The Kalita Humphreys Theater is Dallas’ own historic gem designed by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Although one can argue that it isn’t one of Wright’s best works (while it is always cited in compendiums of Wright’s designs, the citations don’t necessarily come with images of the building, unlike the iconic Guggenheim Museum or the Robie House), the Kalita — as it is affectionately called by locals — is nonetheless beloved by Dallas residents and architects alike.
At the request of the Dallas City Council, a master plan has been prepared for a full restoration of the Kalita to its finest state, a shining example of midcentury design. In tandem with the theater’s restoration, the master plan has proposed transforming the land surrounding the theater to support the Kalita and establish connections with the adjacent Katy Trail and beyond.
Unveiled in December of 2022, the master plan includes all of this and more. Along with the renovated Kalita, four new pavilions for performance, rehearsal, education, and flex space are planned for the site to support the City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture and Dallas Theater Center’s shared ambition to turn the area into a civic and cultural destination.
Commissioned by Dallas Theater Center and crafted by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Gunny Harboe, FAIA, as preservation architect and Reed Hilderbrand as landscape architect, the master plan is undergoing public reviews and presentations before its anticipated adoption by the City Council.
Eurico R. Francisco, AIA, recently discussed the master plan with DS+R Partner-in-Charge Charles Renfro, AIA, and Duncan Fulton, FAIA, co-founder of GFF in Dallas and master plan advisor, about the background of the project, the design process, and the ideas that have guided the master plan. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eurico Francisco, AIA: Charles, tell us about the interest on this project. Does it come from you being from Texas, or is it the building type? What attracted you to it?
Charles Renfro, AIA: One of the pleasures of working with this master plan team is that we can put them in front of a Dallas audience, and it’s always fun to point out that we are Texans. We may come from New York, but we are Texans. We know the traditions. We know the schools. We are Texans first.
Our focus, and my focus in particular, has been working on public buildings around the world with an emphasis on merging architecture and landscape. I grew up in Texas and love the idea of coming back to the state to do such a significant public project. Something else that makes it appealing is that it’s cultural in nature, but it’s also a park. And the idea of working on a masterpiece designed by America’s best-known architect is a thrilling prospect. It’s not something that people write about a lot, but we pride ourselves on working very carefully with existing buildings and within existing contexts. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York is a perfect example of that. And so it was a real challenge and a thrill to be able to work on a Frank Lloyd Wright building.
EF: Duncan, what is your role, and why the interest in doing this?
Duncan Fulton, FAIA: My role is “owners’ advisor.” It’s the first time I’ve formally done that. It’s a wonderful role because the owners interact with me as if I’m one of them, and the architects tend to interact with me as an architect, as a peer. I really sit on the cusp of those two roles. And it stems from my work at the Perot Museum and on the AT&T Performing Arts Center, where I was a local liaison that helped make sure that the winds around public issues and local interest issues were clear. There are important local issues and sensitivities that are not always readily apparent, especially when you’re coming in from outside, and I help with that.
EF: I think that it is fair to say that the Kalita is “a building in the park.” How did you arrive at the solution of adding buildings to the park? And how do you design them, knowing that they are next to this building that is designed by “America’s best-known architect,” as you’ve said?
CR: We’ve just completed the master plan phase and haven’t really designed any of the four new pavilions. We wanted to capture a spirit of the design that might emerge in the future when we move into the next phase of the work. When people see images, it’s hard for them to not think that they’re complete designs. But regarding how we ended up with four pavilions, it’s quite simple.
To return the Kalita to its 1959 state, we had to remove the 1968 lobby extension and demolish the 1980s Heldt building. These two later additions to the site contain critical program spaces for the community and Dallas Theater Center — a black box in the Heldt building and a small performance space in the Kalita called Frank’s Place. We had to find places for these two performance spaces, and we had to grow them in size to address the current needs of the community theater groups that use them. These theater expansions also include improved support space.
On top of that, Dallas Theater Center wanted to grow their community and education program, so we’ve added a fairly significant area that can be used as classroom space as well as civic space. We’ve also replaced lost rehearsal space in one of the pavilions. We hope to add two new amenity programs that can be shared with the public that come in from the Katy Trail or that visit Dean Park.
And so we looked at the master plan in two different ways: building the new construction all together in one place, or distributing the program across the site in a series of pavilions. In this approach, no one pavilion would be bigger than the Kalita, except for a rehearsal tower, which would be taller but have a smaller footprint than the Kalita.
When the program was consolidated into one location on the site, the scale of that building was so overwhelming to the Kalita that we felt it was inappropriate. We thought that the most appropriate approach would be to distribute the new buildings across the site in four new pavilions intertwined with the park itself, with the two smallest ones adjacent to the Kalita, and the two larger ones outboard on the edges of the site.
We also wanted to bring the public into the site from the Katy Trail, between these new pavilions, down into Dean Park, and over to Turtle Creek. We thought that with each of these pavilions having a unique relationship with the Katy Trail and with the park, there would be more hope to thoroughly integrate them all into a new kind of civic space for Dallas.
DF: Eurico, I want to comment on your premise of the Kalita being a “building in the park.” I contend that the property that people associate with the Kalita, which is the property east of Turtle Creek, while designated as a special-use park, has never functioned as a park. In 1959, the Kalita site was just 1.2 acres. There was nothing park-like about it; Wright’s plan was very, very dense.
The land on either side and even down to the creek was not originally owned by the Kalita, and it was not until 1973–74 that the city of Dallas purchased the land with the intent that it would be used largely to support the Kalita. But nothing really happened on that land until money was raised in the late ’80s or ’90s to build parking lots. Dean Park, however, which is west of Turtle Creek, is designated as a park and has, in fact, been a park since the early 1900s. But much of the land around the Kalita is really a parking lot with some green spaces. So I would contend that the point is this project changes a site that was used largely for parking into a park.
EF: From there I think we can touch on the Katy Trail. The trail was not there when the Kalita was built, but it’s there now, and clearly it is one of the drivers of the master plan. Tell us about how the presence of the trail now allows the Kalita, the park, and the proposed new buildings to be organized and be seen in a different way, and how that influenced the design process.
CR: Frank Lloyd Wright imagined that the Kalita would be accessed from the west, over Turtle Creek to the drop-off. But there was originally a thought that a street would continue through a tunnel underneath the train tracks (which is currently the Katy Trail), and that parking would be on the east side of the tracks on land that is now apartments. Visitors would arrive on foot with their first view of the Kalita being its northeast corner. Our rendered view tries to re-create this experience, although our view is about 15 feet higher than where the tunnel would have been. We think that the Katy Trail connection to the Kalita will give people a first impression that Frank Lloyd Wright had always wanted them to have. For us, the discovery of the east approach was small but wonderful. It validated our idea to stitch the Katy Trail together with our site. And now that the Katy Trail is Dallas’ second most visited public space, plenty of people will be able to appreciate the Kalita even if they aren’t going there.
DF: That’s why it’s so important to understand that the 1959 boundaries are not what we see today. Dallas Theater Center tried at the time to acquire the land on either side of the Kalita, but they were unsuccessful. The conclusion at the time was the land would never be acquired. Otherwise, Wright would have never put parking across the site, across the train tracks. Dallas Theater Center did acquire a bit of land across the train tracks but was never able to make that tunnel happen.
I just want to reinforce how much the historical record supports the fact that Wright intended the primary approach to be from the east, and this was never fully realized. This master plan finally accomplishes this via the Katy Trail connection. It does it not just for a few people, but for everybody, as there are no places in Dallas more egalitarian than parks.
EF: You have mentioned before the challenges of working on a Frank Lloyd Wright building. Tell us about historic preservation versus adaptive reuse. In the case of the Kalita Humphreys, it seems that it’s not a matter of simply going back in time, as if the building had been frozen in 1959. How do you meet today’s challenges while respecting the architecture of the time?
CR: We are working with Gunny Harboe, the preeminent Frank Lloyd Wright preservation architect who has worked on renovations of some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important works. His position is that a building needs to function in the way that it’s intended to function, or else it’s preservation for the sake of preservation without delivering utility. So, along with Gunny, we came up with a plan to restore the Kalita to its original state while making several technical improvements to meet the needs of today’s artists and audiences.
One area that we identified as being very important to restore was the stage height because it was so revolutionary for its time. Originally, there were steps right from the stage into the audience. The audience and the actors were almost at the same level, and it didn’t feel like there was separation between them. After the opening, they added 18 inches to the height of the stage because the sight lines were really bad in the original theater. There wasn’t enough height difference from row to row to give people at the back of the hall the same visual access to the stage as those in the front.
By cutting out the front half of the existing slab, we get to lower the first rows by a few inches while maintaining Wright’s original elevations at the stage and the back of the hall. This allows us to get great sight lines to the stage throughout the hall, but still keep the actor and audience relationship very intimate. This has a beneficial knock-on effect in that all the back-of-house spaces work exactly as they had been designed to work originally — no more hitting your head as you’re exiting stage right or left. It also means that the lobby and the back of the audience chamber will be at the same level as they had been originally. No more ramps and steps between them. And so, I would say that in this instance, preservation was slightly interpretive, but we think we’ve preserved the spirit of the original design while finally making it work.
EF: How did you arrive at the decision to remove program that was added over time? Is that something that you proposed or something that users proposed?
CR: We came to the project knowing that all of the additions made after the building opened would be taken away. The lobby additions were made by Frank Lloyd Wright’s successor firm, Taliesin Associated Architects, after his death. The collective opinion between Dallas Theater Center and the preservation community was to return the theater to his original design, which was severely compromised by the lobby addition.
DF: There’s an architectural answer, and then there is a practical answer for our team. I’ll start with the practical answer. Here you’ve got a private entity, Dallas Theater Center, that’s financed and is willing to undertake a master plan and, ultimately, a capital plan for a building that’s not even theirs. And you ask, well why would somebody do that? It is because it’s Dallas Theater Center’s historic home. They gave it to the city in 1973 as a defensive mechanism around a development proposal that intended to surround Dallas Theater Center with 20- and 22-story-tall multifamily high-rises.
Once the city received the property, they also accepted the obligation to take care of it. Over the years, that did not occur, for a variety of reasons. Eventually, the city asked Dallas Theater Center to commission a master plan and they agreed to take this on and implement it in order to stay in their historic home and secure a longer-term lease for managing the site.
In 2019, there was a resolution that was passed unanimously by Dallas City Council, and there were some requirements the city imposed. One of those was that the building be restored to its 1959 condition. So, relative to Charles and his team, that was the specific charge, and it came from the owner: the city of Dallas.
The architectural answer is exactly what you all said: There was a consensus in the preservation, architectural, and cultural communities that this was an important cultural asset, and the purest expression of that cultural asset was its 1959 expression. To the extent that a restoration was to take place, that was the point in time that made the most sense.
EF: What are the next steps in terms of getting the master plan approved? And second, how do we get this funded?
DF: It now goes to City Council for approval. Assuming the city agrees this vision is preferable to the status quo, the next step is for the city and Dallas Theater Center to negotiate an operating agreement. At the same time that’s happening, a capital campaign will start, which will include fundraising within the private sector and hopefully will also include funds allocated from the 2024 Bond Program.
Because there are so many city entities to go through, we’re thinking it’s probably going to be the first half of 2023, because it won’t go to city council until the Quality of Life committee has seen it. It’s in the city’s hands now. We’re delivering the master plan, and they will be the ones to review and approve it on their schedule.
EF: Is there anything else that you think is important for our readers to know?
DF: One of the provisos of the City Council resolution was the creation of a steering committee, and architects had a significant hand in it: Willis Winters, FAIA, is a member; Zaida Basora, FAIA, the head of AIA Dallas, is a member; Hilda Rodriguez, AIA, former chair of the Oaklawn Committee, and Trent Williams, AIA Member Emeritus, are members, and many others. You can see that the city, by design, established a process by which the architectural community has had and will continue to have significant input.
CR: I want to add something else, which is that being from Texas, being from cities that lack pedestrian connections and traditional urban environments, I’m excited that this initiative might be the first in Dallas to bring together a set of disparate elements. The West Village district, which is based on the traditional walking city; the Katy Trail, which is a completely new thing; and then Turtle Creek, which was always intended to be seen from a car, are stitched together and resonate with each other. I’m really excited about how this could operate as a model for future projects.
Eurico R. Francisco, AIA, is a contributing editor of Texas Architect and a principal with CallisonRTKL in Dallas.