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Dallas Theater Center's master plan for Kalita Humphreys offers restoration — and major additions

Jerome Weeks
The entrance to the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

The master plan aims to restore Frank Lloyd Wright's original design but even more ambitiously, to mesh that stretch of the Katy Trail and Turtle Creek into a vital park.

Call it the 'Klyde Warrenization' of the Kalita Humphreys Theater: When you've got something good in a public space, stick more in — and maybe it'll draw even more people.

Wednesday at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, Charles Renfro of the celebrated architectural firm, Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, presented the master plan for restoring the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building. Opened in 1959, the approximately 400-seat house is the only freestanding theater that Wright developed that was (mostly) completed in his lifetime. It continues to be in use — not only by the Dallas Theater Center but also other performance groups, notably Uptown Players.

Dallas Theater Center's new master plan for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater

But because the city of Dallas is on the hook for maintaining the facility — an increasingly costly effort for a handsome but more than 60-year-old antique — the Kalita has suffered serious decay. It's also struggled to provide the contemporary amenities expected of modern stages (reliable heat and air-conditioning, handicap access).

As one audience member mentioned — who spoke after the presentation — the city doesn't even pay to clean off the tree sap that mars the building's exterior.

Building the plan

So the Theater Center itself was tasked with coming up with a master plan for the building's future — a plan to be delivered by the end of 2022. (A much more complete version of Wednesday's public presentation by DS+R — some 600 pages — will be delivered to City Hall by the end of the month).

But the master plan's remit goes beyond "simply" restoring Wright's design to its 1959 condition by stripping away subsequent additions and the various attempts at improving it. That alone is a major effort — Gunny Harboe, a preservation architect who's specialized in Wright’s buildings, is part of the planning team.

The project must consider balancing the desires for replicating the original vision not only of Wright but of Paul Baker, the Theater Center's first artistic director whose ideas influenced (and occasionally irritated) Wright, but also with the practical needs of a functioning, modern theater.

Wikimedia Commons
One part of the Kalita Humphreys Theater that hasn't changed much: The strong horizontals echo the limestone bluff of the Katy Trail but they also resemble the horizontals Wright used for his famous Fallingwater design, while the central drum recalls the circular design of the Guggenehim, which he was working on at the same time as the Kalita.

Wright's original facility, for example, had half the current lobby space — with no bar — and the Theater Center had no rehearsal room, no classrooms. Yet Baker always envisioned it as both a performing and teaching facility. So from the start, the Kalita became an ad hoc affair, as most well-used performance spaces eventually become: artistic ideas and needs change, audience demands change, new performance technologies are developed, urban neighborhoods evolve.

But beyond the Kalita, the DS+R masterplan also offers a new and elaborately complex vision for William B. Dean Park, where the Kalita stands along Turtle Creek:

  • The plan will sink all the on-site parking into two underground garages and add four new buildings to the park, plus a long, thin entrance lobby from the garages to the Kalita — with a new drop-off as well.
  • The above-ground additions will be a 200-seat, multi-use performance facility, a 100-seat blackbox theater, extensive hiking-and-biking connections from the nearby Katy Trail to Turtle Creek and a five-story building on the north end, along Blackburn Road. The tower will feature a cafe/restaurant and rooftop terrace.
  • Because the theater's current administrative offices and design shops — ie., the nearby Heldt Building — will be demolished and much of the surface parking will be seriously reduced, Charles Renfro argued that relatively little is being "added." The design merely takes the "functionalities" packed into the Heldt (and into the additions made to the Kalita) and re-distributes them around the park. Then it adds the 5-story tower. But, he noted, the ultimate size of the greenspace in Dean Park will actually be modestly increased from 6.25 acres to 8.75.
KHT floor plans in color.jpg
DS + R
Left, the Kalita Humphrey Theater floor plan for the main level from 1959 (top) and in 2008 (bottom). The same for the mezzanine level on the right.

A theater arts complex

What all this will create, in effect, is a whole new 'theater arts complex,' a kind of miniature AT&T Performing Arts Center. Even some of the less-than-successful schemes of the AT&T PAC re-appear here: The Winspear Opera House's lobby, for instance, has a large, glass, "garage-door" wall that ostensibly removes some of the barriers between the arts temple and the outside public by creating an indoor-outdoor cafe that encourages casual use of the Opera House lobby and its park-like setting during the day.

But this amenity is rarely, if ever, deployed — because of Dallas' hellish heat and the A/C costs involved in essentially cooling off the outdoors. Yet the black box theater building proposed by DS+R to be built near the Kalita features a wall that would open up one side of the box for performances. This feature always sounds appealing: Stage shows could gain a park-like setting as part of their overall aesthetic and the audience's experience. But then, that experience would also presumably include humidity and insects. And global warming. This past summer, Shakespeare Dallas struggled to maintain its outdoor park performances because of the cruel heat.

In all this, it's worth considering Klyde Warren Park, which at 5.2 acres, is a little more than half the size of Dean Park. Klyde Warren has become a landmark, a new city destination, a popular success (and a hit with increasing nearby real-estate values).

But within that tiny footprint are crammed dog walks, children's playgrounds, two pavillions, a "reading and game room" and an illuminated, performing fountain — with a 1.7 acre, $57 million expansion being planned that will include a parking garage, visitors center, event space and a rooftop lawn and terrace. So Klyde Warren is becoming less an urban greenspace and more a carnival that never leaves.

But who doesn't love a carnival? Klyde Warren is regularly filled to capacity, especially on weekends.

old original Kalita.jpg
2010 Dallas Theater Center Master Plan
The original design of the Kalita on this side has been seriously altered with the horizontal mezzanine above the entrance enclosed to add office and rehearsal space -- what came to be known as "Frank's Place."

And that is much of the purpose of the DS+R masterplan: Currently, when there isn't a performance going on at the Kalita or the Heldt, Dean Park barely draws anyone. So the hope is to increase public utilization of the park, to draw tourists and joggers and restaurant-goers and maybe even some Wright aficianodos from the Katy Trail and the surrounding Turtle Creek/Highland Park neighborhood.

Diller, Scofidio and Renfro are still perhaps best known for their first great success in 2009, developing the wildly popular High Line in Manhattan from what was a huge, long-decaying, elevated rail line. Finding novel, often complicated and high-tech ways of integrating the many needs of public spaces with educational and performance uses has been one of the firm's hallmarks.

Will it work?

Anne Abernethy, president of the Kalita Humphreys Theater at Turtle Creek Conservancy and leader of the 2010 master plan that ultimately prompted this one, was one of the audience members who spoke in the Q&A session afterwards. Although she offered high praise for the restoration efforts, she, like several others, took exception to the many additions to the area arguing that most are not really needed and they block different views of the Kalita. They will also require knocking down a host of fully mature trees, another audience member noted. Replacing them will take decades to provide the kind of shade and ground cover depicted in the presentation video.

But the central question with this plan remains: Will all these additions and revisions to the Katy Trail, Turtle Creek and the Kalita Humphreys generate year-round, all-day public interest? Can joggers, tourists, a park and a string of performance spaces reduce crime in the area? Increase the urban and cultural richness of the city?

And can this happen in sprawling, freeway-happy, pedestrian-unfriendly Dallas — in an area between Uptown, West Village and Oak Lawn, neighborhoods that are already fairly dense with restaurants?

Klyde Warren Park suggests it certainly can. Meanwhile, the Arts District and the AT&T Performing Arts Center strongly suggest otherwise. To be fair, the Arts District remains surrounded primarily by a downtown, daily-office environment that empties out on nights and weekends. But even with multiple performance spaces filled with attractions, with museums, restaurants and Klyde Warren nearby, the Arts District can still feel nearly bereft of human beings most nights.

City Hall has to approve the master plan first. Fundraising for the project is hardly complete. So a price tag was not announced because what the city's participation in all this, if anything, remains unknown, and the city likes its arts spending to go more to artists these days, not so much to construction.

But if all those variables fall into place as hoped, a rough, estimated timeline says the opening could be sometime in 2027-'28.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.