By Aldo Polanco ’23
When in May of 2001 voters in Northfield approved funds to build a new middle school, the city and school district were tasked with finding a community use for what is now the Weitz Center for Creativity building. The building, previously a middle school, had grown quite large and rather expensive. A report in 1995 had laid out plans for ownership by the city and its offices such as the Community Action Center, the Community Education and Recreation office, and the Northfield Schools’ Alternative Learning Center for secondary students. Largely, the initial report sought to reiterate the need for the old middle school to remain owned and operated by the community and rejected private ownership of the structure. The report stated: “The Reuse Plan Study Team discussed frequently that the mode of ownership will surely make a great difference to how the sale and conversion of the building is accepted by the public. In fact, modes of private ownership were thought to be almost not worth considering because these would simply not be accepted for a number of reasons – even if significant income was returned to the School District. It is understood to be a community building and the best plan for acceptance will be to continue, preserve and enhance that role.”
At the same time, the report also conceded that a portion of the building should be rented to Carleton College, in order to defray the administrative and operating costs of the building. Pursuant to this, Carol Campbell, the College’s treasurer, sent a letter of intent expressing the desire to enter a long-term lease of the East Wing of the middle school. The letter had the condition that a new middle school would eventually be completed and opened in 1998, so that the college may then move in two months after. When the new middle school was delayed, Carleton’s interest in rental became irrelevant.
When voters came in favor of a new middle school, the Middle School Reuse Committee reconvened, with the purpose of “providing a list of several potential viable re-use options to the Board of Education by December 10, 2001.”.The committee’s final report outlined four potential uses: “Community Multi-Needs Reuse,” “Housing Dominant Reuse,” “Community Arts Dominant Reuse,” and “Business Commercial Reuse.” The report also highlighted “Community Arts Dominant Reuse” as the highest recommendation, a fact that would foreshadow Carleton’s acquisition of the building.
At the point of the report, four proposals were received by the committee for possible development of the structure. Two of which were identified as most plausible: one from Artspace, who sought to “create and manage a space where artists can live, work, exhibit, perform, and conduct business,” and another from MetroPlains Development, who sought to create multi-family housing. Given the committee’s preference for the “Community Arts Dominant Reuse,” in January 2004, ArtSpace was chosen as the developer for the old middle school. However, the agreement between ArtSpace and the school district was modified out of exclusivity, which allowed the district to consider other proposals. Since the building had been vacated in July 2004, the district had been paying operating expenses, and was thus eager to find a new use “consistent with community goals.”
Even before the turn of the millennium, Carleton had identified a need for a new arts center in its 21st-Century Report. The college had already started plans for a standalone museum in 2002 and 2003, but ultimately reconsidered, opting for a better integrated one. In 2005, President Robert Oden formed the Arts Planning Committee, charged with finding a strategic plan to relocate the arts on campus. The new committee outlined the need for a new multidisciplinary center for the arts in the same year and following this and the city’s need for proposals, submitted a request to acquire the building. A meeting was convened by the City Council, where members expressed their concerns about Carleton acquiring the building. Ultimately, the council decided to allow Carleton to purchase the building on the grounds of convenience and on the condition of retention of the original 1910 construction. Additionally, the City of Northfield allowed the purchase if, and only if the College would commit to using the building solely for the arts. The town’s desire for a “Arts Dominant Reuse” and the College’s desire for a new art building aligned to allow the formal acquisition of what became known as the Arts Union Building.
Past this point came a long period of planning, models, and discussion on what the building should look like. The introduction of cinema and media studies (CAMS) as a department in 2006 added to the long list of departments seeking a home. In 2007 and 2008, Carleton selected Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, a firm known for adaptive reuse, to renovate the former middle school, now named The Arts Union after a campus-wide contest. The College also hired Steve Richardson as director of the arts to guide the entire process. An initial ambitious proposal, known as the “Starburst,” had multiple wings connected via International Style glass-covered walkways. However, due to the Great Recession, the plans had to be downsized.
As the plan developed, certain details became more available. The 1910 structure was to be kept in its entirety, while its 1934 and 1954 additions were to be repurposed with the less architecturally significant parts to be demolished. The 1934 auditorium was remodelled as a cinema, while the 1954 gymnasium was turned into a theater inclusive of rehearsal spaces and set design and costume facilities. Classrooms remained as classrooms, albeit more technologically advanced ones. The exterior of the building on Union Street went largely unchanged. Before opening in September 2011, the building was renamed to its current moniker, the Weitz Center for Creativity, following a 15 million dollar donation from the Weitz family.
The additions for the building did not end there, however. In 2017, a music and performance project added performance halls, recital halls, faculty offices, a music resource library, rehearsal rooms and other teaching studios.