More details on the U's $81 million Northrop renovation

There’s some big changes in store for an iconic building on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.

Built in 1929, Northrop Auditorium has hosted hundreds of concerts and graduations over the years. But most of the time the building sits empty.  University officials claim it’s only used about 90 days out of the year.

They warn Northrop’s aging infrastructure, everything from its electrical wiring to its air handling system, are hopelessly out of date.  You can see images from the inside of Northrop in a story I did for MPR News back in August.

Today the U’s board of regents gave the go ahead to fix up Northrop, voting unanimously to move forward with an $81 million major renovation.

The outside of Northrop will stay the same, it was restored at a cost of $13 million a few years ago.

The inside of the building however, will be dramatically transformed.

Northrop’s 4,800-seat auditorium will shrink by half. That will make room for several departments, like the honors program, to set up offices in the building. It will also create study space for students, enough to double the amount of public study space on campus.

$20 million in state funds have already been approved for the project.  The U will borrow and seek private donors for the rest, roughly $61 million.

The regents approval of the project was pretty much assured, but that didn’t stop Regent John Frobenius from raising a few questions about undertaking such a project in a tough economy.

“This is a project that is in my mind challenging, particularly during these current times.”

University president Robert Bruininks told the regents now is the best time to start the project because interest rates and construction costs are low.  And Bruininks said the Northrop project isn’t just a run of the mill renovation, it’s going to remake Northrop into something students will actually use.

“It wouldn’t be worth doing if we didn’t have an exciting vision, I think a transformative vision, to make it a center of academic life in the future.”

So what’s next for Northrop?  Work gets underway immediately.  Next week staff in the building will move out so construction can get underway.  The project will take about two and a half years, it should be complete in the fall of 2013.

The first graduation in the renovated Northrop will be December of 2013.  Until then U of M grads will walk across a stage at Mariucci Hockey Arena to get their diplomas.

  • LCM

    It is highly disturbing that the Northrop organ does not seem to be included in these “renovations.” The instrument is an historic, national treasure of unique design, and is badly in need of restoration. Truly, anyone who has ever heard the organ played will attest to its incomparable tone, range, and voice and (I hope) would certainly agree that its care is worthwhile. Of course, the changes to the building itself (aside from the obvious need for intensive upkeep) seem suspect. The importance of defacing an historic building only to insert within it yet another coffee shop seems strange, especially as there is already one literally yards from Northrop, in Walter library, and at least two in Coffman Union, not to mention the dozens of cafes in the surrounding areas of Dinkytown, Stadium Village, and the West Bank. If the university wishes to make Northrop a center of academics, it seems there would be a myriad of other, more creative ways to utilize the existing space to accomplish such a goal. Why not simply host more events in the building, or schedule academic seminars in the auditorium? Is the fact that Northrop is not heavily used by the majority of the student body an inherent problem in the first place, especially as it still seems to garner more use than other buildings, such as the new TCF Bank Stadium? Despite the lack of detail in the above article as to exactly where and how additions, transformations, and restorations will be made, it appears that the Board of Regents’ decision to permanently alter Northrop may have been too hasty. After all, once an historic monument is altered, destroyed, or neglected, it cannot simply be “restored.”