside the hall in the lobby area now.

We walked past one of the new grand stairways into the new inner lobby space. This space will have crossovers on each level and is three stories high. It's going to be a stunning space. The on the west side, we walked past the cafe area, on our way to see the view from 'backstage'.

From our backstage perch, we could see some of the front of the 1st balcony. We had an excellent view of the new support structure for the back wall before they take down the old support beams to expand the backstage area and build the rear crossover.

Upstairs we went to the second floor. Here we saw rough space for the Institute for Advance Study, on this level. We got a bit of a peek into the first balcony and walked through the tech booth space.

Up again we went to the third floor and saw the beginnings of spaces for the Honors program.

But, saving the best for last, we climbed up to the fourth floor. Now previously, the fourth floor at Northrop was the "Gallery". Long ago, it used to be the University Art Museum. But when we moved out it was storage and balcony access. On our way here, they stopped to share that there had originally been WPA murals in the building when it was built. They had been painted over as they years went on. The murals will be re-created and will reside on the 4th floor.

The surprise of the 4th floor is all the vast space that they opened up in that area. There will be entrances to the 3rd balcony, as well as large reception spaces for the small lecture hall/performance space, and the gallery space.

From here were got to see the best perspective of the new auditorium. I only took two pictures of the seating areas. Wow! This area will have continental seating. The view is amazing! Yes, you're high up if you sit in the back. But you're about 80 feet closer to the stage. Seeing the hall from here really makes the drawings we've seen come alive. The new Northrop main hall will hold around 2700 people, compared to 4800 before. But the experience they will have will be vastly improved.

Will there be issues? Probably. Will the sightlines be better? Probably - depending upon the staging of the event (just like before). Will the sound be better? Most likely. Will the building be active and filled with life? Most likely, as there are more things to bring people to the building. Most importantly, new memories will be made in this historic place.

Here is a link to some photos...

They suggested we come back in about 3 months, as much of the scaffolding should be removed from some areas. I look forward to it!

We're supposed to move back, late this year, I think.



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January 2013


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