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Northrop Reimagined

A revitalized Northrop will open its doors to the world this April.

November 21, 2013

When the revitalized Northrop opens this April, the building will have undergone a transformation both seismic and delicate. To some it will signify Northrop’s ascent into the 21st century; to others, a nod to its history. Having risen in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression, Northrop firmly anchored the state’s University as a center of culture, education, and innovation. Or, as the inscription above the main entryway to Northrop read, then and now:

The University of Minnesota: Founded in the Faith that Men are Ennobled by Understanding; Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth; Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State.” 

An architectural treasure, Northrop has become one of the most iconic and recognizable buildings in the state.

“It is a place of memories that has been really important in people’s lives for nearly a century,” says Christine Tschida, Northrop’s director. “The things that have happened in that auditorium are amazing … the ideas shared, the people … To revitalize it so it will be the home to many more memories in the future—that’s exciting.”

But while it was once a primary gathering place for the performing arts, academic ceremonies, and major civic events, the facility had fallen into physical and functional obsolescence as the needs of the University changed. Its main performance hall seated nearly 4,900, and took up most of the building’s usable space, with more than 80 percent of its seats beyond 100 feet from the stage--some more than three-quarters of a football field away. Now, with the auditorium scaled back to 2,700 seats—an optimum size for the hall’s cutting-edge acoustics—more than 80 percent of the seats are within 100 feet of the stage. And instead of one massive balcony, there are now three. 

A welcoming space for everyone

One of the great coups in the reimagination of the building has been its transformation from a single-purpose auditorium to a multiuse facility.

By cutting the size of the performance hall and adding about 20,000 square feet of space to the building’s backside, architects were able to meet the U’s desire to especially serve students, whose previous contact with the building may have been a visit during first-year orientation and a return four or five years later for graduation.

“Making Northrop central to campus academic life will enrich student learning and promote engagement beyond the classroom,” says U of M Provost Karen Hanson.

Now, six new student lounges significantly increase the amount of study space on the East Bank of the U’s Twin Cities campus. And collaborative space has more than quadrupled, from 3,000 to 13,500 square feet. The new building also includes the addition of a state-of-the-art 168-seat “tunable theater” that can respond acoustically to sound; a gallery; a café and coffee bar open to the public; and a new home for research and academic programs. Oh, and patrons will be pleased to know that there are 21 public restrooms instead of 11, six ticket windows instead of 2, and twice as many concession stands.

In mid-December academic units including the U’s Honors Program, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the College of Design’s Traveler’s Innovation Lab, will move into their new homes skirting the perimeter of the new hall.

Whereas the massive structure once stood imposing and virtually empty 300 days per year, this reimagined Northrop will be an inviting destination open day and night, with a new level of energy. But it wasn’t easy to get there.

Creative deconstruction

In fact, the deconstruction phase of Northrop was so complicated that it was selected as a 2011 finalist in an international competition for the world’s most difficult deconstruction projects. Great care was taken to preserve Northrop’s history, and to ready it for its future.

Visitors will be amazed to see that the ornate proscenium arch, which framed the stage, has been reconstituted with materials that allow sound to pass through. Parts of the proscenium that went unused in reconstituting the arch have been preserved as decorative elements in the building’s public spaces. 

Since deconstruction ended, more than 100 workers per day have been hard at work putting the pieces back together, and it is now nearly complete.

“Renovations have been about much more than repairing a crumbling landmark,” says Hanson. “They have been aimed at transforming Northrop into a modern academic and cultural center for the state, in the heart of this dynamic metropolitan area.”

The new Northrop

From the words of T.S. Elliot, who spoke here long ago, to the booming baritone of Martin Luther King Jr., or in the music of Neil Young or jazz great Duke Ellington, the rumblings from Northrop’s past still echo today as history alive in those who bore witness.

The Northrop that opens to Minnesotans and the world in April 2014 will help write a new history for decades to come.

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The new Northrop will open with a mix of events, from film showings to lectures ranging from the origin of humor to carp and invasive species, as well as performances like A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor (April 26), a re-creation of the Minnesota Orchestra’s first Northrop concert (May 2), and a free performance by the U of M Symphony and Chorus (May 3).

2014 Gala weekends will take place in April, May, and June at Grand Reopening events. See the full list of events and Gala activities.

Twin Cities Campus: