Regents to assess Northrop overhaul

Seating changes, classrooms and a coffeeshop could come to the auditorium by 2010.

Elena Rozwadowski

Northrop Auditorium has been at the center of the University for more than 77 years. Since its opening on Nov. 15, 1929, Northrop has been home to the Minneapolis Symphony, a 7,000-pipe organ and hundreds of graduations.

But with old buildings come old plumbing, outdated safety systems and dangerous structural issues, all of which the University said need to be addressed if Northrop is to continue its legacy.

The Northrop Advisory Committee will present a $60 million to $80 million plan for the auditorium’s future to the Board of Regents on Friday. The plans include upgrading safety features, making room for classrooms and even a coffee shop.

A forensic study conducted by RSP Architects in 2005 indicated although Northrop is safe to be in, there are several structural and system concerns that need immediate attention.

One of those concerns was the structural integrity of the building. Last year the Board of Regents approved a $21-million facelift for the auditorium that is currently under way. Now, the University has turned its attention to the space behind the walls.

Memorial Hall, which serves as Northrop’s lobby, will be restored, and the auditorium itself will be completely gutted so plumbing and other systems can be replaced. The stage, seating and acoustics will also be improved while retaining some of the original architecture of the building.

This will also make room for about 35,000 square feet of student space that doesn’t exist.

“Northrop is literally in the center of our campus,” Kathleen O’Brien, vice president for University Services and committee co-chairwoman, said. “The next question is, how do we make Northrop programmatically the center of the University?”

A place for students

Steven Rosenstone, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and co-chairman of the Northrop committee, said the plan addresses that issue.

When brainstorming ideas, Rosenstone said the committee tried to make Northrop a bigger center for student activity by adding classroom space, discussion areas and even a basement coffee shop that would host live music events.

“At the moment, Northrop is not part of the everyday life of the University,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the place you go for convocation and graduation and not much in between.”

Part of the space would include a Twin Cities Public Television production studio used to record and broadcast discussions and offer a new series called “Live from Northrop” to enhance the University’s research goals and community presence.

“Northrop ought to be a place where we come together to think about really tough questions,” Rosenstone said.

“This is a really important building for our University and our state,” he said. “It’s in the center of our campus and we want to make sure it’s being put to work.”

Safety concerns

The University wants to first deal with a number of health and safety concerns uncovered by the 2005 analysis.

According to the committee’s plan, “No aspect of Northrop is without issue,” and the auditorium as a whole is below current life safety standards.

O’Brien said the immediate focus will be on the most urgent issues, such as lighting, safety railings and code-compliant exit door hardware.

“Northrop was built as an auditorium of its time,” O’Brien said. Back then, there were many code and safety issues that did not exist as they do today.

“We really do need to have Northrop come up to modern code standards,” she said.

After the plan is finalized, the real work can begin.

The next steps

Rosenstone said the auditorium could optimistically re-open in the fall of 2010.

During the two years the auditorium would be closed for work, O’Brien said the University would try to find other venues for Northrop’s events. Part of the plan, for example, includes a $425,000 proposal to convert Mariucci Arena into a ceremonial venue that could be used for graduation.

During Friday’s presentation, regents will have the opportunity to ask questions about the preliminary plans and make suggestions to the committee.

Regent Patricia Simmons said she likes several aspects of the plan, but is excited to see the presentation and have the chance to ask some good questions.

Simmons said she expects to see the Northrop plans return to the Board in the next few months.

“Northrop needs to come into greater utilization and needs to be preserved,” she said. “We need to look critically at its future.”