University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium, Iowa City. (Photo by Mariam Alarcon Avila)

Eight years after The University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium was essentially leveled by floodwaters from the Iowa River, the new $175-million performing arts center has emerged better than ever.

Construction for the 191,977-square-foot building in Iowa City began in May 2013, and the building will host about 50 performances annually.

The celebration included grand opening festivities last weekend, which were scheduled in conjunction with the school’s football game against its rival, the Iowa State Cyclones.

“We had 9,000 people attend our open houses and ribbon cutting,” said Charles Swanson, auditorium executive director. “It exceeded our expectations and couldn’t have been a better dedication ceremony.”

The hour-long dedication ceremony took place Sept. 9, on the stage in the 1,800-seat theater. Participants included Swanson; Iowa governor Terry Branstad; Bruce Harreld, president of the university; Beth Freeman, the regional director of FEMA; and benefactors of the auditorium Dick and Mary Jo Stanley.

Former student and Broadway actor Julius Carter also spoke, along with Rinde Eckert and Conor Hanick, Iowa City natives who are now accomplished artists in New York City.

The ceremony kicked off with a video that documented the 30-month construction process of the new facility and also culminated with a performance by the Community Mass Choir, a local gospel choir.

Hancher Audtiorium (Photo by Bill Adams)

“The grand opening was designed to give people a sense of how these spaces will be used and what they sound like,” said Jacob Yarrow, programming director.

Two free open houses were held Friday and Sunday, where auditorium staff, Hancher Guild volunteers and student workers were on hand for self-guided tours.

The kickoff continues with a free performance Friday by Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue and Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the outdoor stage.

A sold-out show featuring Steve Martin and Martin Short in “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life,” is scheduled for Sept. 24 and includes Martin’s Steep Canyon Rangers band and Jeff Babko.

The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra’s first performance in its new home is scheduled for Sept. 28.

In the last eight years, the university was unable to host Broadway productions, major dance companies or orchestras, instead utilizing a renovated movie theater, churches, high school auditoriums, casinos and outdoor spaces as entertainment venues.

“We were kicked out of the box, so we had to think outside the box,” said Swanson. “This created challenges, but we learned a lot.”

Situated on higher ground overlooking the former Hancher site, the new building includes 14,000 brushed steel panels and strips of cypress wood under the pointed cantilevers and on the interior ceilings. Twinkling lights are embedded in the wood.

Architect Cesar Pelli, whose designs include the soaring Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the World Financial Center in Manhattan, designed the venue to wed the indoors with the outdoors and complement the nearby Levitt Center for University Advancement.

FEMA funding rules allowed for industry-standard upgrades onstage and behind the scenes.

In addition, the number of loading docks has been increased from one in the former building to three in the new building. The workforce also has expanded from about 50 for the previous venue to a couple hundred. Many are students working with the public and audiences, backstage with the artists, and as assistant supervisors for the student ushers.

A few test events have been held prior to the opening, including an alumni awards banquet in June; a donor event; an acoustics testing rehearsal with the Iowa City Community Band onstage; a white coat ceremony for the UI medical school and a wedding, both in August. A recent hard-hat concert with Chicago musicians Mucca Pazza was held to thank those who had a hand in building and launching the new facility.

“With our program this year, we’re trying to accomplish a number of goals and serve the community in a broad way by attracting audiences of different ages,” said Yarrow. “This will include a variety of art forms, genres and different time periods represented as well as cultures from around the world.”

Interviewed for this article:  Charles Swanson, (319) 335-1133; Jacob Yarrow, (319) 335-1136