Most Twin Citians of a certain age are familiar with the old Minneapolis Auditorium, which stood where the Convention Center is today. But that building, erected in the 1920s, was actually the city’s second auditorium.
The first, a building constructed in 1905 by means of a most unusual public/private partnership, was on 11th Street near Nicollet Avenue S. on what is now the site of Orchestra Hall. Although it survived until 1973, the first auditorium had a short run in its original form and was known for many years as the Lyceum Theater.
Minneapolis civic leaders began looking for a way to build a public auditorium, primarily for concerts and theatrical performances, in the early 1900s. But money for the project proved hard to come by until late 1903, when a businessman named Fred G. Smith came up with a seemingly outlandish idea. His proposal was to cut a deal with an insurance company, promising to sell $2 million worth of new policies in exchange for the company building an auditorium at a cost of $150,000 or more.
Strange as it sounds, the scheme worked, with the Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. (now known as ReliaStar and a subsidiary of Voya Financial Inc.) agreeing to the arrangement. I don’t know how many individual life insurance policies were sold to reach the magic mark (a relatively small number of wealthy customers may have purchased the bulk of them), but by late 1904 the deal was done and work began on the auditorium.
As designed by the Minneapolis architectural firm of Bertram & Chamberlin, the auditorium building offered an impressive front on 11th Street featuring six colossal Doric columns executed in creamy terracotta and set against a simple brick background. The columns framed five entry doors and a row of windows above. Two arched openings to either side of the colonnade held exit doors positioned at the bottom of wide staircases designed to allow quick egress from the auditorium’s balcony and gallery.
Much was made of these exits and other safety features in newspaper accounts when the auditorium formally opened in February 1905 — and for good reason. Just over a year earlier, on Dec. 30, 1903, at least 602 people had died in the most lethal building fire in American history at the newly built Iroquois Theater in Chicago. Designed with grossly inadequate exits, the theater turned into a death trap, the victims either suffocated by smoke or trampled to death by the fleeing crowd.
Built on a tight budget, the new auditorium was a rather bare-bones affair inside. One newspaper described its walls as “barren” and about the only decorative effect was a coffered ceiling. Even so, the auditorium was quite large, seating up to 2,500 people for events.
Its chief virtue was an 84-foot-wide, 50-foot-deep stage, which was spacious enough to accommodate all manner of traveling shows as well as grand opera (Verdi’s “Aida” was the first to be performed). The auditorium also came equipped with a 4,000-pipe Kimball organ, said to be the fourth-largest of its kind in the United States.
Although its raked main-floor seating could be removed (via two huge trap doors to the basement) to create a flat floor suitable for balls, receptions, trade shows and the like, the auditorium lacked a true arena. That deficiency explains why a new and much larger municipal auditorium was built 22 years later a few blocks away on Grant Street.
The Minneapolis Journal devoted five full pages to the opening of the new auditorium, hailing it as a “finely conceived and wonderfully executed building,” while assuring readers of its “fireproof construction” and numerous “safety devices.” But the writer admitted that the auditorium was far from grandly decorated, noting that “first nighters may think the interior too bare.” In fact, the auditorium offered nothing other than painted walls until it was dressed up a bit in a 1924 remodeling.
The Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) performed in the auditorium from 1905 to 1930. Newspapers claimed the acoustics were excellent.
Besides hosting concerts, the auditorium attracted many traveling stage shows. Over the years, a panoply of stars — Sarah Bernhardt, Bert Lahr, George M. Cohan, Rosalind Russell and many others — performed on its stage.
Initially, the auditorium was operated under the direction of a manager hired by Northwestern National, which in 1905 moved into a new four-story building next door on Nicollet.
It’s unlikely that the auditorium was much of a moneymaker, however, and by 1924 it was in need of a reboot. The firm of Magney and Tusler (soon to design the Foshay Tower) was called in to remodel and upgrade the auditorium, which was then reopened as the Lyceum Theater.
In its remodeled form, the theater included a new ballroom tucked beneath the main balcony and even a tea room for dancers in need of a little pick-me-up. Movies were also screened, but live stage performances continued to be the theater’s bread and butter.
By 1958, however, the Lyceum’s owners said they could no longer make a profit on legitimate theater productions and sold the building to the Calvary Evangelistic Association, which turned it into Soul’s Harbor, where the Almighty provided the drama.
The end came in 1973, as plans for Orchestra Hall and Peavey Plaza moved forward. Local newspaper legend Barbara Flanagan devoted a column to the theater’s history while the Minneapolis Star offered up a wistful farewell editorial.
Then the wreckers moved in, and the auditorium that had once been the toast of the city was gone.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached atlarrymillett.com.