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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

The New Northrop

December 20, 2011


In late November, the interior deconstruction phase of Northrop Auditorium was completed. That phase was so complicated that it was selected as one of six finalists in an international competition for the world’s most difficult deconstruction projects.
Photos and video by Patrick O'Leary.

By Adam Overland

In the cavernous, now skeletal Northrop Auditorium on a cold December day, the wind rips through the plastic sheeting covering a gaping hole knocked through the brick and mortar wall at the rear of the building. Excavators and skid loaders pass through, hum and hammer, operated by workers in hardhats and heavy denim coveralls. They’re battling the elements year-round to have Northrop completed in time for its openings—one in the fall of 2013 for the academic spaces that are a signature piece of the new construction and a significant departure from its nearly single-use purpose in the past, and another in the spring of 2014 for the performance hall, a world-class marvel.

What was
Built in 1929, Northrop has become one of the most iconic buildings in the state. Once the U's 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 and modern day building codes improved. Most recently, the building had been used for only 51 events a year, primarily for performances, with seating for 4,800.


What will be
The revitalization will restore Northrop's cultural and performing arts center with a multi-purpose, 2,750-seat hall, featuring state-of-the-art acoustics and significantly improved sight lines.

Mike Denny, Northrop's project executive, says that 83 percent of seats will be within 100 feet of the stage, in contrast to some seats in the old Northrop concert hall that were situated more than three-quarters of a football field away from the stage. That should be met with resounding applause from Northrop's concert and lecture goers.

Senior vice president and provost Tom Sullivan said the main performance hall’s design was created around acoustics. 

“When you hit 2,600 to 2,800 seats, you’ve hit the optimality on acoustic perfection, and when you get over 2,800 you start to lose that sound quality,” he says. “We wanted to keep it in that range so that we can attract the world’s great artists—who know what happens if it gets beyond that range.” 

A welcoming public space
Academically, says Sullivan, the building will bring together three University-wide signature programs: the University Honors Program, the Institute for Advanced Study, and Innovation by Design. The new Northrop will serve especially students, whose previous contact with the building may have been only a visit during first-year orientation and a return four or five years later for graduation.

The ‘Artistic Dividend’
Learn more about the role of art and culture in our state and nation’s economy, through research like that documented by the U’s own Ann Markusen, director of the Humphrey Institute's Project on Regional and Industrial Economics, in what she calls the “artistic dividend.”

The new building will increase the amount of public study and collaborative space on UMTC’s East Bank by 50 percent. Sullivan envisions Northrop as having a new level of energy, open day and night as a destination for the collaboration and study that is central to everyday life on campus. And of course, the New Northrop will be home to Northrop Concerts and Lectures, bringing the most creative and innovative artists and changemakers of our time to the U.

Creative deconstruction
In late November, the deconstruction phase of Northrop Auditorium was completed. That phase was so complicated, in fact, that it was selected as one of six finalists in an international competition for the world’s most difficult deconstruction projects. Since February 2011, some 40 workers per day have been carefully demolishing the interior, in a delicate dance between historical preservation and monumental transformation. After all, it is the second most recognizable building in the state of Minnesota. Were it to fall down, people would notice. 

Denny described the deconstruction process as “surgical.” For example, the ornate proscenium arch, which framed the stage, will be reconstituted with materials that allow sound to pass through. Parts of the proscenium that go unused in reconstituting the arch will instead be preserved as decorative elements in the public spaces. 

“As the second most recognized icon in the state, it’s one most Minnesotans have touched at some point in their lives. So it’s very important for us to blend the old with the new, and that is one of the most difficult challenges,” said Kathy O’Brien, vice president for University Services. 

New again
Already, the new interior walls of the performance hall are beginning to rise with rebar and concrete. When construction is in full swing, more than 100 workers per day will be putting the pieces back together.

An organ for the ages
Built in the early 1930s by the Æolian-Skinner, a firm famous for the quality of craftsmanship and tonal design of its instruments, the Northrop organ is among the largest organs in the state of Minnesota and one of the largest intact and unaltered remaining instruments built by the company. The largest of the organ's 6,975 pipes are 32 feet tall; the smallest is the size of a pencil. The organ was removed from Northrop for restoration, and the project still requires about $3 million in fundraising to begin. 

Northrop has changed slightly over the years. For example, for 45 years until 1974, it housed the Minneapolis Symphony (today’s Minnesota Orchestra), and for 58 years, the Little Gallery, which in 1993 was renamed the Frederick R. Weisman Museum and relocated to the now iconic east bank structure. 

But never has it changed so much, and been reimagined so extensively, as the metamorphosis happening now. With the exception of Memorial Hall, the building is gutted; an empty shell held up with skeletal steel beams reaching hundreds of feet from where they are grounded below the earth, to the ceiling high above. The building now is to its purpose like a mannequin, absent the inner workings, real enough from a distance, still and beautiful, but not alive. 

Universities are places of discovery. And so too are the literal foundations of the university experience—the buildings, classrooms, labs, museums, and concert halls—the places where eyes and ears see and hear and hands grasp the keys that open inroads to the creation and transformation of minds. In the past, discovery may have come through listening to the words of T.S. Elliot, who spoke here long ago, or upon hearing Coretta Scott King or Elie Wiesel. Or perhaps inspiration was found in the music of Neil Young, or jazz great Duke Ellington. 

The inscription above the main entryway to Northrop Auditorium reads: 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.” 

Come August 2013, Northrop will once again stand ready to bear the weight of that inscription.

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Learn more about Northrop’s history.