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History & Future

Discover details about Northrop’s nearly 100-year history–from its famous pipe organ to its headline-making renovation–and learn what it plans for the next century.
A black and white photo of Northrop's exterior.

If Walls Could Talk: A History of Northrop

The heart of the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus and a state historic landmark, Northrop has served as the University’s primary gathering place for the performing arts, world-renowned dance performances, concerts, academic ceremonies, and major civic events.

Since its opening in 1929, Northrop has hosted a dizzying array of artists, entertainers, and public figures from Igor Stravinsky to Santana; Mikhail Baryshnikov to Neil Young; His Holiness The Dalai Lama to the Grateful Dead.

Tens of thousands of students, arts patrons, and Upper Midwest citizens have marveled at its majestic design and experienced its diverse programming.

Northrop was first conceived of as the northern anchor of a 1907 Cass Gilbert-designed campus gathering area, today called Northrop Mall. Officials wanted the anchor to be an auditorium to serve as “a lively center for the arts.” Fundraising started in 1922 to raise $2 million to build a stadium along the mall as well as the auditorium, named in honor of Cyrus Northrop, the University’s second president.

Designed by Clarence H. Johnston Sr., the monumental Classical Revival building was dedicated on Oct. 22, 1929 on the site of a former medicinal plant garden. The University celebrated Northrop’s opening that fall with three concerts. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, soon to take up residence in Northrop for the next 44 years, led off the events.

Campus center for learning and gathering

Northrop was integrated into the campus life of University students, faculty, staff and others for decades. Northrop was the only large multi-purpose hall and primary arts presenter in the area. Its importance to the cultural life of the entire community from the 1930s to 1970s cannot be overstated. The University Artists Course was the original name for the programming and arts performances that came in wide variety to Northrop. Founded by Verna Scott in 1919, the Artists Course was the first such series under college or university sponsorship and was widely imitated. Classical music was the first focus and brought pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and violinist Jascha Heifetz to university audiences. Dance was later added to the series. The first dance performance, by modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman on Jan 12, 1932, was particularly bold. Northrop’s presenting function for performing arts events of all genres, popular and classical, fell under the Artists Course name until 1978, when the name was retired and became the Northrop Dance Series.

A desire to make the University a cultural center for the community included a place to “display pictures.” In April 1934, the University Art Gallery, initially known as the “Little Gallery,” occupied five small rooms on Northrop’s fourth floor. It was virtually the only place in the area where modern and American art could be viewed. The gallery later became the Weisman Art Museum.

Additionally, the Metropolitan Opera made Northrop a regular stop on its national tour beginning in 1945. Opera patrons flocked from a nine-state region and Canada to attend opera week each May. Interest remained high until the Met discontinued touring altogether in 1986.

Over the years, students have used the plaza as a gathering spot and also for protests. Convocations, free and open to the public, were held weekly in the auditorium until 1969. From 1959 to 1961 alone, choreographer Agnes DeMille, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., tennis champion Althea Gibson and historian Arnold Toynbee were guest speakers. Inside, large lecture courses were held in the auditorium starting in 1959. Northrop’s basement was, until 2009, home for the 200-plus member University Marching Band.

In the 1970s, interest in dance was gaining popularity. Northrop’s seating capacity and the size of its proscenium stage made it one of the only facilities in the region with the ability to present major touring dance companies. The Northrop Dance Season was established in 1970–71 and has flourished ever since.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. After years of deferred maintenance, an extensive interior revitalization of Northrop began in 2011 by the firm HGA Architects and Engineers, ARUP Acoustical and Theatrical Consulting, and JE Dunn Construction. The project closed Northrop for three years but when the building reopened in 2014 to fanfare, the iconic building included many new multipurpose flexible spaces including a main theater with 2,700 seats and state-of-the-art acoustics, improved sightlines, cutting-edge technologies, and updated amenities, as well as a rehearsal studio, reception rooms, and more restrooms, concession stands and ticket windows. A second venue, the 168-seat Best Buy Theater, added flexibility for lectures, recitals, film and meetings. Since that Grand Reopening in 2014, Northrop has hosted more than 6,000 events and welcomed 1 million people through its doors. It continues to expand its K-12 programming with student matinees and educational resources for students and educators. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many event cancelations, Northrop worked closely with artists and sponsors to offer new ways of delivering programming online with extended viewing dates and added accessibility features.

— Edited from research and writing by Laura Weber

Extended History

On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the University Artists Course in 1944, its impresario, Verna Golden Scott, wrote, “It would be difficult to enumerate many artists of the past two decades who have not appeared on the University Artists Course.” Half a century later, Scott’s assessment is equally applicable to Northrop Memorial Auditorium, the Artists Course's long time home.  

The transformed landmark at the heart of the University of Minnesota’s east bank campus has indeed hosted a dizzying array of artists, entertainers, and public figures in its 85-year history: Igor Stravinsky and Santana; Mikhail Baryshnikov and the B-52s; His Holiness The Dalai Lama and the Grateful Dead; Merce Cunningham and Perry Como; W.H. Auden and Marian Anderson. Northrop’s aura has been experienced by tens of thousands of U of M students, arts patrons, and Minnesota citizens, perhaps as school children bused in to hear the Minneapolis Symphony (now Minnesota) Orchestra or as proud relatives attending commencement ceremonies.

The need for a central campus gathering place was acute by the turn of the twentieth century. The University outgrew its campus surrounding The Knoll, off University Avenue. In this period, the Armory, built in 1896, was the only gathering spot on campus available for arts performances or ceremonial occasions. 

The Board of Regents held a design competition for a campus expansion plan in 1907. St Paul’s Cass Gilbert, who by this time had designed the Minnesota State Capitol in the early 1890s and moved his growing practice to New York, won the competition. Gilbert’s notion was a classically inspired mall, which would extend from the old campus district south to the river. Though Gilbert’s design changed a few times, and was never fully executed, he ultimately sited the mall’s main building at the head of the proposed mall. 

President Leroy Burton (1917–20) sought to revive the shelved Cass Gilbert plan. In particular, Burton felt an auditorium was needed to serve as “a lively center for the arts.” The auditorium was to be named for Cyrus Northrop, the University’s second president, who served from 1884 until his death in 1911. There was, however, a significant impediment to the plan. The tracks of the Northern Pacific railroad crossed a nearby bridge over the Mississippi River and ran across the southern edge of campus, the area roughly below today’s Northrop Plaza. 

Burton’s successor as University president, Lotus D. Coffman, finally negotiated a solution in 1922. The Northern Pacific would reroute its trains to nearby Great Northern tracks, leaving their right-of-way available to build not only Northrop Auditorium, but Memorial Stadium and the other buildings that eventually filled in the mall. 

Coffman’s foresight extended to seeking private fundraising as a complement to state support. The Greater University Corporation, made up of 20,000 alumni and friends of the University living in Minnesota, was formed in 1922 to raise $2 million dollars to construct both a stadium, dedicated to the 3,200 Minnesotans who had died in World War I, and the auditorium dedicated to Cyrus Northrop’s legacy. Fifteen hundred enthusiastic students, faculty, staff, and friends pledged $665,000 in the first four days of the fund drive alone. 

Once made, however, fundraisers found it difficult to collect on many pledges, particularly from students. With Northrop building costs going up to $1.3 million, the Greater University Corporation took drastic measures. In 1928, one student was taken to court as a test case over his unpaid $100 pledge, shocking the public. It was the first of several such cases to go to court.

The design for Northrop Auditorium is attributed to Clarence H. Johnston Sr., who served as state architect from 1901 until 1936. Frederick Mann, head of the School of Architecture and the University’s Advisory Architect, prepared sketches for the proposed auditorium design, which were given final execution by Johnston. 

Despite the shortfall of funds, ground was broken for the 4,847-seat Northrop Auditorium on April 30, 1928, on the site of a former medicinal plant garden (established in 1911 by Dean Frederick Wulling of the College of Pharmacy). Plans were altered to cut costs. Mann expressed concern about acoustics. 

The monumental Classical Revival building was dedicated on October 22, 1929. The dominant feature of the red brick building with stone trim is its imposing colonnade of Ionic stone columns. The three-story lobby, dubbed Memorial Hall, contains tablets engraved with names of the founders of the state and University. The auditorium featured an elaborate proscenium arch and chandelier. 

The University celebrated Northrop’s opening with three dedicatory concerts (organized by Vera Scott) in the fall of 1929. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, soon to take up residence in Northrop for the next 44 years, led off on October 22. On October 30, the Boston Symphony, under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky, performed. President Coffman presided over the third event, the Alumni and State Program, on November 15. 

Northrop’s famous Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ was installed in four sections, from 1932 to 1935. The pipe organ was the second largest in the Upper Midwest, after that of the Minneapolis Auditorium. Its 6,975 pipes—ranging from the size of a pencil to 32 feet high—were located above the stage in a room as big as the stage. It was played from a four-manual console located in the orchestra pit. Organ scholars attest to the Aeolian-Skinner’s historic value as a completely unaltered and intact example of the organ builder’s skill. After years of sitting dormant, funding was acquired to restore the organ and in 2018 the Minnesota Orchestra held a celebratory concert, playing the organ in front of an audience for the first time in decades.

The final element of the building to be completed was the inspirational inscription on the building’s façade. Consensus for the wording was difficult to reach; after a number of versions were considered, the inscription was finally carved in June 1936. Harry Rowatt Brown, a local businessman, donated a set of carillon bells (which are actually bars) in 1948 in memory of his wife, Francis Miller Brown.

Northrop was integrated into the campus life of University students for decades. Convocations, free and open to the public, were held weekly in the auditorium until 1969, and less frequently into the 1970s. An extensive range of speakers exposed students to political, scientific, and cultural arenas, as can be seen from a sampling from 1959 to 1961: choreographer Agnes DeMille, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., psychologist Albert Ellis, tennis champion Althea Gibson, and historian Arnold Toynbee. Music professor and University organist Arthur B. Jennings gave half-hour recitals before the Thursday convocations. Cap and Gown Day and Commencement were rites of passage associated with Northrop’s grandeur.

The stairs and plaza in front of Northrop were a natural gathering spot, whether casual lounging between classes, or planned rallies, programs, or protests. Noon Summer at Northrop concerts (now known as Music on the Plaza), have been a campus tradition since 1954. Only a partial version of Clarence Johnston’s original plans for the plaza was built due to lack of funding. Northrop Plaza was finally completed in 1965, paved with granite, according to plans developed by Advisory Architect and professor Winston Close. 

The now-familiar umbrella tables on the plaza were installed in 1967. In 1944, the Department of Concerts and Lectures was created as an umbrella unit for activities at Northrop. Under the direction of James Lombard, Concert and Lectures oversaw weekly convocations, special lectures, Summer at Northrop, and the annual tour of the Metropolitan Opera. Concerts and Lectures also provided crucial University outreach services to the state and region by operating talent and booking services for community programs (school assembly and convocation programs, play loan library, high school commencement speakers); concert and lectures series; and theater touring service. 

Psychology 1001 and other large lecture courses were not held in Northrop’s large auditorium until 1959, and lasted until other suitable lecture halls were built. Northrop’s basement was, until 2009, home for the 200-plus member University Marching Band, and the auditorium site of its annual indoor concerts. Concerts and Lectures supplemented its paid usher staff with student ushers who donated their time in exchange for seeing free shows. However, as the convocation tradition petered out by the 1970s, many students’ day-to-day experience of Northrop Auditorium consisted of lounging on its steps, walking by its imposing façade on their way somewhere else, or catching a noon concert. Not until graduation day did many venture into the aging auditorium.

The Twin Cities today are blessed with so many performance venues and arts and entertainment options that it is hard to conjure a time when Northrop was the only large multi-purpose hall and primary arts presenter in the area. Its importance to the cultural life of the entire community from the 1930s to 1970s cannot be underestimated.

Artistically, Northrop’s early years revolved around the University Artists Course, founded by Scott in 1919. Classical music was the mainstay of the recital series, held in conjunction with the Music Department. Mezzo-soprano Ernestine Schumann-Heink was its first featured artist. Violinist Fritz Kreisler, pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, violinist Jascha Heifetz, coloratura soprano Lily Pons, and pianist Vladimir Horowitz, are just a few of the artists Scott brought to Minnesota audiences.

The Artists Course was the first such series under college or university sponsorship and was widely imitated. After Northrop’s completion, the Artists Course moved from the Armory and expanded its offerings to include dance. The first dance performance, by modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman on January 12, 1932, was particularly bold. A 1986 thesis on the Artists Course noted its boldness because a German expressionist “Priestess of the Dance” performed solo in the simplest of costumes and on the barest of stages. 

Northrop’s presenting function for performing arts events of all genres, popular and classical, fell under the Artists Course name until 1978, when the name retired in favor of Northrop Dance Series.

President Coffman’s desire to make the University a cultural center for the community included a place to “display pictures.” In April 1934, Coffman and Malcolm Willey began the University Art Gallery—initially known as the “Little Gallery”—as an experiment in the fine arts. Now known as the Weisman Art Museum, the Art Gallery occupied five small rooms on the fourth floor of Northrop. Ruth Lawrence, widow of assistant to the president James Lawrence, was appointed curator and director after the first curator, Hudson D. Walker, left after a few months. Lawrence created a niche for the University Art Museum by acquiring modern and American art, making the University virtually the only place in the area it could be viewed.

Lawrence’s first acquisition was Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Oak Leaves, Pink and Gray.” It was displayed initially in the Fine Arts Room, an innovation of Lawrence’s. The room opened in February 1936 as a place with no other purpose than the contemplation of a single work of art. Students, alas, did not use the room as intended, and the Fine Arts Room experiment ended in the early 1940s. 

Early exhibitions were designed to support instruction. Faculty and student artwork was also regularly displayed. The exhibitions were so popular that the gallery began to use the corridors of the third and fourth floors of Northrop, and by the early 1960s, expanded to the second floor and main floor. Galleries stayed open on concert evenings so patrons could spend intermission immersed in even more culture. The gallery also operated an art rental service for faculty and staff that continues to this day at the Weisman Art Museum.

From 1938 to 1942, 60 Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers joined the gallery staff as a unit to compile and arrange a vast accumulation of research material from hundreds of sources. Gerome Kamrowski, a 22-year-old WPA artist from Warren, Minnesota, created two murals for the auditorium in 1936, one representing music, ballet, and cinema and the other drama, architecture, and the graphic and plastic arts. The murals have been recreated in their original location in the revitalized Northrop, and can be seen at the stairway entry points to the fourth floor. 

In the 1960s, the Art Gallery added important Pop Art works to its collection. Two 20-foot-square murals exhibited at the 1964 World’s Fair (gifts of the artists, University alumnus James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein) had to be displayed on the floor of Northrop’s lobby in 1966 as they were too large to display in the gallery. The following year, the Art 

Gallery added its first Andy Warhol piece, a silk-screen print from Warhol’s Marilyn series which was a gift by local art dealers and hair salon owners George Shea and Gordon Locksley.

The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1903. In its early years, it performed in various locations in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, including the Armory. The Minneapolis Symphony, renamed the Minnesota Orchestra in 1968, made Northrop its home from 1930 to 1974. The U of M was one of the few colleges or universities in the country to be home to a major orchestra. 

The elegant new hall was welcomed by all, but concerns about acoustics for orchestra performances led to installation of a plywood acoustical shell in 1940 to enhance sound. In 1953, Northrop received what the Minneapolis Tribune called an “ear-lifting,” including a new acoustical shell. Most of the $100,000 project was devoted to improvements of the technical capacity of the hall. Seats were ripped out and replaced, as were the curtain and carpeting. A retractable curtain, used to cut the size of Northrop to 1,228 seats, was added in 1956. 

Sound quality for audience and performers of the Minneapolis Symphony continued to be a concern. In response, Northrop installed the world’s first 12-gauge steel acoustical shell in 1961, replacing the 1940 plywood version. (The 1953 shell was used to enhance the smaller recital-sized performances of the Artists Course.) Sound reflecting baffles were designed to eliminate auditorium dead spaces. In 1969, California acoustical consultant Paul Venaclausen directed more acoustical improvements. “At last,” wrote Peter Altman, music critic for the Minneapolis Star, “it is hoped the hall’s notorious sound and sight problems have finally been overcome.”

The Metropolitan Opera made Northrop a regular stop on its national tour beginning in 1945. Opera patrons flocked from a nine-state region and Canada to attend opera week each May. The Opera was a joint production of the University Artists Course, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, and a region-wide committee of sponsors. In the 1950s, James Lombard and Mrs. F.K.O. Weyerhaeuser were responsible for instituting the Met’s first auditions to be held outside New York City, at Northrop.

Touring costs mounted as the years went by. The Met’s biggest stars increasingly refused to tour and regional audiences heard less skilled singers, those either on their way up or down. The Met was forced to drop cities from the national tour, but never Minneapolis. When the Met discontinued touring altogether, in 1986, only four cities, from a high of fifteen in the 1940s, remained on the tour.

As Northrop Auditorium approached the half-century mark, it experienced a series of turning points. The facility was aging. The recital business, staple of the University Artists Course for decades, had seriously declined. The most crucial turning point occurred in 1973, when the Minnesota Orchestra left for its acoustically superior and smaller home, Orchestra Hall. Northrop began running deficits. Under Dr. Ross Smith, who arrived as Concerts and Lectures director in 1968, Northrop looked for innovative ways to fill the hall. 

The Board of Regents provided one boost. After prohibiting outside promoters from renting Northrop for their own profit for decades, regents voted to reverse the policy in 1974. The era of rock and pop concerts began.

But it was dance that would prove to be Northrop’s marketing niche. In the 1970s, interest in the art form was gaining popularity. Northrop’s seating capacity and the size of its proscenium stage made it one of the only facilities in the region with the ability to present major touring dance companies. The Northrop Dance Season was established in 1970–71. Northrop committed to dance in 1975, investing $30,000 to replace its old floor with a new sprung wood floor consisting of overlapping wood strips. The floor was called a “Balanchine basket weave,” duplicating the one developed by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet. 

The number of dance companies booked by Northrop rose from three in 1969 to twelve in 1975. These included three of the country’s top troupes, Alwin Nikolai, Alvin Ailey, and Martha Graham, and a 17-performance World Dance Series featuring contemporary, ballet, and folk miniseries. Smith was instrumental in arranging the collaboration between the Minnesota Dance Theatre, the Minnesota Orchestra, and Northrop in presenting the Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy for many holiday seasons.  

The list of dance legends Northrop Dance Season presented in the twentieth century alone is so long that to enumerate even highlights risks becoming a laundry list: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp; New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, the National Dance Company of Senegal, and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company are just a few.

Citing its role as a major dance presenter, and wishing to avoid confusion, in September 1978 a Northrop press release went out declaring, “The Department of Concerts and Lectures is pleased to announce that the University Artists Course is officially dead. Alive and well in its place is the Northrop Dance Season, which sponsors the World Dance Season, Metropolitan Opera, Nutcracker Fantasy, and other events noted on this letterhead.” 

In 1980, Minnesota magazine reported that, in the previous decade, more than 600,000 people had seen 161 performances under Northrop Dance Season auspices and the department was in the black. Ross Smith noted that the only great dancer who hadn’t appeared on the Northrop stage was Isadora Duncan. Northrop Dance Season was regarded as one of Smith’s most important legacies. It was continued and enhanced by his assistant Dale Schatzlein, who became Northrop director in 1985. (After Schatzlein’s death in 2006, Northrop Operations Director Sally Dischinger served as interim director. Ben Johnson served as director of Northrop Concerts and Lectures from 2007 to 2013. Christine Tschida is Northrop’s director today.)

In 1980 Northrop began regularly hosting distinguished lectures by world leaders when the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series made Northrop its home base. Over 50 dignitaries, including U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush (when he was Vice President), and Bill Clinton, have stood at Northrop’s podium. In 2001, Carlson lecturer His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama received an honorary University degree on the Northrop stage as part of his visit to campus.

Competition for the arts dollar in the Twin Cities heated up in the 1980s as new performance venues, particularly the dance-friendly Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul, opened. Northrop continued to grow its dance audiences nonetheless. In 1992, Northrop Dance Season counted 3,000 subscribers and overall attendance of 40,000. Programming focused on artists from diverse cultures.

Meanwhile, another important Northrop tenant, the Art Gallery, was contemplating its future. The fourth floor rooms and auditorium corridors were never meant to be the gallery’s permanent home. But there the gallery’s 7,000 pieces valued at some $6 million remained, scattered about the building in cramped storage spaces with no temperature control. Under the direction of Lyndel King, who took the helm in 1981, the gallery made plans for a suitable facility.

In 1983 the Board of Regents approved a name change to University Art Museum. In 1988, regents approved a proposal for $4 million for a new building, if the museum could raise a similar amount. Finally, in 1993 the no-longer “little” museum moved into its own building, the landmark Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum. 

Northrop’s presenting scope expanded in 1987 when it joined with the Walker Art Center in launching the Discover Series to showcase new directions in performance, drawing its season roster from contemporary artists in opera, dance, music, theater, and mixed media. Notable past performances have included Philip Glass, Martha Clark, Diamanda Galas, the Wooster Group, Spalding Gray, Kronos Quartet, Trisha Brown Dance Company, and Urban Bush Women. The Discover Series received a boost in 1990 when Northrop was one of three arts presenting organizations nationwide awarded a three-year grant of $249,00 from Northwest Area Foundation to co-commission and present large-scale contemporary visions in the performing arts. 

In 1993 Northrop became one of 20 jazz presenters nationwide to join the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest National Jazz Network, paving the way for Northrop Jazz Series, a complement to the club scene. Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra was the first artist to perform as part of the Jazz Season. Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Herbie Hancock, Maria Schneider, and The Bad Plus are just a few who followed.

Years of deferred maintenance meant much work would be needed to ensure the venerable Northrop would be a viable facility in the twenty-first century. The University conducted 11 studies on the future of Northrop, beginning in 1993. Northrop Dance audiences surveyed in 1999 said the words or phrases that came to mind in association with the auditorium were, in order: dance, large/huge, old, uncomfortable seating, parking difficulties. In the early 2000s, University officials solicited the expertise and visions 

of key constituents and outside experts for their ideas on the future of Northrop. Still, provisions were made for the present. In 2006, the building received $15 million in exterior and mechanical repairs over a 17-month period.

In 2007, the Future of Northrop Advisory Committee stated, “there is no aspect of Northrop without issue.” The configuration and use patterns of the “sacred, aging, and crumbling icon” made only a modest contribution to the academic priorities of the University. A vision for a “multi-use, daily-use facility” featuring a reduced-size 2,700-seat auditorium to allow creation of gathering spaces and academic program offices was advanced, and ultimately implemented. 

Funding for the long-planned $88.2 million renovation was finally secured in 2010. Memorial Hall would be preserved, but the rest of Northrop’s interior was essentially gutted, though historic artifacts were preserved for later reinstallation. The new multipurpose main theater features state-of-the-art acoustics, improved sightlines, cutting-edge technologies, and updated amenities, including rehearsal studio, reception rooms, and more concession stands and ticket windows. A second venue, the 168-seat Best Buy Theater, adds flexibility for lectures and recitals. Visual art returns to the fourth floor with a new art gallery. The new Northrop is also home to three University-wide programs: The University Honors Program, The Institute for Advanced Study, and The College of Design’s Travelers Innovation Lab. Seminar and meeting rooms, study spaces and student lounges, and Surdyk’s Café round out the mix. 

What began as the Artists Course almost a century ago is today Northrop Presents. All of Northrop’s residents will work collaboratively on the new vision for Northrop: to expand programming in ways that will enlighten, challenge, and engage students, faculty, and the community.

By putting the most compelling artists of the day on stage at the center of campus, matched by world-class technical capabilities and acoustics and comfortable surroundings, the newly revitalized Northrop will again become a destination, the hub for arts, culture, and academic activity it was originally intended to be.

— Written by Minneapolis writer and historian Laura Weber for Northrop’s Grand Reopening on Apr 4, 2014

The Northrop pipe organ on the stage with the balconies in the background.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary.

The Northrop Pipe Organ: A Resounding Success

The historic Northrop pipe organ is a remarkable instrument worthy of recognition. An Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892, the organ was built between 1932 and 1936, and is one of the last remaining concert-hall pipe organs in the United States. With its nearly 7,000 pipes, the Northrop organ is approximately 40 feet tall and occupies an area the size of the Northrop stage. The largest of the organ's pipes is 32 feet tall, while the smallest is the size of a pencil. The public face of the organ is the console, the playable part of the instrument that rises on a platform from the orchestra pit with four keyboards and about 225 stops, pedals and buttons.

The Northrop organ is the third-largest auditorium-based Aeolian-Skinner extant in the U.S., and is one of the finest examples of a late-Romantic-era instrument. It was awarded the prestigious “Exceptional Historic Merit” citation by the Organ Historical Society in 1999, and organ scholars attest to the Aeolian Skinner’s historic value as a completely unaltered and intact example of the organ builder’s skill.

Northrop's pipe organ

Photo by Patrick O'Leary.

Along with its remarkable sound quality in concerts and performances, the Northrop Organ has been used as a teaching instrument throughout the years. Dr. Dean Billmeyer, who is the current and longest-serving University organist, believes the organ is the single strongest factor in the U’s continuation of the organ instruction program and its ability to attract new students to the program.

Over the decades the Northrop organ fell into disrepair. By the early 1970s, it had nearly stopped working. Gordon Schultz, then a student at the University of Minnesota, started an effort to restore the unplayable organ and would sneak into Northrop on nights and weekends to work on it. Schultz had apprenticed with a Minneapolis organ shop and had an accommodating friend with a key who left certain Northrop doors open for him. More than three decades later, Schultz runs Gould and Schultz musical instrument company and travels the Midwest repairing and building pipe organs. He’s helped to maintain the organ ever since.

A view from the upper balcony with the pipe organ on center stage.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary.

When the Northrop building renovation began in 2011, the organ was carefully moved to storage, where it sat for several years waiting for the funding needed to repair and reinstall the instrument. A generous bequest by the late Dr. Roger E. Anderson, long-time supporter of the Friends of the Northrop Organ, provided funds for the reinstallation of the instrument in its new location in the chambers above the stage and behind the proscenium.

The reinstallation, which has been painstakingly carried out by Foley-Baker and Associates, culminated in a grand inaugural concert on Oct 12-13, 2018, featuring the Minnesota Orchestra, conductor Osmo Vänskä and renowned organist Paul Jacobs.

In addition to the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony No. 3 (a nod to the first concert played on the Northrop organ) the program featured the world premiere of a commissioned contemporary work for organ by composer John Harbison, one of America’s most distinguished artistic figures. Northrop, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony were commissioning partners for this new symphonic work.

The Friends of the Northrop Organ committee continues to meet on a regular basis to promote the historic instrument, support student and faculty recitals, and plan programming and community engagement opportunities for future seasons to spotlight the restored pipe organ.

Learn more about the organ and see photos and a list of the pipes in this story by the Twin Cities Guild of Organists. Read more about the organ restoration in this Finance and Commerce article.

NORTHROP’S ÆOLIAN -SKINNER ORGAN, OP. 892 SPECIFICATION

16 Diapason

8 First Diapason

8 Second Diapason

8 Third Diapason

8 Flute Harmonique

8 Gedeckt*

8 Viola*

8 Gemshorn

5-1/3 Quint

4 Octave

4 Second Octave

4 Flute*

3-1/5 Tenth

2-2/3 Twelfth

2 Fifteenth

VII Plein Jeu*

IV Harmonics

16 Contra Tromba*

8 Tromba*

4 Octave Tromba*

Harp

Chimes

Celesta

16 Bourdon

16 Gemshorn

8 Geigen Diapason

8 Hohlflöte

8 Rohrflote

8 Fluato Dolce

8 Flute Celeste

8 Salicional

8 Voix Celeste

8 Echo Gamba

8 Echo Celeste

4 Octave Geigen

4 Flute

4 Violina

2-2/3 Twelfth

2 Fifteenth

V Dolce Cornet

V Chorus Mixture

16 Posaune

8 French Trumpet

8 Cornopean

8 Oboe

8 Vox Humana

4 Clarion

Tremolo

Harp

Celesta

Chimes

16 Contra Viola

8 Diapason

8 Concert Flute

8 Cor de Nuit

8 Dulcet II

8 Dulciana

8 Unda Maris

4 Flute

4 Gemshorn

2-2/3 Nazard

2 Piccolo

1-3/5 Tierce

1-1/3 Larigot

III Dulciana Mixture

16 Fagotto

8 Trumpet

8 Orchestral Oboe

8 Clarinet

Tremolo

Harp

Celesta

16 Contra Gamba

8 Flauto Mirabilis

8 Gamba

8 Gamba Celeste

8 Aetherial Celeste II

4 Orchestral Flute

4 Octave Gamba

III Cornet de Viole

16 Corno di Bassetto

8 English Horn

8 French Horn

8 Tuba Mirabilis

4 Tuba Clarion

Tremolo

Harp

Celesta

32 Double Open Diapason

32 Sub Bourdon**

16 Diapason

16 Metal Diapason

16 Diapason (Gt)

16 Contre Basse

16 Contra Gamba (Sw)

16 Contra Viola (Ch)

16 Bourdon

16 Gemshorn (Sw)

16 Echo Lieblich (Sw)

8 Octave

8 Cello

8 Viole (Ch)

8 Gedeckt

8 Still Gedeckt (Sw)

5-1/3 Twelfth

4 Super Octave

4 Flute

V Harmonics

32 Bombarde

32 Contra Fagotto (Ch)

16 Trombone

16 Posaune (Sw)

16 Fagotto (Ch)

8 Tromba

4 Clarion

Chimes

Swell to Pedal

Great to Pedal

Choir to Pedal

Solo to Pedal

Swell to Pedal 4

Choir to Pedal 4

Solo to Pedal 4

Pedal to Great 8 ***

Swell to Great

Choir to Great

Solo to Great

Swell to Choir

Solo to Choir

Solo to Swell

Great to Solo

Swell 16

Swell 4

Swell to Great 16

Swell to Great 4

Swell to Choir 16

Swell to Choir 4

Choir 16

Choir 4

Choir to Great 16

Choir to Great 4

Solo 16

Solo 4

Solo to Great 16

Solo to Great 4

Manual Transfer ***

Pedal Divide ***

All Pistons Next ***

All Swells to Swell

Solid State Combinations by Classic Organ Works

18 General

8 Solo

10 Swell

10 Great

10 Choir

6 Pedal

300 Memory Levels per User; Multiple Users Possible

Sequencer

Transposer

* Enclosed

** Originally a Resultant below GGGG; 7 new pipes 2016 by FoleyBaker to complete the register.

*** Additions by Foley-Baker 2016

Northrop Centennial Commissions logomark

Northrop Centennial Commissions

With more than 90 years of presenting history, Northrop has continued to provide cultural experiences that make an impact and connect with the human spirit. Known as one of the first performing arts destinations in the state with decades of hosting world-class dance and music performances, annual holiday dance traditions, popular pipe organ music concerts, legendary speakers and leaders, a robust McKnight Artist Fellowships for Dancers and Choreographers and International Choreographers program, and once home to the Minnesota Orchestra, Northrop has played a vital role in connecting the community with arts and artists to make a lasting impact.

As we excitedly prepare for Northrop’s 100th Anniversary in 2029, we honor this rich history, and look forward to a vibrant future. At the start of the decade before Northrop celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2029, the Northrop Centennial Commissions program was created to provide support for new dance works, elevates artists across the country, and work collaboratively with companies and artists to amplify their work for years to come. The inception of the program started as a way to support artists whose Northrop performances were postponed and canceled due to COVID-19, while its culmination will occur during Northrop’s centennial anniversary. Some of our current visiting artists are creating new work, with support from Northrop. 

Dancers perform on a smoke filled stage

Photo © Psalm Joyce.

Limón Dance Company

Limón Dance Company has invited Raúl Tamez to be the first Mexican choreographer to add to the Jose Limón repertoire for his namesake company. The initial creative exploration and process for the new work was hosted by Northrop in the summer of 2021, and the new work will appear on Northrop's stage in the 2022-23 season. Raúl Tamez’s choreography is inspired by a Limón dance titled Tonantzintla, which in turn was inspired by a church of that name in Mexico City. Tamez's work considers the Indigenous cultures, languages, rituals, and cosmogonies of the people who built that church, and the meaning of these histories in our contemporary world.

A woman in a white dress bends backwards against a white backdrop.

Xin Ying in Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze. Photo © Hibbard Nash Photography.

Martha Graham Dance Company

Martha Graham Dance Company will create a new piece, Canticle for Innocent Comedians, based on the 1952 Graham work. The original Canticle consisted of eight vignettes dedicated to nature: sun, earth, wind, water, fire, moon, stars, and death. This piece will follow that same structure and include Martha Graham’s original choreography for Moon. The new piece will have a new score, and is slated to premiere in the spring of 2022.

A woman dancer jumps in mid air.

Paul Taylor's Eran Bugge in Polaris. Photo © Paul B. Goode.

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Paul Taylor Dance Company was working with choreographer Peter Chu on a new piece when they were forced to suspend their operations as a result of COVID-19. Northrop is providing commissioning support for the company to continue this work, which will be featured in the 2021-22 season.

Two men and two women in a gymnasium swing dancing.

Caleb Teicher, Nathan Bugh, LaTasha Barnes, and Evita Arce. Photo © Em Watson.

Swing Out

Acclaimed choreographer and rising star Caleb Teicher and friends Eyal Vilner (composer), Evita Arce, Nathan Bugh, LaTasha Barnes, and Macy Sullivan are creating Swing Out to bring the best of swing dance and Lindy Hop to the stage. Northrop will be hosting a series of online workshops and conversations with the artists this October, with a performance in the 2021-22 Season.

Four male dances surround and reach towards a woman.

Anthony Santos, Derek Brockington, Amanda Smith and Dylan Santos. Photo © Rachel Neville

Dance Theatre of Harlem

Dance Theatre of Harlem was scheduled to return to Northrop in October, but instead they will be returning to rehearsals during that time. One of the pieces they’ll be working on is the new ballet Higher Ground by Robert Garland, with music by Stevie Wonder. It will appear at Northrop in the Winter of 2022.

Two men sit on stage. One points off into the distance.

Xaiver Nunez and Dylan Gutierrez in Of Mice and Men. Photo © Todd Rosenberg.

The Joffrey Ballet

The Joffrey Ballet is creating a new ballet, with choreography by Cathy Marston and music by Thomas Newman, based on the Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men. The Joffrey will premiere the ballet in Chicago in April 2022, with a staging at Northrop the following season.

Arms and legs wrap around an old tv.

GALLIM in BOAT. Photo Courtesy of artist.

GALLIM

GALLIM created a film version of their stage work BOAT that premiered online via Northrop in November 2020. The film's soundtrack features University Organist Dean Billmeyer playing Northrop's Aeolian-Skinner Organ as well as Twin Cities' own PopUp choir in two compositions by Arvo Paert. BOAT explores what it looks like, feels like, and means to be searching for home, taking viewers on a journey of people becoming undone, floating adrift, holding each other, building bonds, and allowing hope and dignity to grow anew.

Three woman pose on stage during a dance rehearsal.

Ragamala Dance Company in Fires of Varanasi. Photo © Jayme Halbritter Photography.

Ragamala Dance Company

Northrop is offering a Ragamala Rooted residency with Ragamala Dance Company that culminates with the premiere performances of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy’s Fires of Varanasi, which has moved into Northrop's 2021-22 Season. The residency includes campus and community engagement activities every month September through May, and the main performance and other related events continuing into next season. Those activities, including a conversation with travel and culture writer Pico Iyer and a cook-along event with chef Raghavan Iyer were online in the fall but some in-person activities are scheduled for this spring. Stay tuned for details of this rescheduled performance.

Ballet dancers perform on a rooftop

Photo still from the film The State Ballet of Georgia Today.

The State Ballet of Georgia

Created specifically for Northrop audiences, this film gives viewers a peek at the Georgian ballet company through gala-style excerpts of ballet repertory, interviews with Artistic Director Nina Ananiashvili and featured dancers, and breathtaking views of the State Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the city of Tbilisi. The film’s featured ballet repertory includes clips from a number of ballets including Laurencia, premiered in 1939 by Vakhtang Chabukiani; Sagalobeli, a 2007 ballet choreographed to Georgian folk melodies by Yuri Possokhov; Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, which was the first full version choreographed to Prokofiev’s score; and a taste of The State Ballet of Georgia’s Giselle.