History of the Hennepin Center for the Arts

Masonic masterpiece:
Hennepin Center for the Arts


Located in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, Hennepin Center for the Arts (HCA) provides affordable office, studio, rehearsal, and performance space for some two-dozen Twin Cities arts organizations. Now linked to the historic Shubert Theatre as part of the new Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, HCA has a distinguished history of its own.

Built in 1888 for the Masonic Temple Association, this massive eight-story edifice at Sixth Street and Hennepin Avenue is an outstanding example of the architectural style known as Richardsonian Romanesque. It was designed by Long and Kees, a noted local firm that was responsible for some of Minneapolis’ finest historic buildings, including City Hall, the Lumber Exchange, and the Flour Exchange – all of them, like HCA, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The ornate façades facing Sixth Street and Hennepin Avenue are made of Ohio sandstone. Originally there were onion domes atop the corner turrets on the Sixth Street side. The building’s most prominent interior features were five large two-story assembly rooms used for gatherings by the Association’s 11 member lodges and an even larger ballroom and drill hall on the eighth floor. The building also housed retail businesses on the street level as well as more than a hundred professional offices, mostly doctors and dentists, on the upper floors.

In 1947, the Masonic Temple Association sold the building to the Merchandise Building Corporation, which renamed it the Merchandise Building. In 1975, when Minnesota Dance Theatre became the building’s first arts tenant, its street-level occupants included a shoe store, a liquor store, and a church; the upper floors housed a beauty parlor, various manufacturers’ representatives, and other small offices; on the top floor was a bingo parlor operated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The Masons still had offices in the building, too, and used what is now Studio 6A as a lodge assembly hall. But like many other Hennepin Avenue structures, the Merchandise Building had more vacant spaces than occupied ones.

HCA’s transformation into an arts facility took place in 1977, when a group of prominent business, professional, political, and arts leaders formed a nonprofit corporation, purchased the property from the Merchandise Building Corporation for $500,000, and spent nearly ten times that amount to restore it. Exterior improvements included tuckpointing, a new roof, new windows, and a chemical wash that wiped off nine decades of grime and restored the façade to something close to its original buff color. New mechanical and electrical systems were installed, and the five lodge halls were converted into theaters or dance studios. Charter tenants included the Cricket Theatre, Illusion Theater, Minnesota Dance Theatre and School, Metropolitan State University, the Minnesota Chorale, and the Minnesota Theatre Institute of the Deaf. Of these, MDT, Illusion, and the Minnesota Chorale remain in the building.
HCA operated as an independent non-profit until the mid-1990s, when its Board of Directors concluded that the best way to address the building’s capital and long-term operational needs would be to hand it over to an organization that specialized in the operation of arts facilities: Artspace Projects. Artspace agreed, and HCA joined the Artspace portfolio.

As part of The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, the former HCA is thriving. Among its tenants are several of the Twin Cities’ leading dance troupes, including James Sewell Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theatre and the Dance Institute, and Zenon Dance Company and School, all drawn to the building by its central location and nine large studios. Each year thousands of children and adults visit the building to attend classes, rehearsals, workshops, and performances. HCA is also the birthplace of the Cowles Center’s innovative Distance Learning Program, now in its eighth year, which uses Internet technology to create two-way interactive real-time teaching environments for students throughout Minnesota and the nation. In 2011, with the opening of the Cowles Center, HCA became an important part of the Twin Cities’ first major new performing arts complex in more than a quarter-century.


The Shubert Theatre Moves Down the Street