Renovations are complete at Norton


Kennedy Dezso, Volunteer Writer

After a year of renovations, the University of North Alabama’s beloved Norton Auditorium is now ready to host audiences in a new and improved facility. 

The project for the facility went underway in December of 2019 and cost around $2 million to complete. Considerable upgrades were made to the seating, acoustics, rigging equipment, as well as painting inside the auditorium and lobby and new carpeting was added throughout.

“The provost and the president were strongly committed to doing something in Norton and so we worked with the facilities department on campus, the music department chair, and School of the Arts executive director,” said Dr. Sara Lynn Baird, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences “They were also interfacing with the music faculty and the technical staff in Norton as well.

Norton is an integral facility on campus as it is the location for several University events, including commencement, concerts, theatre, and freshmen orientation sessions. This is the first large-scale renovation to take place inside the auditorium since it was constructed in 1968. 

“It needed the face-lift,” said Norton Assistant Technical Director Ethan Franks. “This is one of the first places that students see when they’re coming to campus for SOAR. It’s a much better facility now and we’ve received nothing but compliments about it. It looks way more professional, way more like a University.”

In 2018 an architectural firm was hired to provide an analysis of Norton Auditorium to identify specific design needs as well as accreditation requirements. The primary goals for the renovations were to address concerns regarding the appearance, function, and safety of the auditorium.

“Whenever you’re in a venue like an auditorium, you think of that as an opportunity for an aesthetic experience,” said Baird. “I’m looking at the condition of things there and obviously, the seats were really old, some of them weren’t functioning.”

Baird said that the carpet was also older and there were places where you could have some trip hazards. She also said that the paint was peeling off the walls and ceiling. 

“All of those things contributed to the decision of we need to do something to fix the appearance,” said Baird.

For the functionality aspects of the renovations, acoustics was among the main concerns. 

“One of the problems with Norton for years was the difficult acoustical properties of the space,” Baird said. “It’s large, and so it’s a good space for a rock band or something with amplified sound.  Not good at all for orchestral or small groups of any kind, and so one of the primary goals was to improve those acoustics.” 

The solution to this was the addition of an orchestra shell. The shell is designed to help balance acoustics and to reflect the sound towards the audience. 

“The shell does not only make it look beautiful, it creates a room within the auditorium,” Baird said. “So, you’ve got that surrounding the stage and it’s got the ceiling panels. It dramatically improves the acoustics of the sound.”

With the shell, the stage is now functional with better quality for a wider variety of ensembles and activities. 

“The shell alone was about $650,000,” Franks said. “There are 10 towers that make up the shell’s walls that weigh about 1200-pounds and the ceiling weighs about 1800 pounds. The whole thing collapses, and we can store it off stage. We’re the second theater in the world that has lights that change color in the shell.”

As for both functionality and safety aspects in Norton, the rigging equipment underwent considerable renovations. According to both Baird and Franks, the rigging system was a top priority. 

“It was clear that the rigging that we had was old. In some ways unsafe and insufficient and so another part of the project was to completely replace the rigging,” said Baird. “That’s the invisible part. It was an expensive part.”

But the top concern was safety.

“Our rigging system was a little decrepit and it had no changes since the 60s,” said Franks.

The new rigging doubled the fly capacity from 21 battens to 40 battens. This means that they can cover about every eight inches of the stage and can fly just about anything. 

“It’s much easier for student employees now and safer to load the weights and operate,” Franks said. “Some of our stuff is motorized too.”

With the refurbishments made, Norton Auditorium will continue to be a venue for performances on campus and in community take place.

Baird said that the renovations to Norton will show students that there is a sense of commitment to the arts on campus. 

“It’s not that you know you can’t do excellent things in poor facilities, but the impression that we make on our audiences and our students in terms of how much we care about their experience here,” Baird said. “[This is] influenced by what they see. We are just thrilled that this has been accomplished. We are extremely appreciative of our administration and our facilities personnel for their work and their efforts to make this happen.”