Guthrie Theater demolition plans fuel patron debate

Latasha Webb

University graduate Tony Rubin remembers stepping onto a big yellow school bus in Duluth, Minn., during ninth grade.

A few hours later, Rubin and his classmates arrived at the Guthrie Theater, anxious for their viewing of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Anyone my age who grew up in Minnesota got on a yellow school bus and came to that theater,” Rubin said. “It has influenced all of us.”

He said his experiences at the Guthrie opened his eyes and helped make him a better person.

“Something so beautiful touches you,” Rubin said. “If you’ve had a book that’s had a profound impact on your life-same thing. It can allow for so much.”

Rubin, along with other Guthrie patrons, wasn’t happy when he learned the Minneapolis City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee voted 4-2 on Oct. 30 to allow the Walker Art Center to demolish the Guthrie.

And these citizens aren’t willing to let the Guthrie go without a fight.

Paul Metsa founded SavetheGuthrie.org, and Rubin became its communications director.

SavetheGuthrie.org plans to throw its first punch during a lunch-hour petition signing at Northrop Mall on Thursday.

“More than 1,000 people have signed our petition,” said Rubin, who plans to solicit more signatures from University students and faculty.

But the Guthrie doesn’t want to be saved.

Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling said the Guthrie’s new site along the Mississippi River will allow the theater to “fully realize the artistic and educational potential that has not been possible with the limited space in Vineland Place.

“If it had been possible to expand at our current site, we would have taken that option,” said Dowling. “But it was clear that, with the expansion of the Walker Art Center and the lack of available property nearby, we had no choice but to seek and to develop our plans to leave the current theater.”

The demolition hits a sore spot for many Minneapolis residents because the architect who designed the original theater has lived in and contributed to the city and the University.

Architect Ralph Rapson also designed the Rarig Center and was head of the University’s school of architecture from 1954-84.

“Ralph Rapson brought an international reputation to Minneapolis,” Rubin said. “Before Ralph Rapson, (Minneapolis) was known as the city that packed the most flour.”

Dowling said he knows the impact Rapson had on architecture and Minneapolis. But he said the Guthrie is no longer the building Rapson created, because it has been renovated several times.

Rubin and Metsa said they are not against the Guthrie moving to its new site along the Mississippi River, but they are against the old building being torn down. They suggest allowing smaller theaters to use it for expansion.

But John Cowles, who was a member of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater Foundation that raised the money to build the theater in 1960, said it’s unfair to force the Walker Art Center to keep the Guthrie.

“More appropriate, I think, would be a small plaque or market on Vineland Place to remind the passers-by that here dwelt for its first 42 years ñ courtesy of the Walker Art Center ñ the Guthrie Theater company.”

Cowles said the Walker Foundation helped create a very successful theater and, “to penalize the Walker Art Center in the future with a white elephant, or deprive it of land for its program . . . would be a strange twist of justice.”

But those who see the “white elephant” as a masterpiece disagree.

City Council Members Paul Ostrow and Dore Mead were the two votes against demolishing the theater.

“I feel like we were acting prematurely,” Ostrow said. “These are monumental decisions for our community, so we really need to be thorough.”

Council Member Joan Campbell said although she didn’t want the Guthrie Theater destroyed, it needs to be done.

“It was something that had to be done to keep two very important art institutions viable and allow them to expand,” she said. “It’s really a success story for two institutions that outgrew their buildings.”

Campbell said the Guthrie plans to recreate much of the original design in the new building.

But Metsa said the history of the Guthrie can not be recreated, citing performances by legendary artists such as Duke Ellington, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, John Coltrane and Led Zeppelin.

Metsa said he disagrees with the Walker Art Center’s plan to demolish the Guthrie to create a new four-acre sculpture garden.

“A green space in Minneapolis is actually a white space five months out of the year,” Metsa said.

Latasha Webb welcomes your comments at [email protected]