U of M officials propose $80M plan to save aging Northrop Auditorium

Northrop Auditorium
Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. U leaders say the 81-year old building, while iconic, is of little use to students and faculty. They want to spend $80 million dollars to renovate the building and add offices and public study space.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Officials at the U of M say the Northrop Auditorium is rarely used and is in danger of being shuttered, so they have an $80-million plan to fix its aging infrastructure and to reinvent it as a new destination for students and faculty.

The auditorium is a massive, stately and even iconic structure. Built in 1929, it anchors one end of the mall of the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus.

To see what's mechanically wrong with Northrop Auditorium, you need to make your way into the bowels of the building, where the 81-year-old structure's shortcomings rear their head

Roger Wegner, a project manager at the U of M, said the massive air handling system down in the basement, a system of fans and ducts installed when Northrop was built, doesn't do an adequate job of cycling fresh air through the building's 4,800-seat auditorium.

"One of the problems we have though is that there's less air then there should be," Wegner said. "We've done air sampling and about the middle of a performance the CO2 levels rise high enough that people start getting sleepy."

The testing was done during a Moody Blues concert in 2006, and Wegner is confident it was the lack of oxygen affecting concert goers, and not a lackluster version of "Nights in White Satin."

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Empty halls in Northrop Auditorium
University of Minnesota officials say students and faculty have no reason to use Northrop Hall. They want to spend $80 million to add offices and public study space to the building.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

U of M officials point to many other critical systems in the building, electrical and structural; they say could fail at any time. Most can't be repaired because they use outdated technology, and those failures could potentially shut down the venerable campus icon.

But university leaders say the bigger problem for Northrop is that it's of little use to faculty and students.

Toby Ramaswamy, a soon to be sophomore at the U of M, said as far as looks go, the building is just fine.

"It feels old. Which I kind of like," Ramaswamy said. "A lot of the buildings here have a feeling that they've been around for a while."

Stately charm and collegiate scene setting aside, Ramaswamy set foot inside Northrop only twice last year.

Peeling wallpaper
Wallpaper is peeling in Northrop Auditorium on the U of M campus. Officials say the building is in need of repair.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"I was in there for a concert once, and during orientation we go in there and someone talks to us ... kind of general university functions," he said.

And that's the problem, according to Steven Rosenstone, the U's vice president for scholarly and cultural affairs. Students and faculty have little reason to go into Northrop. He said it's a like a rock in a stream, everyone goes around the building on their way to someplace else. In fact, Northrop is used less than 100 days a year.

"It's not used by students, it's not used by faculty, [and] it doesn't serve any of the academic programs at the university," Rosenstone said. "And it's only used by the university 50 nights a year, including all the commencements. And about 40 days a year outside organizations rent the facility."

The solution according to Rosenstone is a massive $80 million renovation.

Northrop's attic
The attic of Northrup Auditorium is filled with bare wood and steel beams that don't have a fire proof coating.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

It would leave the outside of Northrop untouched, that was restored at a cost of $13 million a few years ago, but would dramatically change the inside of the building.

The 4,800-seat auditorium would shrink by half. That will make room for several departments, like the honors program, to set up offices in the building. It would also create study space for students, enough to double the amount of public study space on campus.

"What we're doing is taking a facility that is rarely used, that's dark during the day, that's empty during the day, and we're turning it into a bustling academic center of excellence, for students, for faculty and for the community," Rosenstone said.

The $80 million renovation would be covered by $20 million in state funds and $20 million to $25 million in private donations. The U would borrow the remaining $35 million to $40 million. The plan has yet to receive final approval from the board of regents, but if given the go ahead this fall, work would begin in January, and take two and a half years.

Northrop Auditorium
A 2009 graduate school commencement in Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. University leaders say the building is used less than 100 days a year. They want to spend $80 million to renovate the building and add offices and public study space.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

It's a big undertaking at a time when the U faces even bigger budget challenges. Dwindling state funding and rising costs have forced the school to eliminate hundreds of positions on campus in the last two years.

If they don't renovate and remake Northrop Auditorium now, university officials claim they'll have to shut it down, and the rarely used auditorium could turn into a boarded up building that won't be used at all.