A steam shovel broke ground April 30, 1928 on the site of the former College of Pharmacy medicinal herb garden to create a gathering place with majestic pillars that would ultimately become one of the University of Minnesota's major icons and focal points. Named in honor of Cyrus Northrop, second president of the University (1884-1911), the auditorium at once became the University's central ceremonial site with commencements, lectures, convocations, and performances.
Northrop was designed by Clarence H. Johnston, also the architect of Morrill Hall, Folwell Hall, Johnston Hall, Walter Library and the row of flats on St. Paul's Summit Avenue where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived. Verna Golden Scott, wife of University Department of Music Chairman Carlyle M. Scott, was the moving force behind the auditorium as a home for her University Artists Course performance series. Donations by University students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends funded the $1.35 million construction.
Referred to as "the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest," the 4800 seat facility was dedicated on October 22, 1929 with three concerts marking the historic occasion: the Minneapolis Symphony conducted by Henri Verbrugghen, the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevetzky, and a performance by representatives of the Alumni and the State of Minnesota.
The early years revolved around the University Artists Course, which featured a wealth of classical music by such noted artists as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Vladimir Horowitz, and Marian Anderson. From 1930-73, Northrop was home to the Minneapolis Symphony (subsequently renamed the Minnesota Orchestra), until it moved to Orchestra Hall. From 1945-86, Northrop welcomed 42 annual spring tours by the Metropolitan Opera of New York.
On January 12, 1932, modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman gave the first dance performance at Northrop. The Northrop Dance Season began in 1970-71 with a commitment to become one of the country's premier presenters of national and international ballet, contemporary, and cultural dance companies. The Northrop stage was retrofitted with a "Balanchine basketweave" floor in 1974. The dance tradition has prospered with performances by such greats as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, The Royal Ballet of England, National Ballet of Canada, Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Twyla Tharp Dance Company, and Pilobolus Dance Theatre.
Northrop Jazz Season was launched in 1993, offering concert hall performances as a complement to the lively Twin Cities club jazz scene. Since its inception, the series has featured such acclaimed artists as Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and James Carter, Herbie Hancock, Buena Vista Social Club, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Mingus Big Band, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Ramsey Lewis, Roy Haynes, Ravi Coltrane, and Pat Metheny.
Outside promoters bring an illustrious array of performers to the Northrop stage, headliners who have included Bette Midler, James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Robin Williams, Bonnie Raitt, K.D. lang, Nora Jones, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Louie Anderson, and many others.
Lectures have also been a strong dimension through the years. Gideon Seymour lectures once featured T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. John Gardner inaugurated the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affair's Distinguished Carlson lectures that have been ongoing since 1980 with presentations by dignitaries including Walter Mondale, Coretta Scott King, Will Steger, Eduard Shevardnadze, Toni Morrison, Elie Wiesel, and Tom Brokaw.
The Summer at Northrop free outdoor concerts have been a popular University tradition since 1954. University of Minnesota Summer Session and the Department of Concerts and Lectures historically presented these concerts, offering an eclectic array of music across different cultures. Revamped under the direction of a student advisory committee and guest artistic director, Summer Music Festival at Northrop launched in 2011.
Northrop's leadership through the years has been Verna Scott (1919-44), James Lombard (1944-69), Dr. Ross D. Smith (1969-85), Dale Schatzlein (1985-2006), Sally Dischinger (2006-2008), Ben Johnson (2008-2012), and Christine Tschida (2012-present).
Northrop is currently closed for a grand revitalization. It will re-open in spring 2014 as a new preeminent cultural and performing arts center and a vital center of academic distinction.