Star Tribune: New Ordway Concert Hall fulfills a 30-year-old promise

Rohan Preston, Star Tribune 2/23/15

It’s a new era for St. Paul and the house that Sally Ordway Irvine built.

Wet paint glistened on the staircases of the new $42 million hall at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts a few days ago. Workers were putting the final touches on a venue that will polish St. Paul’s reputation as an arts and culture hub.

Opening with a gala Feb. 28, the 1,100-seat Ordway Concert Hall fulfills a promise dating to the center’s launch 30 years ago, when money issues forced the founders to scale back their ambitions.

Coupled with its 1,900-seat Music Theater, the Ordway now packs a one-two punch that should bring more events to the capital city.

“St. Paul is as strong now as we’ve been in decades, with light rail in and a new regional ballpark coming,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, an early champion of the project. “But the arts and culture stuff is what continues to drive development. The Ordway, which is so beautiful on Rice Park, is key to all of that.”

The new hall — which replaces the 306-seat McKnight Theatre — will serve as home for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. That frees up the main stage for locally produced Broadway-style shows such as “A Christmas Story,” or longer runs by the Minnesota Opera, which will present the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts’ “The Manchurian Candidate” March 7 as part of a monthlong “Rock the Ordway” celebration.

“The problems we’ve had have been problems of success,” said Ordway President Patricia Mitchell, referring to past turf battles among the center’s tenants.

When she first heard musicians playing in the new hall, “It brought tears to my eyes. This fulfills Sally’s dream.”

That would be the late Sally Ordway Irvine, founder of the center, which was named for her grandfather, Lucius Pond Ordway, an early investor in what became 3M Co., and the backer of the St. Paul Hotel across Rice Park.

The founding inspiration

The story goes that one day years ago, Irvine wanted to take in some entertainment in downtown St. Paul. She found nothing to her liking, so she resolved to build a multipurpose hall that would serve everyone, from opera and symphony aficionados to lovers of theater and dance. Irvine contributed $7.5 million to the effort, a figure that was matched by family members.

Built for $46 million, the Ordway was an immediate hit when it opened on Jan. 1, 1985. Millions of people have seen theater shows, operas and dance and music concerts there. The Ordway also draws tens of thousands of children each year to its Flint Hills International Children’s Festival.

That success sparked a revitalization in downtown St. Paul, which added other key anchors, including a new Science Museum of Minnesota building in 1999 and Xcel Energy Center in 2000.

At the same time, however, the Ordway’s principal users often found themselves at loggerheads as they competed for time on the main stage.

Architect Benjamin Thompson’s original vision for the Ordway included an 1,100-seat second stage that was downsized for financial reasons. The McKnight Theatre, while fine for smaller theater productions, was not a good alternative for main stage programs.

The often vitriolic correspondence between Ordway tenants landed on the desks of two important funders — Carleen Rhodes, president and CEO of the St. Paul Foundation, and Bob Senkler, chairman of Securian Financial Group.

“They were all coming to us for grants, and Bob and I said, ‘We have to solve this,’ ” Rhodes said.

Light-bulb moment

In the summer of 2005 Rhodes and Senkler brought together the leaders of the Ordway and its three principal arts organizations — the SPCO, Minnesota Opera and Schubert Club — as a trust-building exercise to see if they could solve the calendar issue. The arts leaders subsequently created an organization, the Arts Partnership, to collaborate on common issues.

They also toyed with an idea to convert the main stage for concerts, but “it was expensive; we would’ve had to shut the Ordway down for 18 months, and it would’ve looked exactly the same,” said SPCO President Bruce Coppock.

One day after a meeting in 2007, Kevin Smith, who was then head of the opera and is now Minnesota Orchestra president, pointed to the McKnight Theatre and suggested tearing it down to build a concert hall.

That was an “Aha!” moment. “We ran into the McKnight, pulled out our tape measures and saw that it was 56 feet across,” Coppock said. “The Musikverein in Vienna, arguably the best small concert hall in the world, is 58 feet across. We knew it was possible.”

They called on architect Tim Carl, of Minneapolis-based HGA. He returned two weeks later with a sketch that, unbeknown to him, echoed the Ordway’s original plan.

“Our charge was to not ruin the Ordway,” Carl said. “The beauty of the original building includes the way those copper and glass window bays dance along Rice Park.”

A national model

The city of St. Paul committed $3 million to the project. The state later ponied up $20 million in two bonding rounds. Private donors made up the rest. In all, more than $83 million was raised, including $32 million for an endowment to cover upkeep.

How the Ordway resolved its challenges — ones shared across the nation by multipurpose halls — is already being studied as a national model.

“I’m impressed by the Ordway project in terms of the close collaboration between its users,” said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a New York-based umbrella organization. “They had an opportunity to make adjustments that would serve everyone, especially the public, and they took it.”

If Rhodes and Senkler are among the heroes of the new hall, so is Mitchell, the solution-minded leader who assumed the Ordway’s presidency in 2007 after helping build Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

For one thing, she gave up critical control of the Ordway’s calendar to the Arts Partnership.

“A dictatorship is much more efficient than a democracy, but it’s also more prone to revolution,” Mitchell said. “Everyone gave something, and we all get more for it.”

If the new hall brought tears to Mitchell’s eyes, it has many others beaming, including board member John Ordway III, nephew of Sally.

“Coming from a family with virtually zero artistic talent, we’re proud, honored and humbled to have our name on such a beautiful building,” he said.

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