The Blake School celebrates its rich sporting history by renovating its midcentury ice arena to preserve the past

By Amy Goetzman

With the completion of Allianz Field, U.S. Bank Stadium, CHS Field, TCF Bank Stadium, and Target Field over the past decade, it can seem like just about every major sports venue in the Twin Cities is a recent build. Demolish and build new; thanks for all the memories. The Blake Bears, one of Minnesota’s oldest high school hockey programs, got their new arena back in 1964, and no one has said a word since about replacing it with a shiny new thing. That’s because the original design was close to perfect.

Just look at that barrel vault. The natural wood ceiling curves down as if to hug the ice, its warm hue lending intimacy to a space that accommodates an NHL-size rink. “We had to start by preserving that ceiling; we were reacting to it with every other decision we made,” says Patrick Regan, AIA, of James Dayton Design, the firm brought in to restore and refine the arena. “It’s such a great building. You go in there and you feel the history of hockey in Minnesota.”

OK, so we said close to perfect. As the building passed its first half-century, a few things needed attention. “Originally, the ends were open to the outside, and there was no lobby,” says Regan. “The building had been enclosed at some point, but you still basically walked in the door of a shelter. It needed a box office, a lobby, a vestibule for climate control, better locker rooms, and some sort of pathways for getting people in and out of the space.

“Our first goal was to preserve the barrel ceiling and do everything we could to improve and accentuate it,” he continues. “It’s a great traditional form, and so few of them are left. The second goal was to improve the fan experience.”

“We have a strong hockey tradition, with families who’ve played here over several generations,” says Blake School CFO and COO Dan Kelley. “So we knew there was a lot of warm feeling for the building. We did our due diligence in terms of cost analysis, and then we landed on a great solution, where we maintained the beauty of the 1960s design while vastly improving the seating, concessions, locker rooms, and accessibility.”

The architects designed a modern entry sequence with metal-panel cladding on the outside, clean-lined trophy displays inside, and an adjoining stair tower that creates a rare moment of verticality within the horizontal building. They also reorganized and refined earlier additions, addressed structural and maintenance issues, improved the building’s cladding and moisture-management capabilities, and restored the bleachers. Simple plywood and metal finishes in the new entry and concessions area strike a contemporary note while simultaneously amplifying the arena’s traditional character.

“The decision to maintain the historical character of the rink was a guiding principle that shaped some of the material selections, like the fir plywood and the AC [quality veneer on the exposed side] plywood,” says Regan. “The old bleachers were made out of plywood, and that aligned with our own aesthetic. Plywood is warm, and it’s the same color as the barrel wood. Aluminum bleachers, in contrast, would have been a foreign object in that space.”

Remaining sympathetic to the history of the building came easily to architect James Dayton, who attended Blake himself and grew up playing hockey in the arena. “Jim went on to play Division 1 hockey at Yale, where the rink also has a wood ceiling,” says Regan. “The history he had with the Blake rink really made this project dear to his heart.”

James Dayton died unexpectedly at age 53 in February 2019. He left behind a rich collection of celebrated buildings, including the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, the MacPhail Center for Music, and the recent expansion of Westminster Presbyterian Church. The Blake School Ice Arena was completed in late 2017, and Dayton had the chance to skate there once again, under the roof he helped to preserve.

Location: Hopkins, Minnesota
Client: The Blake School
Architect: James Dayton Design
Principal-in-charge and project lead designer: James Dayton, AIA
Project manager and project architect: Patrick Regan, AIA
Structural engineer: Meyer Borgman Johnson
Construction manager: Mortenson
Size: 40,154 square feet
Completion: November 2017
Photographer: Paul Crosby