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Back to the Buzz

By Lauren Pahmeier

There is nothing like the energy of a college campus as students return for the fall semester. By the time Labor Day hits, many students are itching to get back to their friends and return to routine, even at the cost of exams, papers, and presentations. 

Planners can fuel their events with that back-to-school buzz by booking events on Minnesota’s college campuses and in the surrounding college towns. Each venue is different from the next and is memorable in its own way. We rounded up six spaces that are sure to give attendees back-to-school butterflies without having to sit in a classroom. 

McNamara Alumni Center 

Not only is the McNamara Alumni Center (MAC) located in the heart of the East Bank campus at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, but it also doubles as one of the most popular and versatile event venues there. McNamara can host receptions, fundraisers, galas, meetings, holiday parties, and much more. “Our strength is in the variety,” says Amy Leyden, marketing and communications director for the MAC. 

Nonetheless, the venue is a particularly popular choice for conferences. McNamara’s 35,000 square feet of meeting space is split between 10 rooms, all on the first floor of the building—so attendees don’t have to worry about traversing the stairs or finding the elevator when going from session to session. Plus, the 85-foot, geometric ceiling in Memorial Hall with long, narrow glass fissures provide the McNamara with an abundance of natural light—which makes long days feel less stuffy. 

In addition, an on-site audiovisual technician can make things easier for planners, as do the underground tunnels to the nearby University Avenue Ramp for parking and the neighboring hotel, the Graduate Minneapolis, so attendees don’t have to brave the elements of Minnesota winters. 

The Varsity Theater 

While McNamara is only a few decades old, the Varsity Theater has been harvesting character for the past century. The theater, which first opened in 1915, is embellished with baroque-era decor, has string lights draping from the ceiling, and has an award-winning, grotto-style bathroom on the second floor. “It’s really funky and eclectic, it’s not a venue that you forget. … I always see something different that I didn’t see before,” says Sandy Vogel, director of special events at the Varsity, as well as The Fillmore and Somerset Amphitheater. 

However, the venue is not just a standout for its unique design. Since the Varsity regularly hosts concerts, planners can count on solid sound, lighting, and production quality for their events. Plus, just like for concerts, planners can change out the lettering on the marquee sign on the front of the building to promote their receptions, holiday parties, product launches, meetings, and more. 

Groups as small as 25 or as large as 750 will enjoy discovering the unexpected details that the Varsity has to offer—right in the heart of Dinkytown, the university’s iconic and historic college neighborhood. The area is home to a variety of fast-food and local restaurants, and is within a 10-minute drive from the hotels and sites of downtown Minneapolis. 

Terrence Murphy Hall Atrium 

While the University of St. Thomas (UST) in Minneapolis-St. Paul has many complexes, halls, and rooms that would be ideal for any number of private events, one space that flies under the radar is Terrence Murphy Hall Atrium in Minneapolis, which is perfect for formal standing receptions of up to 200 people. Attendees of events in the atrium can look up and take in one of the largest hand-painted frescoes in the country, which depicts the seven virtues from “Summa Theologiae” by St. Thomas Aquinas, including justice, prudence, temperance, hope, faith, charity, and fortitude. Although the space doesn’t have AV capabilities, the 117 feet of frescoes on the ceiling will be enough to entertain guests and stimulate conversation in the oldest building on the Minneapolis campus of UST, which is also connected to the rest of downtown Minneapolis via skyways. 

Bell Museum of Natural History 

In a much less urban part of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, the Bell Museum of Natural History shines as an exceptional venue on the St. Paul campus, which focuses on agriculture, biological sciences, and veterinary studies. Groups come from across the United States to book the Bell, which boasts world-renowned wildlife dioramas that feature wolves, elk, moose, and even a mammoth. Plus, the modern, green building was constructed with materials sourced in Minnesota, such as steel from the Iron Range and white pine from up north. Solar panels, bird-safe glass, and an observation deck are just a few more features of the building that make it reflective of the St. Paul campus. 

Since the museum is open to the public during the daytime, many larger private events—including full museum rentals—happen after 5 p.m., which is when the museum closes. However, the Bell has a space called the Nucleus for daytime meetings and events, complete with a projection screen, a built-in counter space, and capabilities for hybrid meetings. Rentals of the Nucleus also include admission to the museum exhibits, making it a popular choice for luncheons
and group meetings. 

Glensheen Mansion 

Another museum in the University of Minnesota system is Glensheen Mansion, a 12-acre estate owned and operated by the University of Minnesota Duluth. The Congdon family donated the 39-room mansion to the university in 1979, and it since has become the most visited historic home in the state. Venue rentals are another option it has to offer. “[Hosting events at Glensheen] really honors the family because, really, that’s what their desire was, for folks to enjoy their home,” says Regina Christensen, events operation manager at Glensheen. “Clara and Chester loved to entertain.” 

Planners can do just that in their choice of one of the historic spaces at Glensheen. The Winter Garden room has marble floors and brick walls and is dotted with Arts and Crafts sconces. The space runs the entire length of the mansion, easily holding groups of up to 120. Smaller groups can rent the Amusement Room, which offers a fireplace and stained-glass windows in a cozier setting for up to 80. 

There is also the tiered Juliet Balcony that provides views of Lake Superior and a hand-carved marble fountain and manicured gardens during warmer weather, while the Carriage House Lawn is ideal for outdoor, tented events of up to 300. 

Skinner Memorial Chapel 

While planners might think that chapels may only be good for weddings, Carleton College’s Skinner Memorial Chapel in Northfield proves otherwise. While weddings are popular at Skinner, the chapel is also a great choice for keynote presentations and other speaker-centric events such as convocations, concerts, conference kickoffs, and more, thanks to recent audiovisual (AV) renovations. The chapel can now livestream and record programs, and new cameras, speakers, and lighting make the AV incredibly customizable for groups of up to 950. Although the chapel is typically only available during school breaks, the English Gothic Revival design style, and its status as a building on the National Register of Historic Places is sure to entice planners to work around
the academic calendar. 

Skinner Memorial Chapel is just one of several venues at the college that has rich history and eye-catching design. “We have beautiful and well-maintained buildings that have as much of the old-world charm as possible,” says Noel Ponder, manager of conferences and event services at Carleton College. “They are equipped with, to the best of our abilities, 21st-­century technology. And apart from the venues, our team is what really brings it all together.”