From Opera to Henry Kissinger

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2014

Northrop seemed destined for a colorful history even before the first nail was driven.

By Tim Brady, Photographs courtesy of University Archives

Alumni Dig Deep to Get It Done

Northrop under construction in 1928 Let’s call the early history of Northrop . . . tentative.

sp2014_digdeepNorthrop under construction in 1928

Construction was originally scheduled to follow on the heels of Memorial Stadium’s construction in 1924, and fund-raising for the two projects was conducted simultaneously. The problem was, when enough money to build the new Gopher gridiron arrived in the coffers of the Greater University Corporation (GUC)—the fundraising group established to oversee the project—enthusiasm for funding the auditorium suddenly waned.

The initial price of the joint venture was a little over $2 million, with around $750,000 designated for the stadium and the rest slated for the auditorium. Some 17,000 donors, including alumni, faculty, area businesses, and students, pledged funds for the separate constructions. But when the Gophers debuted at the new Memorial Stadium against Red Grange and the Fighting Illini in the fall of 1924, the GUC was still half a million dollars short for construction of Northrop. One year passed, then two years, then three.

Subscribers were not paying their pledges for the second half of the project. With the help and urging of the Alumni Association, Minnesota graduates remained true to their promises, fulfilling them at a rate of 83 percent. But students were not so forthcoming—they were paying at a rate of just 22 percent in 1926. The GUC threatened to take pledgers to court, but in the end, alumni dug a little deeper, and the University’s Board of Regents found some money. Together, these additional funds allowed construction to begin on the new auditorium at the head of the Mall—just where Cass Gilbert had envisioned the structure in his plans for the University. The building was completed in 1929.

The Fury about the Sound

sp2014_furyaboutsoundThis steel acoustic shell, installed in 1961, was the first of its kind in the world.

Northrop quickly established itself as the concert venue in the Twin Cities for great artists touring the country. Soon after it opened, Northrop became home to the Minnesota Orchestra (originally known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra). It also housed the famed 40-foot-high Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, built in the 1930s.

Yet almost from the very beginning there were complaints about Northrop’s acoustics. In 1952, Twin Cities architect Winston Close, working as an adviser to the University, hired an acoustical consulting firm from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Consultants advised that a number of sound-sucking materials be removed from the walls and ceiling of the building. All seats were removed and reupholstered, and absorption pads were removed from the ceiling.

Still, the orchestra, artists, and audiences at Northrop demanded more improvements, and eventually a first-of-its-kind-in-the-world steel acoustic shell was built to better direct sound from the stage. Plexiglas panels jutted out over the audience to further enhance the music. The shell was removable and could be taken down for performances that demanded the full run of the stage. It debuted at Northrop in October 1961. The Minnesota Orchestra would begin construction on Orchestra Hall less than a dozen years later.

A Stage for Dignitaries

sp2014_dignitariesA crowd gathered to hear Admiral William Halsey in 1945.

Since its construction, Northrop has served as the premier gathering place for a variety of campus activities, both within the building and on the terrace without. Its location at the head of the Mall gave it an immediate primacy of place for a host of special outdoor occasions, convocations, and ceremonial events, ranging from Cap-and-Gown Day to visits from dignitaries like Admiral William Halsey.

“Bull” Halsey, Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, came to the University of Minnesota in November 1945, during a nationwide war-bond-selling tour, in the wake of Japan’s surrender to the United States three months earlier. Captain Harold Stassen (‘29L.), Halsey’s flag secretary on the U.S.S. Missouri and former governor of Minnesota, accompanied him. Stassen would soon be off to San Francisco, where he served as a delegate and signatory to the conference that established the United Nations.

The Carnegie Hall of the Midwest

sp2014_carnegieofmidwestMarian Anderson presented 19 concerts at the Northrop.

Over the years, Northrop was home to an amazing array of concerts, ballets, lectures, and symposia. Until the Minnesota Orchestra built its own home in downtown Minneapolis, and other venues such as Ordway Hall in St. Paul arrived on the urban landscape, Northrop could legitimately claim its nickname, “the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest.” A “sprung-wood” stage floor added in 1974 enhanced dance performances and raised sightlines for audience members to better enjoy the increasing number of performers who came to Northrop.

A cavalcade of greats appeared on the Northrop stage, ranging from Margaret Mead to Robert Frost, from Henry Kissinger to Bill Cosby. Through the course of its long history, however, no series of entertainments at Northrop was as widely anticipated or highly attended as the annual series of programs known as the Artists Course. Beginning even before Northrop opened in 1929, the Artists Course brought the finest musical talent in the world to Minnesota. The long list of performers is a Who’s Who of 20th century artists, including Paul Robeson, Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin, Igor Stravinsky, Lotte Lehmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Van Cliburn, Louis Armstrong, Robert Goulet, the Kingston Trio, Marcel Marceau (for whom acoustics were not a problem), and more.

No performer was more representative of the talent that graced the Northrop stage than world-famous contralto Marian Anderson, who gave 19 concerts there. Her first at Northrop was in 1939 and it was there that she ended her distinguished performing career with a concert in 1964. She was honored after her last performance with a reception that included Governor Karl Rolvaag, University President O. Meredith Wilson, and a slew of other local dignitaries.

Bringing Down the House

sp2014_bringingdownthehouseThe B-52s almost brought the house down in 1990.

The advent of raucous rock concerts coincided with the aging of Northrop—with predictable results. In 1976, a crowd at a Johnny and Edgar Winter concert wreaked havoc on the place, with attendees smashing a box office window, plugging restroom drains, and dragging fire hoses out of their cabinets just because. The next night’s concert, featuring The Average White Band, was promptly cancelled and debate flared about banning rock concerts altogether from the auditorium. Fourteen years later, the B-52s came to Northrop and literally brought the house down. The band started innocently enough, but just before the break, as the group tore into its hit “Love Shack,” the balcony began to shake and chunks of plaster began falling from the ceiling. The concert continued with only a few emptied seats. At the start of the second set, lead singer Fred Schneider held up a fist-sized hunk of plaster as fair warning, while another member of the group advised the audience to “dance in your heads.”

Pomp and Circumstance

sp2014_pompandcircumstanceJames Morrill’s inauguration as president of the University

drew a large audience in 1946. Northrop has served as the ceremonial heart of the University of Minnesota campus since its construction. The April 1946 inauguration of the eighth University of Minnesota president, James Morrill, prompted a three-day celebration centered around Northrop. With the lean war years behind and a campus suddenly bursting at the seams with new students, academic pomp was given full rein in a procession up the Mall from Coffman Union to Northrop Auditorium. Students trailed into the hall to hear what Morrill had to say about the future of the U of M. More speeches and endless rounds of dinners and scholarly chitchat followed; the University of Minnesota had crowned a new prexy. Morrill would serve until 1960.

A Rallying Ground

sp2014_rallyinggroundEugene McCarthy spoke at a rally in 1968.

Just as the Northrop served as the center of institutional ceremony at the University of Minnesota, it was also the center for protest. The plaza outside the front entrance to the building, completed in 1966, made a convenient gathering platform for a variety of demonstrations, teach-ins, and political rallies, particularly during the years of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests. A host of speakers, including Eugene McCarthy (M.A. ’39), addressed audiences and cameras from the steps of Northrop through these years. The apotheosis of these protest gatherings probably occurred during the student strike of May 1970, when about 6,000 people spread out on the grounds around Northrop to hear speakers lambaste the Nixon administration’s actions in Cambodia.

Tim Brady is a writer living in St. Paul and a regular contributor to Minnesota.

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