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Architecture & Design

Architect Chosen to Re-Imagine The Kalita Humphreys Theater

Properly executed, a reconfiguration of Dallas' long-neglected architectural gem could be boon for city, theater community
Courtesy of the Dallas Theater Center

For the last decade or so, ever since the Dallas Theater Center moved to its fancy new digs in the Arts District, one of the city’s most architecturally significant buildings, the Kalita Humphreys Theater, has sat in a kind of limbo. No longer the main home of the city’s Tony Award-winning regional theater, the Kalita still hosts some DTC productions each year. Other theater groups–Uptown Players, Second Thought Theatre, and others–have used the main theater space or the black box theater on the leafy campus. But scheduling limitations as well as tricky spacial configurations have left the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita languishing.

In 2018, Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster called it “the most neglected, misunderstood, and mismanaged building in Dallas.” In that 2018 article, Lamster advocated that the city move ahead with a 2010 master plan for the Kalita, arguing that the Kalita was victim of a fate that besieges so many of Dallas’ signature assets. “The city makes plans and plans and plans, never acting on them, always kicking the can just a little farther down the road,” Lamster wrote. “All that planning gives the impression of progress, without resolving any of the sticky political and financial challenges genuine progress entails.”

A short while after Lamster’s piece was published, I was chatting with Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty, who echoed Lamster’s disappointment with the legacy of mismanagement and under-utilization surrounding the Kalita, but cautioned against clinging to the 2010 master plan. After all, that document was created as the Dallas Theater Center was moving into the Wyly Theatre, and over the past decade, the DTC has learned a lot about how to best operate in the Wyly–as well as what other needs could be met by a re-imagined Kalita campus. Furthermore, the last decade’s Arts District expansion–as well as improvements to facilities like the Latino Cultural Center–have shifted the local theater community’s list of priorities and needs. Wouldn’t the best way to imagine the Kalita’s future be to start afresh and reconsider how its campus and location could meet as many community needs as possible?

That is now the approach that the city will pursue. A stakeholder group charged with leading the Kalita redo announced today that it has chosen architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to draft a new master plan for the nine-acre site. The firm has been tasked not only with re-imagining the Kalita Humphreys Theater and enhancing its access to the adjacent Katy Trail, it will also design two new theaters for the campus that will address spacial, programming, and educational needs.

And so the planning process will start anew. That might be frustrating to some who won’t want to wait for more plans to be drawn up before the Kalita can move towards a brighter future. But while I share Lamster’s impatience with Dallas’ penchant for endless planning, I’m optimistic that this is the right approach. I am hopeful about the promise to undo some of the mistakes of the Kalita’s dreadful 1980s renovation, while also making the space more feasible for DTC productions and productions by other large and mid-sized theater companies. The promise of additional theater space for area performance groups could be even more of a boon for local theater. Perhaps the new master plan can address some of the needs that were supposed to met by the second phase of the Moody Performance Hall, which is unlikely to materialize any time soon.

And while the master plan won’t solve some of the endemic challenges at the Kalita Lamster pointed out in 2018–like the peculiar administrative overlaps that stifle its management–a re-imagined theater and campus should help reintegrate the neglected Kalita into the core of the city’s cultural scene in ways the 2010 master plan might not have otherwise achieved.

Here’s the release:

Dallas panel selects Diller Scofidio + Renfro to develop master plan to renovate Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater, upgrade site near Katy Trail

• New York-based firm has designed some of America’s most notable works of contemporary architecture
• Kalita Steering Committee of diverse community stakeholders chose Diller Scofidio + Renfro after comprehensive selection process
• Master plan will open nine-acre site to Katy Trail, Dean Park and Turtle Creek and add two theaters to expand opportunities for artists, audiences and students

DALLAS – The Dallas Theater Center (DTC) announced today that distinguished New York interdisciplinary design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro – whose work includes the redesign of the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts Campus and the Museum of Modern Art – will develop plans leading to renovation of Dallas’ famed Kalita Humphreys Theater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

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 – will develop a master plan for the theater and the nine-acre Kalita Humphreys site, which will include new theater spaces and a connection to the Katy Trail.

Hillwood Urban will be the project manager, overseeing the drive to restore the theater to its historic period of significance, while improving its ability to function as a modern working theater.

In keeping with Wright’s organic, nature-inspired vision, the master plan will connect the Katy Trail, Dean Park and the surrounding neighborhoods of Uptown, Turtle Creek and Oak Lawn to the Kalita Humphreys Campus, making the entire site an accessible public space for all.

The Kalita Humphreys Theater is unique among Wright’s distinguished body of work as the only free-standing theater he designed that was built during his lifetime. Its most notable internal feature is a revolving stage which exemplifies Wright’s Organic Theory of architecture, which stressed the unification of the building’s form and function, the harmony of the building’s structure with its natural setting, and the aesthetically pleasing manipulation of space. Like all of Wright’s projects, the theater’s design was considered bold and innovative for its time. Wright also stressed integration with nature, and the theater was built into a limestone bluff overlooking Turtle Creek.

“All of us at Dallas Theater Center have been proud to call the Kalita Humphreys Theater our home since it was completed 61 years ago,” said DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty. “As we look to the future, we are thrilled to partner with the architects at Diller Scofidio + Renfro as well as the city of Dallas and the entire community to restore the Kalita to its original glory, and expand opportunities for theater artists, students and audiences. 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.”

Jennifer Altabef, chair of the DTC’s board, said: “The renovations to the Kalita Humphreys Theater will prepare it to host productions by Dallas Theater Center and other theater companies for generations to come, while honoring the beauty and innovation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original design.”

“In addition, the creation of two smaller theaters will allow DTC and other local companies to perform regularly on the site, in harmony with the goals of the new Dallas Cultural Plan. We will work with Dallas’ Office of Arts and Culture and the theater community to make this incredible asset available to more theater companies and audiences,” she said.

Charles Renfro will lead the development of the master plan in collaboration with his partners at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. This is a deeply personal project for Renfro, who was raised in Baytown, Texas, and traces his love of architecture to the state’s modernist icons. After graduating from Rice University in Houston and Columbia University in New York, he practiced at a number of firms before joining Diller + Scofidio in 1997 and becoming a partner in 2004.

He has since worked on a number of projects significant to New York, including the redesign of the MoMA, the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts and the High Line. He has run multiple projects in California, including The Broad, a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, and academic facilities for University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University.

Renfro has maintained his connection to Texas, presenting new ideas for urban regeneration to the Houston Park Board. DTC said his experience as well as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s history of creating aesthetically appealing and accessible public buildings and public spaces made Renfro and the firm a natural choice for this high-profile project.

“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,” Renfro said. “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,” he said.

DTC and its partners intend to present a plan to the city’s Office of Arts and Culture by the end of 2020. The Dallas City Council will be asked to give final approval of the plan.

While no specific decisions have been made on any individual aspect of the project, DTC looks forward to hearing from the public and various stakeholders in order to inform the design process. DTC, Hillwood Urban and Diller Scofidio + Renfro will work to reinvigorate the site so that it retains its essential character while becoming an exciting cultural destination.
Those interested in learning more can attend a public information session, scheduled from 5:30 -7 p.m., Wednesday, March 4, at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Diller Scofidio + Renfro will present their relevant past works, which will inform their design approach to the Kalita Humphreys master plan. Attendees will be invited to provide written feedback that night or via a website set up for public comment. A link to the Kalita Humphreys master plan feedback site will be posted on DTC’s website,

Diller Scofidio + Renfro was unanimously selected by the Kalita Humphreys Steering Committee, whose members are:

Andy Smith, executive director, Texas Instruments Foundation
Carol Glendenning, member, Clark Hill Strasburger
Guinea Bennett-Price: co-artistic director, co-founder, Soul Rep Theatre
Harrison Blair, president, Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce
Hilda Rodriguez, principal architect
Jeff Rane, artistic producer, Uptown Players
Jennifer Scripps, director, city of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture
Katherine Seale, architectural historian
Linda Perryman Evans, past president and CEO, The Meadows Foundation
Marshall Payne, founding partner and chairman of the board, CIC Partners
Peer Chacko, director, city of Dallas Office of Planning & Urban Design
Ramon Miguez, vice president, HDR
Rob Little, partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
Willis Winters, former director, Dallas Parks and Recreation Department
Zaida Basora, vice president, AIA Dallas

About Dallas Theater Center:
One of the leading regional theaters in the country, Dallas Theater Center (DTC) performs to an audience of more than 90,000 North Texas residents annually. Founded in 1959, DTC is now a resident company of the AT&T Performing Arts Center and presents its mainstage season at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the Dallas Arts District. DTC also presents at its original home, the Kalita Humphreys Theater, the only freestanding theater designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright. DTC engages, entertains and inspires a diverse community by creating experiences that stimulate new ways of thinking and living by consistently producing plays, educational programs and community initiatives that are of the highest quality and reach the broadest possible constituency. DTC received the 2017 Regional Theatre Tony Award, effectively naming it as the nation’s best regional theater.

About Diller Scofidio + Renfro:
Founded in 1981, Diller Scofidio + Renfro is an interdisciplinary design studio, based in New York and is comprised of over 100 architects, designers, artists and researchers, led by four partners—Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro and Benjamin Gilmartin. DS+R completed two of the largest architecture and planning initiatives in New York City’s recent history: the High Line and the transformation of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ half-century-old campus. In 2019, the studio completed two more projects significant to New York: The Shed and the renovation and expansion of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Most recently, the studio was also selected to design: the Centre for Music, which will be a permanent home for the London Symphony Orchestra; and a new collection and research centre for the V&A in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. For more information, visit