$80 million renovation planned for Northrop

Underused space and outdated systems have University of Minnesota officials exploring a major renovation for Northrop Auditorium.

Conor Shine

Northrop Auditorium  is home to convocation and graduation, as well as numerous concerts, lectures and performances each year.

But the 81-year-old building, located in the heart of the University of Minnesota campus, is on  “borrowed time “ according to one University administrator, and a failure in one of its many outdated systems could force it to close at a moment’s notice.

To modernize the building, University officials have proposed an $80 million plan that would see the inside of Northrop gutted and rebuilt, resulting in more study space for students and a smaller auditorium.

The University has been exploring various plans to renovate Northrop since 1993, and the current plan was developed as a result of a forensic study of the building commissioned in 2005.

The study found that no aspect of the building was without issue and that “every mechanical, electrical and plumbing system is well beyond its useful life. “

If the Board of Regents approves the renovation, work would start on the building in January and finish by September 2013. The board is expected to vote on the plan, which would draw funding from several sources, in November.

The University would have to borrow about $40 million for the project with another $20 million in funding coming from the state. Private donors would pay for the rest.

The man charged with leading the project is Vice President of Scholarly and Cultural Affairs Steven Rosenstone. His office is located at the end of a nondescript hallway on Northrop’s second floor and is one of only three offices located there, with dressing rooms and storage space occupying the majority of the building’s three floors.

Much of the space in Northrop goes unused most of the time. The building is booked only 91 days of the year, and Rosenstone said it is often at its busiest on afternoons when jugglers come into the front hall to practice.

 “They like the high ceilings,” he said.

In addition to being underutilized, the building is also outdated.

No major improvements have been made to Northrop’s interior since it opened in 1929. Its electrical, plumbing and heating systems are all so old that replacement parts could not be found if they broke.

Inside the main auditorium, chipped plaster on the wall gives way to exposed brick. The stage is small by even 1929 standards, Rosenstone said, and there are also problems with the room’s acoustics.

Exposed steel in the attic could prove vulnerable in a fire, and many drinking fountains scattered throughout the building’s claustrophobic hallways do not work.

 “The question is: How are we going to address these issues?” Rosenstone said. “Because if we don’t, there is a chance the building will have to be closed.”

There is a backlog of buildings at the University in need of fixing, and years of deferred maintenance at Northrop have resulted in the building’s current condition, said Michael Denny, with the University’s Capital Planning and Project Management office.

With billions of dollars in needed maintenance across the University system, Denny said deciding which buildings to fix becomes a matter of planning and priorities.

An initial round of repairs in 2007 focused mostly on preserving and stabilizing the building. The $13 million project included replacing Northrop’s windows and roof and installing new locks and emergency lights inside.

The second phase of renovations would turn unused space into study areas and meeting rooms. The building would also get a new café and dining options and dedicate space to programs from the Institute for Advanced Study and the University Honors Program.

The main auditorium would shrink from about 4,800 seats to 2,800 seats, but Rosenstone said the current auditorium is only filled to capacity five times a year, and the average event draws around 2,400 people.

The vastness of the auditorium along with its historic aesthetic is part of what appeals to former University student Emily Johnson. Now the director of a dance company, Johnson performed at Northrop when she was a student in the 1990s and she will do so again in November.

She said it’s important for the University to continue to support infrastructure for students in the performing arts. While she’s looking forward to performing in the current building, Johnson said she’s also interested to see how the renovation will change Northrop.

 “The building itself, as it is now, has a lot of personal memories for me,” Johnson said.  “In that way, I’m honored to perform in it as it is now, but I’m also excited for the renovations [and] to see how they’re going to improve upon the space.”