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Guthrie's historic designation won't stop plans
By Marianne Combs
Minnesota Public Radio
March 11, 2002

The State Historic Preservation Office - or SHIPO - says the Guthrie Theater building on Vineland Place in Minneapolis is eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The Walker Art Center, which owns the building, intends to tear the theater down to make way for the expansion of its own museum and grounds. While SHIPO's determination may draw more attention to the plight of the old theater, it does not change the Walker's plans.

Guthrie Theater - 1963
The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, as it looked when it opened in 1963.
(Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center)

When architect Ralph Rapson designed the Guthrie Theater in the early 1960s, he wanted to reflect the dynamic nature of Sir Tyrone Guthrie's theater productions. He designed an asymmetrical theater, and a unique thrust stage with an audience on three sides. Unfortunately, the Guthrie wasn't able to raise all of the money it needed to fully realize Rapson's plan, and the building suffered from corner-cutting. The theater has been remodeled a number of times since it was built.

When the State Historic Preservation Office - or SHIPO - sought to determine whether the Guthrie Theater is an historic building, it looked at not only the structure but also its history. State Historic Preservation Officer Nina Archabal says while the theater failed to meet SHIPO's guidelines for architectural integrity, its relevance in history is clear. She says the opening of the theater could be regarded as one of the major cultural events in Minnesota's artistic history.

"We have an incredible variety - more theaters acting and surviving on live stages in Minnesota than in any other state in the union," says Archabal. "This is incredible, and directly attributable to the vitality of the Guthrie Theater."

Archabal says the Guthrie can also take responsilibity for inspiring a national interest in regional professional theater. She says the building is a cultural treasure for Minnesota. Paul Metsa, director of, says he couldn't be happier with SHIPO's decision.

"Our Web site has really been ringing off the hook this morning. I think now it's finally become a national story," says Metsa. "We're very anxious to use some of this momentum - and not only advance our cause for a real positive reuse of this building, but we feel that it's also going to give us some very strong legal background if, in fact, we have to go to court over this."

Guthrie Theater - 1993
The Guthrie's facade has been remodeled - this photo was taken in 1993.
(Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center)

Metsa says he hopes the Walker will now reconsider its plans and perhaps conduct a second reuse study. Walker Art Center board member Lawrence Perlman says that won't happen.

"The space that the Guthrie is on is very important to us. It will give us a four-acre public park which...will become a very important destination and gathering place for the entire region," says Perlman. "So for us, this is a very important piece of the new Walker."

Perlman says the SHIPO study does not take into consideration whether there's an economically viable reuse for a building.

According to State Historic Preservation Officer Nina Archabal, the Walker has made it clear it would refuse to let the National Register of Historic Places add the Guthrie Theater to its list. As a result she sees no point in nominating the building. But still, she says SHIPO's results are important.

"It's to say to the we look at the possibility of losing this theater, that we're losing something important," says Archabal. "We all understand -and are very excited, frankly - about the fact that the Guthrie Theater will continue to thrive in its new locaiton on the riverfront. But I think it's important to know that that place, that building is a very important place in our history."

Archabal says if the Walker Art Center should decide not to demolish the Guthrie Theater, the State Historic Preservation Office would then reconsider nominating the building for the National Register of Historic Places. The Guthrie Theater is slated for demolition in 2005, once the new Guthrie complex on the downtown riverfront is completed.

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