The Guthrie Theater opened in May, 1963, based on Sir Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 idea for an off-Broadway regional theater that could focus on high quality productions without the financial pressures of a Broadway play. The first Guthrie was located southwest of downtown Minneapolis on the grounds of the Walker Art Museum. It featured a thrust stage that projected out into the theater space, with seating that wrapped two-thirds of the way around the stage. Productions often used minimal set pieces that suggested rather than defined the scenery, allowing the audience to use their imagination.
The Guthrie evolved into a regionally important theater and enjoyed great success. Over time, multiple concurrent productions were running, but the building could not accommodate more than one play at a time, so additional space around the city was leased. By the late 1990s, it was realized that a new building with multiple stages would be needed.
The Guthrie held a design competition for a new building in 2001. Property was purchased along the riverfront in the historic milling district next to the closed Pillsbury ‘A Mill’. French architect Jean Nouvel entered the competition and visited the site. As he walked the site, he realized that the signature feature was the Mississippi River. Nouvel has been quoted as saying that he always tries to find the missing puzzle piece for every building that he designs. For the new Guthrie Theater, that piece was the river. To sell his concept, Nouvel rented a cherry picker, set it up on the West River Parkway in front of the building site, and took Guthrie Director Joe Dowling up into the air to see the view. Nouvel explained that no matter what they did with the building behind them, this was the view, and they had to incorporate it into the building.
The design that emerged included a lower building for the main stage, a short tower for smaller space and office area, a parking ramp, and workshops built on top of the ramp. A skyway would connect the workshops to the theaters to allow set pieces to be built away from the stage, then rapidly rolled into place to allow the theaters to be quickly reconfigured between productions. The new building opened in early summer of 2006.
The signature feature of the Guthrie Theater is the Endless Bridge. This is a cantilevered bridge that extends 178 feet north of the building to a point that is 50 feet above the West River Parkway. The vantage point is located just downstream of Upper Saint Anthony Falls, and it offers a sweeping view of the falls area and the historic Stone Arch Bridge. The structure is a steel truss that is counterbalanced by the weight of the building. It extends from the building between the 4th and 5th floors. The observation deck has a series large steps for sitting or standing, which gives the feel of a theater space with the Mississippi River being the stage.
Normally, one would expect a feature like the Endless Bridge to require an admission ticket. However, the Guthrie took the approach that they want to draw people in. The theater building is open to the public without charge seven days a week, and most nights until 11 PM. Anyone can wander in, check out the architecture, visit the gift shop, dine at one of the restaurants or cafes, and visit the Endless Bridge. There is ample parking available, both in a public parking ramp or at meters along local streets.
Shortly after the Guthrie Theater opened in 2006, the nearby Interstate highway I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed. Public officials scrambled to close down every possible view of the disaster in an attempt to tightly control information and manage public perceptions of the event. Any bridge with a view was closed, and fences were erected for blocks around the site to prevent looking over the edge of the bluffs. The Guthrie, however, refused to close the Endless Bridge. In fact, they continued to welcome in large crowds of viewers. For two weeks in August, 2007, the Endless Bridge was the only place that the public could see the bridge collapse site.
The photo above is looking west towards the new Guthrie Theater from the top of the hill at the nearby Gold Medal Park. Downtown Minneapolis is in the background. The photo below is looking south towards the Guthrie Theater from the Stone Arch Bridge. The Endless Bridge extends from the building towards the camera just below the yellow windows.