A shuttered auditorium in the heart of downtown Duluth stages a dramatic resurgence

By Linda Mack

The renovation of Duluth’s iconic NorShor Theatre was like a disaster movie with a happy ending. Originally built in 1910 as a vaudeville theater, the then-named Orpheum was converted to a movie house in the 1940s. The remains of these previous incarnations lurked behind walls and under ceilings, waiting for the design team—TKDA of Duluth, with historic-theater consultants DLR Group/Westlake Reed Leskosky—to find them as the construction crew de-layered the complex, decrepit structure.

“It’s the most challenging renovation we’ve ever done,” says TKDA principal Ken Johnson, AIA. “There were three different layers of history, with the Orpheum and the movie theater and making it a playhouse for live theater. Codes have changed. Design standards have changed. And we had to make it all fit into this historic box.”

But when the renewed NorShor opened in February 2018 with the regional premiere of Mamma Mia!, no one asked whether it was worth the trouble. “People walk in and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is beautiful!’” says Christine Seitz, executive director of the Duluth Playhouse, which manages the 605-seat theater.

It took a partnership between Minneapolis developer Sherman Associates, which had recently renovated the Greysolon Plaza block across the street, and the nonprofit Duluth Playhouse to achieve the vision of then–Duluth Mayor Don Ness to revive the city landmark. While the area along Superior Street had been seeing new life with bars and design firms and a movie theater moving into old buildings, the NorShor remained a conspicuous eyesore.

Sherman Associates pursued and received federal historic tax credits for the project, which in turn required the renovation to meet strict design guidelines. Everything was reviewed by local preservation officials as the design team figured out how to accommodate live theater. “There was no stage, fly loft, orchestra pit, sound booth, lighting, or dressing rooms,” says Seitz. The seating had to be re-raked to create better sight lines to the stage. Elevators had to be added to the adjacent building to make all the spaces accessible. Links to the city’s skywalks had to be created. “These buildings were not built with accessibility and skywalk connections in mind,” says TKDA project designer Corey Beste.

And the lavish decorative elements that Minneapolis theater architects Liebenberg and Kaplan added in 1941—elaborate scrollwork on the proscenium, a mural of Split Rock Lighthouse, a wall relief of Duluth industry including the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge, two giant medallions on the auditorium walls, and an Art Deco–style hall of mirrors—had to be refurbished or re-created.

As important as the artwork was, its restoration was relatively straightforward, says DLR Group principal Matthew Janiak, AIA. What was difficult was making the theater work—for performers and the audience. “We’re used to comfortable seating, easy and expanded concessions,” says Janiak. “We wanted it to be a pleasant experience for the patrons.”

An added challenge was having to work around the building’s accumulated quirks. For instance, the structure of the upper balcony of the 1910 theater still exists above a ceiling—and directly above the new stage. “We had to thread the new mechanical ductwork around the balcony and through thousands of hanger wires holding up the ceiling,” says Beste.

One fortuitous outcome of the interior reworking was finding space on the main floor for a new lounge. (The steeper rake of the main-floor seating meant it ran into the balcony, so there was space behind it.) The new lounge mirrors the original Arrowhead Lounge on the mezzanine, which was restored to its 1940s glamour.

“The two lounges make the NorShor more social and interactive,” says Seitz. Furnished with seating and tables, they make attractive spaces for parties, wedding receptions, performances, or book signings. “They’re really warm and inviting,” says Seitz. And they add rental income to the mix of other events—eight Duluth Playhouse productions plus a variety of national and local acts and bands. In its first year, the theater booked 174 events.

“This building was brought back from the dead,” says Janiak. “It took the vision and belief that it could happen.”

Location: Duluth, Minnesota
Client: Sherman Associates
Architect of record: TKDA
Principal-in-charge: Ken Johnson, AIA
Assistant project manager: Corey Beste
Theater design consultant: DLR Group/Westlake Reed Leskosky
Lead theater designer: Matthew Janiak, AIA
Construction manager: Johnson Wilson Constructors
Size: 50,000 square feet
Cost: $30.5 million
Completion: December 2017
Photographer: Pete Sieger