A new concert hall at St. Paul’s Ordway Center wows with intimate seating and an undulating wood ceiling screen

By Joel Hoekstra

More than three decades ago, when grand plans were hatched to build the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts on Rice Park in downtown St. Paul, the founders’ vision called for two performance spaces: a 2,000-seat music hall for big shows and a 1,000-seat concert venue for smaller performances. But budget constraints forced several compromises, and in the end the latter space became a 300-seat theater that lacked the acoustics required for truly great music making.

Happily, this past spring, as the Ordway celebrated its 30th anniversary, the original vision was finally realized when a new 1,100-seat concert hall opened on the site of the old McKnight Theatre. Fused to the Ordway’s main lobby and wrapped in a glass-and-copper facade that matches the beauty of the existing exterior, the $35 million concert hall blends seamlessly with the original design, though its interior is hardly a throwback to 1985. “It’s a contemporary cousin to the music theater space,” says lead designer Tim Carl, FAIA, of Minneapolis-based HGA Architects and Engineers.

Concertgoers arriving via the new Washington Street entrance encounter a three-story lobby paneled in mahogany and carpeted in a blue-dot pattern that echoes the design scheme of the existing Ordway lobby. After climbing the stairs to the balcony or stopping at one of the bars for a drink, visitors enter a hall warmed both visually and acoustically by grillwork stained to recall the mahogany from the lobby, and by fluted, white glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum panels. No seat is more than 90 feet from the stage, and three rows of “choir loft” seating behind the stage allow some patrons to experience the performance from a particularly intimate vantage point. An undulating ribbon of oak dowels (stained to match the mahogany) hangs from the ceiling, creating a forced perspective even from the last row of the highest balcony. “Visually, it brings the musicians even closer,” says Ordway production director Andy Luft.

Interestingly, there were no plans to demolish the McKnight Theatre when HGA was originally hired in 2007. At the time, the small theater was mainly used by local theater groups, while the Ordway’s resident arts partners—the Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Schubert Club—struggled to maximize performance and rehearsal time in the music theater. To accommodate a wide range of setups, including grand operas, chamber concerts, and even Broadway shows, the stage had to be altered almost daily—requiring a considerable investment of time and, therefore, labor costs.

“There simply were not enough hours in the hall to do all the programming that each organization wanted to do,” says Ordway president Patricia Mitchell. Additionally, the Ordway was short on backstage space for changing rooms, instrument storage, and other vital functions. When someone suggested taking a wrecking ball to the McKnight and revisiting the original vision to create more space for music performances, the idea seemed both laughable and genius.

Acoustics can make or break a hall, so HGA partnered with acoustician Paul Scarbrough of the Connecticut-based firm Akustiks to create a space that parallels the acoustical qualities of the world’s most renowned halls. (Scarbrough was recently hired to fix the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City.) The final scheme includes several sound reflectors hidden behind the undulating ceiling, as well as sculpted wall panels carefully calibrated to keep the room from being too dead or lively. During performances of jazz or amplified music, banner curtains can be lowered into the space to absorb sound. Members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the space’s main tenant, rave about the environment. The acoustics are clear, deep, and warm, says SPCO president Bruce Coppock. “And the hall has extraordinary tolerance for low volume,” he adds. “You can literally hear a pin drop.”

Orchestra members also weighed in on how the space should look. “They didn’t want a space that looked like a musical metaphor,” says Carl. “And they also didn’t want overwhelming architecture. So once the lights dim and the musicians start to play, the focus is all on the music.”

Ordway officials wanted a house that would work financially. “The McKnight was a great space, but it was about 450 seats short of being profitable,” says Luft. “It was hard to make ends meet.” By raising the roof height and expanding the footprint by several feet to the north and east, HGA was able to bring capacity to 1,100 persons, an ideal figure for future ticket sales.

As part of the project, HGA also added more bars, ticket windows, and dressing rooms to the existing Ordway space. But patrons and performers alike hardly notice these enhancements once they’ve heard a few notes in the new concert hall. After a recent performance, an internationally known violinist was overheard saying, as he exited the building, “The only trouble is, we’ll never play in a hall as wonderful as this one anyplace else.”

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Architect: HGA Architects and Engineers
Principal-in-charge: Daniel Avchen, FAIA
Architectural team: Tim Carl, FAIA; Jamie Milne Rojek, AIA; Rebecca Krull Kraling, AIA; Steve Philippi; Cheryl Amdal
Engineer: HGA Architects and Engineers
Construction manager: McGough Construction
Size: 74,900 square feet (56,900 new, 18,000 renovated)
Cost: $35 million
Completion: March 2015
Photographer: Paul Crosby