The Hearth of the University

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2014

Its grand reopening is historic —and deeply personal.

By Karen Hanson, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Hanson, Photograph by Sher Stoneman; Northrop By Patrick O'Leary


As we look forward to the reopening of Northrop in April, I have found myself thinking back to my own earliest visits to that magnificent venue as a child growing up in St. Paul. Did I enter that grand space for the first time to hear the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra perform a “Young People’s Concert”? Perhaps, because my elementary school arranged buses to take its students there, and I remember the thrill of going with my classmates to those concerts. Did I go first holding my parents’ hands, perhaps to see The Nutcracker? That, too, was a magical event.

As a teenager I often asked my parents to let me tag along to events at Northrop. They were regulars at Northrop concerts and performances, though my father, in particular, certainly didn’t have the good fortune I had to grow up with easy access to the arts. He grew up during the Depression, on a failing farm, but he had a high school teacher who took an interest in him and urged him to further his education and go to the University of Minnesota. My guess is that the first time he saw a professional musical performance was indeed at Northrop, perhaps during his student days—perhaps as he began to date the U of M student who would become my mother.

Sitting with my parents in Northrop, seeing the Royal Ballet and the sublime pairing of Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, the stars of the Bolshoi Ballet; the Martha Graham Dance Company; the Royal Danish Ballet; the Ballet Folklórico de México; and learning to love dance, as my mother always had, and as my father now did, too, I was at once widening my world and deepening my ties with my parents—no easy matter in adolescence. I learned in the darkness of Northrop that the beauty of a Puccini aria could bring tears to my father’s eyes—though I also knew that in my family this could scarcely be acknowledged. When Northrop offered its gallery to local schools for artworks youngsters had created in response to musical prompts, and my junior high effort was exhibited, my parents quietly visited the gallery. When one of my brothers played in a Northrop Marching Band concert, under Frank Bencriscutto’s direction, my parents were in the audience.


When I followed my parents and older brother and became a student at the University of Minnesota, Northrop remained important for me. It presided majestically over the Mall, as it does today, the iconic building of the University. I passed it each day as I walked between classes. Its stately Ionic columns, its massive gable, and its noble inscription, “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,” all provided a silent but deeply inspiring sense that the U was where I belonged—where I could learn and grow—and that, through the U, I could be connected to bigger things, to diverse communities and cultures, and to the world of ideas.

Northrop was a landmark, but it was also a campus gathering place, its plaza a site for casual socializing and earnest politics, and the auditorium and galleries the venues for performances, lectures, art shows, and major university ceremonies. For me, Northrop provided a good portion of what we now call the “cocurriculum.” I did my best to attend every free lecture, every poetry reading, every concert or performance I could afford. These experiences shaped my interests, my sensibilities, and my understanding, and I am profoundly grateful that I had those opportunities.

In Northrop, I heard Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, Cannonball Adderly and Wes Montgomery, Simon and Garfunkel, Andrés Segovia, and Joan Baez. I listened to lectures by poets, journalists, politicians, activists, and artists. And I walked across the Northrop stage myself, in cap and gown, when I graduated.

That graduation was decades ago. The ensuing decades took a heavy toll on Northrop. The building fell into disrepair, and it came to be used less often for campus and community events. For later generations of students, it had become a magnificent fossil, rather than a living presence. Its steps were a place to sit on a warm spring day, not a stairway to intellectual and cultural enrichment.

But just before I returned to Minnesota two years ago, University leaders seized an opportunity to reimagine Northrop. Their vision reflected the University’s vigorous commitment to enhancing undergraduate education and the community engagement that is central to the mission of a great land-grant research university in the heart of a major metropolitan area.

The revitalized Northrop that opens in April will be a multipurpose, state-of-the-art cultural center—with vastly improved sightlines and acoustics—fully integrated with campus and community life. Northrop will continue its long tradition of hosting internationally renowned artists in music, dance, and theater. It also will house modern seminar and meeting spaces; multimedia facilities; a café; and six student study lounges. And Northrop will again, more than ever, be a central campus and community gathering place—the “hearth of the University”—for major events, from convocations to lectures by illustrious speakers.

The building also will be home to three University-wide academic programs: the University Honors Program, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the College of Design’s Travelers Innovation Lab. These programs will be springboards for the kind of teaching and learning collaborations that are so important in the modern university—engaging people from many disciplines across the University and from communities far and wide. Northrop’s walls may be constructed of steel and stone, but its cultural and intellectual spaces will be open, porous, and dynamic.

As I look forward to the grand reopening, my excitement is not just “provostial” but deeply personal. I know what Northrop has meant to me and to many others, especially alumni. I hope others will have what I was privileged to have. I hope new generations of Minnesota youngsters will be bused to campus for concerts and lectures. I hope our families will come to connect with the arts and with one another. Northrop is a splendid landmark, a monumental building, but it is also a special place of learning, memory, and celebration. Northrop is an icon of the University of Minnesota—and it belongs to all of us.

Karen Hanson (B.A. ’70) graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in philosophy and mathematics.

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