Breaking ground for a new Ordway Hall

  The sun shone down on St Paul this morning as members of the arts community gathered for a groundbreaking celebration outside the Ordway. A few months back when the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians lockout entered some of its darkest days many people, Mayor Chris Coleman included wondered if this might even happen. 

“I was certainly worried that we would be building a hall for no orchestra,” Coleman said today. “And so the fact that we were able to get the Chamber Orchestra back playing makes this day a lot happier day.”

Ordway President Patricia Mitchell displays a shovel used for the original groundbreaking more than 30 years ago. She is assisted by former St Paul Mayor George Latimer, with current Mayor Chris Coleman just behind them. (MPR photo/Cindy Gonzalez)

It was a quintet of musicians from the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies who played for the crowd as opposed to musicians from the SPCO, the band which will be the primary occupant of the new hall which was the focus of the groundbreaking, but the mood was celebratory as the ceremony went ahead. 

The new 1,100 seat concert hall, which will fill out where the Ordway’s smaller McKnight Theater now stands is what Ordway President and CEO Patricia Mitchell describes as an elegantly simple solution to a long standing problem.

Incoming SPCO President Bruce Coppock outlined the challenge this way: “One of the previous directors of the Ordway said the problem with the Ordway is it is a three bedroom house and there are four people who need bedrooms,” he said.

The four are the members of what is now called the Arts Partnership: the Ordway, the SPCO, the Minnesota Opera, and the Schubert Club. All were original tenants of the Ordway, but since it opened in the 1980’s they have all competed for stage time in the Ordway’s Music Theater.

Current Schubert Club President Barry Kempton used to work at the SPCO and he remembers some unpleasantness.

“The frustration was built in there,” he remembers. “Not being enough time to use the theater, and not enough money to make it affordable for the organizations to use it.”

Fast forward to a few years ago when the four sides buried the hatchet and began working towards raising money for the new concert hall, and for an endowment to help the partners  use the space more effectively.

Mitchell says when the new concert hall opens in two years, it will give everyone more options. The SPCO will use the new custom built hall about 20 weeks a year. This leaves lots of time for the other partners to do smaller shows in the hall, while also freeing up the Music Theater

“The original plans for the Ordway called for a 1900 seat theater and a 1,000 seat theater,” Mitchell said. “So it’s like we are finally doing what was planned 30 years ago.” Mitchell estimates the new hall will bring about 120,000 people a year to downtown St Paul, adding millions of dollars in parking, restaurant and other revenues to the downtown economy.

“The Music Theater is used Tuesday through Sunday from Labor Day till the end of June,” she said. “So much so that last season there were only 23 dark days. So ultimately the Concert Hall will have that same usage I think.”

She is also very excited about the endowment. “That is going to mean direct financial subsidy to all four of us: the Opera, the Ordway, the SPCO and the Schubert Club,” Mitchell said.

As the guests gathered for the ceremony, Mitchell just wanted to appreciate the moment.

“It’s going to be so beautiful, and so much fun,” she said. “It’s going to be wonderful.”

A phalanx of commemorative mugs greeted people attending the Ordway Concert Hall groundbreaking (MPR photo/Cindy Gonzalez)

The SPCO’s Bruce Coppock was pretty happy too.

“It is a fantastic day,” he said. He’s looking forward to the new hall.

“It provides a purpose built, acoustically superior space where the audience and the orchestra are all in the same room,” he said. Coppock says the problems with many music venues is the design, with a proscenium and a stage house makes it in effect a separate room.

“It’s as if there is an aural scrim,” he said. “So everything that happens on the stage doesn’t get completely translated aurally out into the house. And in the (new) concert hall the audience will be in the same room as the orchestra and it will make all the difference in the world.”

Coppock says it’s also good to move forward after the tensions of the contract dispute and the musicians lockout.

“It’s a beacon for the future, not to underestimate the trauma of the last six months. But it’s over,” he said. “It’s time to focus on music. Music is the great healer and we need to focus on making music and to move forward and I am just so glad the SPCO will be here for so many years to come to serve future generations.”

As the crowd milled forward it was possible to see people from many different parts of St Paul life. Sen. Richard Cohen and Rep. Alice Hausman came to represent lawmakers

“We think of it as entertainment, but it really it is part of education,” Hausman told me. “And it is what builds cities. We know that the worker of today chooses where they want to live based on amenities, including arts and cultural amenities. It’s not a coincidence that we just saw the numbers that say we are doing better economically than much of the rest of the country, because we continue to see the importance of investing in things like this.”

The Schubert Club’s Barry Kempton said the Ordway has been such an important piece of the success of the city.

“This is the next stage,” he said. “This is the Ordway turning into a 21st century venue.”

Former Ordway President David Lilly Sr. signed one of the shovels used for the Ordway Concert Hall groundbreaking. Lilly attended the original Ordway groundbreaking on December 2 1982. (MPR photo/Cindy Gonzalez)

The groundbreaking was historic in the way it brought together some of the people involved in the original Ordway groundbreaking in December 1982. Several people commented that was a much chillier event. 

Mayor George Latimer was there that day, and he looked with quiet contentment across the park at the St Paul Hotel, and all the other amenities which have flourished since the city began focusing on the area back then.

“Each addition is an increment,” he said. “Most people who come here and stay at the St Paul, or go to the Landmark Center or use our library acknowledge it as one of the most beautiful urban spaces in America. It truly is. I don’t think that is an overstatement and I think lovers if cities who hear that will not disagree.”