The sightlines were dismal for dance, the acoustics terrible for opera and orchestra. Chunks of plaster fell and the balcony swayed dangerously during rock concerts. In the 1990s, after playing their hit song “Love Shack,” the B-52’s warned the crowd to “dance in their heads.”
By 2009, Northrop Memorial Hall at the University of Minnesota—Clarence H. Johnston’s 1929 Beaux Arts landmark for graduations, lectures, dance, and concerts, once known as the “Carnegie Hall of the Midwest”—was used only 51 times a year. The University had already replaced the roof and restored the brick-and-stone exterior of the iconic building, which anchors the north end of the Cass Gilbert–planned mall on the Minneapolis campus. Then, after years of studies and discussion, the University formulated a plan to transform Northrop into a multi-use facility for art, innovation, and academics.
The sumptuous new Northrop, completed by HGA Architects and Engineers, opened on April 4, “reinvigorated with programs and spaces so it can be used all day long and into the evening,” said Tim Carl, design principal.
The first order of business was shrinking the two-level, 31,050-square-foot, 4,800-seat performance hall into a four-level, 2,700-seat, 28,000-square-foot, horseshoe-shaped layout, thus eliminating 2,100 seats. In the elegant new auditorium, 80 percent of the seats are within 100 feet of the stage, as opposed to 20 percent.
HGA teamed with Arup to fine-tune the hall’s acoustics, balancing direct and reflected sound through design to create a hall acoustically inspired by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. The team saved the stage’s beloved proscenium arch to provide historic continuity between old and new, but recast several of the enormous medallions (the originals now hang in the new upper lobby) in resin for acoustic transparency. HGA also shaped the balconies using “a complex curvature that’s about the reflection of sound,” said Carl. A 10-foot-high band of grooved stone at the front of hall uniformly disperses sound.
The hall’s reduced footprint created square footage for a new lobby ringed with balconies, and space on either side of the building for academic programs. The University Honors Program, Institute of Advance Study, and the College of Design’s Travelers Innovation Lab now occupy the east and west sides of the building with offices, classrooms, lounges, and meeting space. “We all understand the inherent social value of getting people from different disciplines to bump into each other and talk,” said Carl. “Innovation comes from having Northrop’s arts programming coexist with academic programming in one building.”
The theater’s renovation also included new crossover space. Formerly, performers on Northrop’s international dance series had to make their way through the basement. The building also needed a loading dock. To maintain the building’s symmetry while meeting programming needs, HGA added a rehearsal space with floor-to-ceiling windows, above which is a classroom and founders’ room, and a 168-seat lecture/recital hall with electro-acoustic enhancements that adjust automatically.
To ensure continuity between old and new—a University directive—the same exterior brick and stone were used on the additions. New windows use the framing color and proportional symmetry of the existing ones. “From a distance the building in its entirety is seamless,” said Carl, “and up close you can detect the more contemporary line of the addition.”
Memorial Hall, Northrop’s grand three-story entrance, has been restored. Six large stone urns once inside the hall now greet patrons on the stairs to the first balcony. Terrazzo floors, bronze and red oak accents, and buff plaster walls “reflect the quality of the historic architecture,” said Carl.
“The project initially met with some controversy by historic preservationists,” he added. “But the University realized it couldn’t preserve the original hall; it simply couldn’t be adequately utilized. So one of our key concerns was respecting the historic building, while inserting new programming for the 21st century. You know the new isn’t historic, but it feels like it belongs.