Renovations won't stop Duluth's Denfeld Auditorium from "seeing it all"

By Molly Brown Ten grandiose chandeliers hang from the ceiling illuminating the ornate architecture and sophisticated presence of the Denfeld High School auditorium.

Seating 1,800, this cathedral style masterpiece displays scrolling carvings down the sides of the walls which echo the designs on the archways of the hallways just outside the beautiful auditorium.

Over the years, the stage has seen famous faces like singer Johnny Mathis and former president Richard Nixon. It has honored outstanding local figures and teachers within the community. It has waved good-bye to thousands of graduating students each spring since Denfeld High School’s opening in 1926, making tradition a key contributor in the history and charm of this local gem.

Former technical director for the Denfeld Auditorium, Keith Anderson spent 27 years overseeing projects and restorations in an effort to both polish and preserve the original architecture of the space.

“It’s a great place with a lot of character. There have been some minor changes, but this place is pretty much the same as it was 75 years ago,” Anderson says.

The minor changes Anderson speaks of are the various restorations the auditorium has undergone including repainting and plastering the walls where holes and cracks formed, taking apart and restructuring the organ, and expanding the sound booth.

“The first major restoration was in 1987 when we made it more energy efficient,” Anderson says.

Previously, all the lighting and effects were operated by rope and pulley systems.  However, safety concerns called for all lighting and sound to be wired electronically.

In 2004, the auditorium was closed for restoration for almost a year.

“It was really spruced up during that time,” says former Denfeld student Brian Herrick. “They repainted and filled in the chips on the details you see on the walls. I remember walking in and was just amazed at how great it looked.”

The careful preservation of the auditorium’s aesthetic beauty is what Denfeld head secretary Claudia Anderson is most proud of.

“If this place were in a California high school, it would have been just trashed. Not here. Our students here respect the history and uniqueness of it,” she says.

One aspect of the auditorium that has changed over the years is the performances it houses.

“I’ve seen it all from classical operas to elaborate religious ceremonies,” Mr. Anderson says.

Recent acts aim to make their performance a spectacle event by setting up their own elaborate lighting and sound systems complete with strobe lights and fog machines.

“It’s sort of a dichotomy, watching such elaborate performances in such a sophisticated space,” Mr. Anderson says.

While he admits it is fun watching the smoke and mirrors, Anderson thinks the venue is more suited for more classical performances like opera. In his opinion, these simple acts highlight the acoustics that the auditorium is known for.

While Denfeld High School will be closing for additional renovations next year, the historic auditorium will remain there, waiting.

Performances come and go, but one thing is for sure. Duluth’s Denfeld Auditorium remains to be a local force to be reckoned with, no matter what changes remain to be seen.

As Mr.Anderson says, “This old horse keeps going, she doesn’t mind.”

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