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Preview: Amsoil Arena

Maybe we’ve not spent enough time in locker rooms, but Amsoil Arena, the new waterfront arena in Duluth, Minn., has one of the most unique things we’ve seen on an arena visit: saunas in both the University of Minnesota-Duluth men’s and women’s locker rooms. Here’s a look at the new home to Bulldog hockey and other events in northern Minnesota and what makes it unique.

{jathumbnail off} {slimbox single images/amsoil/amsoilarena1.jpg,images/amsoil/amsoilarena1sm.jpg,Amsoil Arena.}The saunas were donated, to be sure; the project had a decent budget ($80 million), but not that grand. And we’re guessing they’re as much for the coaches as the players. But they typify this new arena, a place where architects Populous (Kansas City) and SJA Architects (Duluth) put an emphasis on the small things that made a visit – or many – memorable.

Take, for example, the seating in the bowl. The traditional thing would have been to install the same color of seat (maroon or gold), or use a differently colored seat to spell out a letter (as was done at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena, where gold sets are used to display an “M”). At Amsoil Arena, the seating design is unique: the seats at the bottom of the bowl are gold, but maroon seats are interspersed, with the proportion rising as you move up. (The seating, by the way, is all padded 20-inch-wide chairback seating, complete with cupholders and 34 inches between rows in the lower bowl.)

Locals will be amazed by the differences between Amsoil Arena and the DECC, soon to be the former home of UMD hockey. The DECC is a traditional closed arena, a circular facility with cramped, closed concourses and a place where the second level actually sported the better seating.

By contrast, Amsoil Arena features open 18-foot-wide concourses and plenty of room to roam around. The home end of the arena feature student seating – the only bleachers in the place – that can retract to make room for concerts. The north end of the concourse level is larger and features the popular ice-cream stand (a staple of UMD games) and a team store. Windows in this area will provide views of downtown Duluth. Also on the concourse level: 16 suites (including the Hall of Fame Suite, which seats 50) and a decently sized press box. It’s not a huge arena, seating 6,600 for hockey and 8,500 for concerts, but there’s not a bad seat in the house.

There are some finishes unique to Duluth as the gateway to the Iron Range. As pointed out by SJA’s Brian Morse, who gave us the grand tour, Mesabi black granite quarried up on the Range is used on bar rails, as a unique accent in the building. A bar in the arena club is even more unique: it’s made of polished taconite. (Iron ore, of course, is manufactured from Iron Range taconite these days.) An unusual glass-bulb design reminiscent of ice completes the unique feel of the club bar.

The new arena becomes part of the DECC complex, which includes the arena, an auditorium housing the local symphony orchestra, convention space, a movie theater and a curling facility. The need to play good neighbor with all of these facilities made for some interesting design choices. For instance: the wall between the arena and the auditorium, as well as the doors, are soundproofed. A tunnel goes to the main building, giving the DECC contiguous exhibition space. There’s plenty of storage room under the bowl: the arena can host one event and provide enough storage for an upcoming event as well. The entrance is also designed to let UMD buses pull in right next to the locker rooms, allowing equipment managers to more easily move stuff in and out. A section of seating in the corner allows vehicles to drive directly in the bowl.

Fans can enter from the DECC (which is connected via skyway to downtown Duluth and not far from the popular Canal Park district) or a new entryway designers have dubbed the Ice Cube. Connected via second-level skyway to the parking ramp, the Ice Cube (shown below) features lots of blue mood lighting and a unique terrazzo floor called Glacier Twist, designed to evoke the moods of the North Shore. As a plus, it’s designed as an independent event space.

{slimbox single images/amsoil/amsoilarena2.jpg,images/amsoil/amsoilarena2sm.jpg,The Ice Cube.}

Speaking of the locker rooms and the aforementioned saunas: they may not be huge, but they’re nice, decked out in the UMD maroon and gold. There’s also a separate workout facility.

The location also provided one additional challenge: Building a new facility on a waterfront site. Underneath the area is 40 feet of bog and 40 feet of sand. To provide enough stability, 700 pilings at least 100 feet long were driven in every five feet.

The goal for the facility is LEED gold certification. Besides all the obvious design features leading to this certification (programmable efficient lighting, low-VOC finishes), there’s a unique source of reclaimed lumber used throughout the arena: the old Globe Elevators across the bay in Superior, Wis. The Globe Elevators were built in the late 1880s and were used to store grain bound for passed through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. When the elevators were dismantled 20 years ago, the wood was reclaimed; now some of it is used for benches and finishes in the arena.

The best arenas are the ones closely tied to their location. It’s hard to imagine Amsoil Arena anywhere else but the Duluth waterfront – and we’re guessing it will be the home of UMD hockey for a long, long time.

This preview first appeared in the free weekly Arena Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? You can sign up here.

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