The Northrop Auditorium is a place which evokes strong emotion. Since the 1920s the sheer size of University of Minnesota performing space has left visitors in awe, even before they were exposed to the talents of the Minnesota Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, a myriad of dance troupes that included Merce Cunningham. the Northrup also has hosted world-class speakers, among them presidents. Its huge, barn-like size, 4,600 seats and infamous acoustics also have left some horrified. When conductor Eugene Ormandy was asked what he would suggest to improve the sound he reportedly replied, “dynamite.”
But that’s changing now. In April the Northrop will re-open after a $100-million renovation leaves it with a new, trimmed, toned and ultra-flexible style.
Most obvious to a visitor is the dramatic redesign of the hall’s interior. The architects took the huge upper balcony and cut it short, replacing it with three smaller balconies which wrap around the sidewalls. There will now be just 2,700 seats, but they will provide much better sight-lines.
On a recent tour, Jim Moore an associate vice-president at HGA Architects, talked about the important “100-foot rule.” People more than 100 feet from the stage cannot make out performer’s facial expressions, which can be very important particularly during dance. In the old hall, Moore said, 80 percent of the audience sat more than 100 feet from the stage. Under the new design, 80 percent will be within 100 feet.
The renovation takes the huge building which opened in the late 1920s and moves it well into the 21st Century. The original design by Clarence Johnson suffered as a result of the financial realities of the Great Depression, and several basic things were left out, such as a loading dock at the rear of the theater, and a backstage crossover to allow performers to move from one side of the stage to the other without being seen. For decades, artists leaving one side of the stage and needing to return on the other had to head downstairs through the basement.
The renovation fixes both of those problems and adds a great deal more. There is a recital room now where the back of the balcony used to reach. Designed for film, music or lectures, the room seats 168 and features an active digital acoustic system which allows stage hands to adapt the sound of the space to optimize it for whatever function it has at any particular time. There is a warm-up room adjacent to the stage, and a number of seminar rooms for the teaching work which will take place during the day. There also are a number of social spaces, complete with coffee and snack bars designed to welcome students during the day, and audiences during the evening. Several classrooms and seminar rooms have been added as has a Founders Room on the top floor. It’s designed for receptions complete with catering facilities.
The project leaders also worked hard to blend the old with the new, taking the columns, terrazzo tiles, and bronze fittings of Memorial Hall at the front of the building as inspiration for forms and finishes through the rest of the building.
The Northrop is still very much a construction site, but the gallery below gives a clear idea of what things will look like when the grand opening occurs in the spring.