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Curtain goes up on auditorium redo

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news Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- The new and improved Memorial Auditorium has made its debut, and the reviews are coming in as raves.

The auditorium was closed for the duration of a eight-month, $1.93 million renovation project that included the construction of an atrium-style lobby with expanded restroom facilities, a new heating and air conditioning system, art deco details and many other improvements that will enhance both the production and enjoyment aspects of the performing arts experience.

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The city-owned and operated performing arts center reopened its doors to the public on March 1 for ticket sales for the five productions that will celebrate the grand opening open house week on April 1-9. On March 14, the auditorium hosted its first event in the lobby-reception area -- a chamber mixer that gave many members of the public their first look at the renovations. Immediately following that debut, auditorium manager Margaret Hurlbut Vosburgh was basking in the afterglow of the enthusiastic response.

"Everybody just comes in and stares, and the first words out of their mouth are, 'Wow,'" she related, adding that her cheeks hurt from smiling so much during the reception. But she still couldn't keep from grinning from ear to ear like a new mom gazing upon her baby. "I've been looking at it for eight months, seeing how little by little it comes together, and for the first time I stood out there tonight and was really amazed."

Vosburgh isn't the only one puffing with pride over the renovation results. The project, which was funded with a half-cent local option sales tax voted on by Worthington citizens, was the result of intense collaboration, noted Diane Graber, who served on the auditorium committee that guided the project.

"It's incredible given the fact it had to be such an intense teamwork project between the city council, the advisory community and the community input," she noted. "I think we're so proud of how it turned out. I think it's just a class act, with all the final touches, the color scheme. We owe a lot of that to Margaret. She got everybody's input throughout all of it, and I have to give her lots of credit."

Austin-based Joseph Co. served as general contractor for the project, with several local sub-contractors adding their touches along the way.

"We're all amazed at the way the key contractors got together, worked together, and everything melded," credited Kieth Olson, who also served on the renovation committee. "Going through the whole process, as they were progressing, there were decisions that we had to make, and the people were just great as far as flexibility. Watching the step-by-step progress was amazing."

One of the challenges of the project was melding the new addition into a structure that was originally built in 1931. Care was taken to add art deco touches, such as the glass panels that line the grand staircase, creating a "wow" factor, and to match the woodwork to that within the original auditorium. Pieces of stonework taken from the former Central School building were also incorporated into the lobby design.

"It's been a wonderful experience to be part of a project that opens up so much space and creates a legacy effect for the community and that matches the integrity of the old building," reflected Mike Woll, who served as the city council liaison on the project.

While the overall aesthetics are the first thing visitors are going to notice, other renovations have been made that will improve the practical functions of the building.

"From a practical standpoint, the bathrooms," Woll said about improvements that would have the biggest impact, recalling that women were often backed up into the hall to use the former facilities. "And the air conditioning in the summer, making it a year-round facility."

Those improvements will indeed affect everyone who comes inside the revamped space, agreed Bernice Camery, who serves on the auditorium's advisory committee and is one of its most enthusiastic volunteers, ushering at many events.

She is thrilled with the expanded lobby and the aesthetic touches, but it's the things that people won't notice right away that will make their theater experience much more enjoyable.

"Like I tell people, you won't notice much visually inside the auditorium," she explained. "The new carpet looks really nice in there, but you won't notice it much. But it's the air conditioning -- the air would get so heavy and stale in the there, and now it's not going to be that way. Even when they're not using the air conditioning, there's going to be air exchange."

Previously, the lack of air conditioning made the auditorium virtually unusable during the warm weather months. Now, it can be utilized year-round, expanding the scope of programming opportunities.

"We're going to be running a whole summer program," boasted Vosburgh about upcoming summer events such as a community production of "Beauty and the Beast," a performance by Rhythmic Circus and the return of the Missoula Children's Theatre.

Everyone involved with the project hopes the public now turns out to see the significant changes that have been made to the performing arts facility and take pride in what's been accomplished through a vote by the taxpayers.

"The auditorium itself is a gem," said Olson. "Now, this is a polished gem."

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