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Thief River Falls community members find future uses of an historic auditorium

Two adults standing inside an old auditorium
Project team members tour the building and envision future uses.

Historic buildings can be an important part of a community’s identity. As community members look to the future, they also present opportunities to conserve resources. 

In a 2019 project supported by the University of Minnesota Extension Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP), graduate student Kathryn Stower found, “Adaptive reuse offers a way for communities to preserve local treasures that help tell the story of that community. It also promotes environmental and economic sustainability, and often addresses a need for more affordable housing in rural communities.” Historic building reuse also comes with challenges, including navigating funding complications and reuse standards, and finding local expertise on historic preservation. 

When an historic auditorium in Thief River Falls was at risk, community members came to the Northwest RSDP for help imagining a new future for the beloved building. Since the early 1900s, the building had housed important city functions. Following a fire in the 1930s, the auditorium was rebuilt in an architectural style common for public buildings at the time, and served as an important city landmark in the decades that followed.

Imagining future uses

Group of adults seated at tables covered with notes of ideas.
Community members share input on a new vision for the building.

In summer 2019, a diverse group of community and University of Minnesota project team members sought community input on future hopes for the building. Project team members included the Northwest RSDP, University of Minnesota College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR), Pennington County Old Auditorium Committee, University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), and Thief River Falls and Pennington County community leaders. Auditorium Committee members Ivette Garrett, Darlene Kelley and Faye Auchenpaugh provided key project leadership. Input was gathered through an online survey, meetings with community members, and three community visioning sessions. Opportunities to provide input were shared through posters around town, the newspaper, radio and on social media. 

“[We were] aiming for cross-sector partnerships between county, businesses, city and community, and hoping to engage intergenerational community members for a multi-use building future that hosts events, sports, artists and businesses and honors history while continuing to propel Thief River Falls’ aspirations for the future,” said Virajita Singh, CSBR senior research fellow and associate vice provost, Office for Equity and Diversity. “The building is eligible for application to the National Register [of Historic Places], which adds a wonderful set of considerations to the design process.”

Singh and master’s of architecture student Kenos Leong worked with local partners to facilitate the community visioning process. They also researched reuse examples of other similar buildings. Design recommendations and considerations based on this community input and research are now available. Singh and Leong shared findings at a public meeting at the Thief River Falls library which was attended by about 30 community members and covered by the Grand Forks Herald

Drawing of new design plans for an old building.
Credit: Design rendering by UMN College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research

“Through this project, the community was able to determine what was important about the auditorium building and how to make good use of it,” said Linda Kingery, Northwest RSDP executive director.

Broader community planning

The project builds on a 2017 Northwest RSDP collaboration in which a CSBR design team, also led by Singh with graduate student Joe Polacek, collaborated with Thief River Falls community partners to explore possibilities for the future development of downtown Thief River Falls. As found in this earlier planning process, Thief River Falls and Greater Minnesota are not alone in visioning new uses for their historic buildings. “Across the nation, communities are developing and evolving their buildings and infrastructure in response to changing economic, social and environmental conditions and generational needs.”

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