Dallas’s iconic but ailing Kalita Humphreys Theater, the only completed freestanding theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the only public Wright building in Texas, will be restored based on a master plan devised by New York City-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R).
Mark Lamster, architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News, writes that the announcement, which was made by the city-owned building’s longtime tenant (and original owner) the Dallas Theater Center (DTC), comes with a “combination of optimism, trepidation, and vigilance.”
Reads a statement released by DTC:
“The building has been home to DTC since its opening in 1959, and the renovation efforts aim to preserve the theater’s distinct architecture while equipping it to inspire a new generation. A steering committee made up of diverse community stakeholders selected Diller Scofidio + Renfro after a thorough selection process, and the firm —with DTC—also will create a master plan for the nine-acre Kalita Humphreys site, which will include new theater spaces and a connection to the Katy Trail.”
Completed several months after Wright’s death, the Kalita Humphreys Theater is one of the final projects designed by the influential American architect. The design was technically conceived, however, decades earlier for another theater company in a project that was ultimately never realized. The theater was subsequently adapted for its current Dallas site, perched on a heavily wooded bluff above Turtle Creek, when then-fledgling regional theater company DTC approached Wright to design a venue. At the time he claimed he was too busy to design something new, and suggested that DTC use the never-completed design.
The theater is named after a local actress who perished in a plane crash in 1954—a year before construction kicked off—and whose parents made a significant donation to DTC to ensure the building would be named in her memory. The building famously features a revolving stage that, in the words of DTC, “exemplifies Wright’s Organic Theory of architecture,” which stressed the unification of the building’s form and function.” The theater, which has suffered through shoddy previous renovations and years of general negligence, was declared a City of Dallas Historic Landmark Structure in 2007.
In 2009, DTC relocated its administrative offices from the languishing Wright-designed building along Turtle Creek to the newly-built Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, designed by REX | OMA, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in downtown Dallas. The Tony Award-winning organization currently stages performances at both venues.
As detailed by DTC, the master plan will entail general restoration work of Wright’s deteriorating main building as well as the creation of two new, smaller performance venues to be used by other regional theater companies. The theater will also be further incorporated into the surrounding natural landscape. “By creating new spaces and opening up the site, the new master plan will boost the natural beauty of the theater’s surroundings and improve its ability to serve as a welcoming, accessible space for all,” said DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty.
Texas-born Charles Renfro, working in collaboration with his partners at DS+R, will lead the project. He remarked in DTC’s announcement that:
“As a native Texan, I am particularly excited to contribute to our state’s architectural heritage and partner with Dallas Theater Center, whose bold productions are equally matched by their bold commitment to architectural innovation. This project is an opportunity to restore the Kalita Humphreys—one of Dallas’s most overlooked pieces of architecture—to its rightful place in the pantheon of design masterpieces in the city. Not only is it Frank Lloyd Wright’s only built theater, but it has also made significant contributions to the way theater has been presented and seen.
“Since it was built, the theater’s bucolic setting between Turtle Creek and the Katy Trail has been overwhelmed by parking lots and roadways. Our approach will seek to slow the site down and add new architecturally significant programs grown out of the surrounding urban green. The Kalita Humphreys complex will be an idyllic and iconic refuge surrounded by nature, merely footsteps away from the bustling city.”
DTC is slated to present a master plan developed by Renfro and his colleagues to the Dallas Office of Arts and Culture by the end of this year. The Dallas City Council will then vote to give the plan final approval. The public and various local stakeholders have been invited to attend an information session to be held on March 4 at the theater, and are encouraged to provide feedback.
In sharing the news, Lamster pointed out that the involvement of a firm with such a high level of prestige as DS+R is agreeable, but they have a mixed track record when it comes to preservation-based projects. He mentioned the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art and the renovation of Lincoln Center, both in New York City, involved demolishing beloved nearby spaces—a neighboring museum and public plaza, respectively.
In 2018, Lamster referred to the Kalita Humphreys theater as “the most neglected, misunderstood, and mismanaged building in Dallas.”
Preservation architect Ann Abernathy of advocacy group Kalita Humphreys Theater at Turtle Creek Conservancy also expressed reservations, particularly with regard to the potential for overbuilding at such a bucolic site. She told the Dallas Morning News that: “The way they’re looking to sustain this property is to build more venues, and to build an income-producing garage, and an income-producing restaurant, and by the time they do that, they lose the economic value of a property of immense cultural importance.”
The renovation’s estimated budget has yet to be disclosed, but as Moriarty told the Dallas Morning News, he expects “it’s gonna be a lot.”
“The final figure will be contingent on the master plan, which would then require the approval of the City Council. Once that happens we will move earnestly and aggressively into fundraising,” he said.
While the Kalita Humphreys Theater is the only Wright-designed public building in Texas, he did design three private homes in the Lone Star State during the last decade of his career, including a Usonian house in Dallas that was featured in the 1996 Wes Anderson film Bottle Rocket. Another, located in Houston, hit the market in June 2019 with a price tag just shy of $3 million.