Northrop Memorial Auditorium stands at the head of Northrop Mall on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. The monumental Classical Revival building was dedicated on October 22, 1929. Its design is attributed to Clarence H. Johnston, who served as state architect from 1901 until 1936. Frederick Mann, head of the School of Architecture and the university’s advisory architect, developed sketches for the proposed auditorium design, which was given final preparation by Johnston.
By the early twentieth century, the need for a central gathering place on the growing land-grant university campus became acute. In 1907, the Board of Regents held a design competition for a campus expansion plan that was won by St. Paul native Cass Gilbert. Two years earlier, Gilbert had seen his design for the Minnesota State Capitol completed. Now working out of a main office in New York City, Gilbert presented the university with a classically inspired mall that would extend from the old campus district south to the Mississippi River. Though Gilbert’s design evolved somewhat and was never fully executed, he ultimately sited the mall’s main building, Northrop Auditorium, at the head of the proposed mall.
Ground was broken for the 4,847-seat auditorium on April 30, 1928, on the site of a former medicinal plant garden. The auditorium’s namesake was Cyrus Northrop, the university’s second president, who served from 1884 until his death in 1911. The building is five stories tall, with an exposed limestone basement on the north, east, and west sides of the building. The fourth level is set back from the exterior walls on the east and west faces. The auditorium is gabled at the north and south faces with brick pilaster and panel detailing. Exterior walls are composed primarily of red-brown brick laid in an English bond, with stone pilasters at the corners. A combination of stone and brick pilasters separate the window bays, and decorative brick spandrels between levels separate the pairs of windows. Topping the third level is a limestone entablature ornamented with flat roundels at the frieze and dentils at the cornice line. Brick parapet walls enclose the fourth level.
The symmetrical front (south) facade fronts the raised Northrop Plaza and is defined by a shallow portico that has a coffered ceiling. The portico is supported by freestanding Ionic limestone columns that sit directly on a limestone landing at the top of the stairs. The building’s name is inscribed into the entablature of the portico. Above the cornice band is another stone panel with additional inscribed text: “The University of Minnesota: Founded in the Faith that Men are Ennobled by Understanding; Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth; Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State.” On the interior, a three-story lobby, dubbed Memorial Hall, contains tablets engraved with names of the founders of the state and university. The auditorium, which has been subsequently altered, featured an elaborate proscenium arch and chandelier.
From the 1930s to 1970s, Northrop Auditorium was central to the cultural life of the entire Minneapolis and St. Paul community, as it was the only large multipurpose hall and primary arts presenter in the area. Northrop Auditorium’s early years revolved around the University Artists Course, founded in 1919, which brought internationally acclaimed artists to Minnesota audiences. Classical music was the mainstay of the recital series; dance performances were added in 1932. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (today the Minnesota Orchestra), founded in 1903, made Northrop its home from 1930 to 1974. The Metropolitan Opera made Northrop a regular stop on its national tour from 1945 until 1986, when it discontinued touring altogether. Northrop was also home to the University Art Gallery, founded in 1934. The Art Gallery occupied five small rooms on the fourth floor and was the first local gallery to acquire modern and American art. By the 1980s, the gallery’s 7,000 pieces, valued at some $6 million, were scattered about the building in cramped storage spaces with no temperature control. The museum moved into the landmark Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum in 1993.
Plans for Northrop Auditorium had been altered early on to cut costs and Mann had expressed concern about the acoustics, which eventually became a major issue in the life of the building. Acoustical shells were installed in 1940, 1953, and 1961 in attempts to remedy the problem. But as Northrop Auditorium approached the half-century mark, use of the facility had declined. The most crucial turning point occurred in 1974, when the Minnesota Orchestra relocated to the acoustically superior Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. Northrop began running deficits and looked for innovative ways to fill the hall. In 1974 the regents voted to reverse a decades-old policy prohibiting for-profit rentals of the facility and it became a venue for pop and rock concerts, as well as dance performances.
After years of deferred maintenance, in the 1990s the university initiated changes to make Northrop Auditorium a viable, twenty-first-century facility. The fourth level was extended over the east and west wings on either side of the auditorium in 1996. The additions conceal rooftop mechanical equipment for an upgraded air-conditioning system. A vision for a “multi-use, daily-use facility” was implemented and featured a reduced-size, 2,700-seat auditorium that allowed for the creation of gathering spaces and academic program offices.
In 2011–2014, as part of a $88.2 million renovation by Tim Carl and Jim Moore of HGA Architects, the interior of the building was significantly altered, with the exception of Memorial Hall and the staircase on the east and west ends of the hall, which were preserved. A three-story addition on the north facade expanded the stage house; a backstage crossover was also added, along with dressing rooms and related spaces. The original proscenium opening remains in its historic location. All additions are clad in red-brown brick with limestone details and have simplified masonry detailing compared to the original structure. The original balcony (which had extended above Memorial Hall) was replaced by three new tiers of balconies. After its removal, the space was remodeled to house a smaller auditorium used for recitals and lectures. The renovation has significantly increased the number of users that occupy the building on a daily basis.
Gales, Elizabeth, and Rachel Peterson, “Northrop Mall Historic District,” Hennepin County, Minnesota. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2017. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Weber, Laura. “If Walls Could Talk: A History of Northrop.” University of Minnesota. Accessed December 28, 2017. http://www.northrop.umn.edu.