Encore for Guthrie Theater Installation

Sitting on the western bank of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, the new Guthrie Theater is a unique addition to the city’s architectural renaissance. Its blue glass exterior and bridge jut over the street toward the river.

Named after British theatrical director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the building is composed of three separate theaters, a full-service restaurant, a cafe, lounge, several beverage-

serving locations, a store and classrooms. For all its novel and arresting design, however, its primary goal is to provide for the safety and security of its patrons. It does that and more with an innovative low-voltage design.

Hunt Electric Corp. of St. Paul, Minn., was the lead electrical contractor for the Guthrie Theater.

Project manager Pat Nichols said, “The Guthrie job was a bid and negotiation interview process with the general contractor, McGough Companies, of St. Paul. We did mainly the high-voltage work, subcontracting the low-voltage security work to area firms Pro-Tec Design Inc. [cameras and card readers] and Low Voltage Contractors Inc. [fire alarm system].”

Hunt, which has been in business since 1965, has an office staff of approximately 75 and a field staff of 500. The company relies primarily on IBEW Locals 292 and 110 for electricians.

According to Jeff Stromberg, Hunt’s project manager, the Guthrie job required “miles and miles” of conduit.

“We ran about 71 miles of conduit in the thrust theater alone,” he said. The thrust theater has seating on three sides of the stage, allowing patrons closer views of a production.

“For power and lighting in all the theaters, we pulled approximately 361 miles of wire,” Stromberg said. “It was an architecturally sensitive building. A lot of thought went into the lighting. We’ve done quite a bit of upgrading to the lighting, which was not something the architect and the lighting consultant probably wanted. But the public wanted it, and as a matter of fact, we’re still doing additional lighting, with a system that provides separate controls for different levels.” That included the exterior as well as the interior, he said.

“It’s controlled from a location by the main entrance security checkpoint. Backstage, again, as far as lighting goes, everything is performance-driven. The owners want to be able to control lighting behind the scenes, so if somebody opens a door, there isn’t a burst of light. There’s a minimal amount of lighting there for egress purposes. And then if you get an alarm or emergency situation, everything is overridden, and it reverts to full brightness.”

Tom Hagen, Pro-Tec Design’s president, said the project gave his company an opportunity to demonstrate its capabilities of system design, installation, project management and integration in this particular vertical market.

The Guthrie has been internationally recognized as a world-class venue since its inception in 1963, Hagen said. In the planning process, Pro-Tec personnel were involved in the decision making relating to the design and installation of the security system. A key objective in that process was for the new facility to provide a secure environment that would be as unobtrusive as possible. 

The Guthrie is adjacent to a beautiful public park and riverfront walkways. The challenge was to provide an environment as open as possible for the public while providing a setting that was safe and secure, Hagen said.

The system Pro-Tec installed added value to the theater by aligning security requirements and operations with the Guthrie’s overall mission to provide performance, production, education and professional training. 

“We evaluated many types and styles of access control readers before making the decision on what was right for the theater,” Hagen said. More than 70 door locations throughout the facility have proximity access control readers. About 40 cameras also have been deployed in the theater.

The installation also included an Internet protocol (IP)-based intercom system with 20 call stations. There are about 100 alarm points of various types that report to and are monitored by the intrusion detection system.

Systems were integrated to achieve ease of use for the facility users and to maximize the sharing of information. For example, when an alarm is detected, if a camera is viewing the area where the alarm occurred, the camera view is immediately available to a person at an alarm monitoring station. Digital video recorders also were installed to provide quick and easy access to live and stored activity.

Show time

Bob Hoertsch, vice president of Low Voltage Contractors, said the fire alarm system includes voice evacuation, detection, elevator recall, monitoring of the sprinkler system and an elaborate smoke-control system.

“The smoke-control system is set up such that we manipulate the fire smoke dampers and the air handlers to take smoke out of an area or pressurize an area, so smoke doesn’t get in,” Hoertsch said.

The voice evacuation system consists of speakers, strobes and a recorded voice that notifies people to evacuate. There is a firefighters’ telephone system and voice emergency paging system that automatically sends out an evacuation tone telling people to go to the nearest exit in an emergency. The firefighters can pick up the microphone at the fire alarm panel and evacuate a specific portion of the building or all of the building and give specific directions to people.

“This was a large job for us,” Hoertsch said. “We originally started bidding this, putting the design together, back in 2003, and we were finished in January 2006. What happens in a fire alarm [installation] is we have to be done, so they can get occupancy. Then, and only then, can the people come in.”


Hoertsch is proud that theatergoers will not see the fire alarm system when they attend performances. “There are 133 smoke detectors in the building, all invisible. If you look at the building, it’s a unique structure, and the airflow through that building forces smoke and airborne particles in a certain direction. And these smoke detectors are in that stream,” he said.

When the fire alarm was first set off in May, it performed flawlessly, according to Guthrie’s Sue Kotila, the theater’s front of house and visitor services manager. And when, two weeks later, the building was evacuated for a tornado warning, once again all systems worked well. Not only is the Guthrie’s design a success, so are the security systems that support it.

The Guthrie Theater isn’t just an architectural masterpiece. It was a demanding performance for the contractors who received rave reviews for their superior electrical skills.

STEVENS is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who covers various fields including construction, retailing, and marketing. He can be reached at 612.871.3698.


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