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The Future of the Kalita Humphreys Theater Finally Comes Into View

The Dallas Theater Center will soon present the city with a master plan for the Kalita Humphreys Theater and the park that surrounds it. On Wednesday night, the public gets to see it.
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Courtesy of the Dallas Theater Center

Often referred to as “The Kalita,” the Kalita Humphreys Theater is unique not only to Dallas, but to the country. Only one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s theater designs was built, and it sits in Dallas, intentionally positioned along the banks of Turtle Creek by the famed architect. He notched the building into a limestone bluff and cantilevered it over the creek.

The theater and 9 acres of treed parkland are tucked between Turtle Creek and the Katy Trail. Tonight, preservationists, architecture buffs, and Dallas residents have one last chance to learn about future plans for that campus, provide feedback, and ask questions.

On Monday, architects Kevin Rice and Gunny Harboe presented to the city’s Landmark Commission a portion of the Dallas Theater Center’s master plan to restore the historic Kalita. They also stressed that it was still very much an idea, and not a complete design.

“This is the master plan stage, so it looks like design, but … these are suggestive more than actual design,” said Rice, who is with lead architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. 

The plan reflects a balancing act: acknowledging the work and intent of its original world-renowned architect while also recognizing that things are different than they were in 1955 when the Dallas Theater Center approached Wright to design the theater.

Wright adapted one of his theater designs for the project. When it was finished in 1959, it was one of his final completed buildings. He died before it was completed.

In the following years, the DTC staged award-winning productions in that theater, and over time added more buildings. In 1973, the Kalita was donated to the city, which in turn leased it back to the Dallas Theater Center. The two plots of land surrounding the theater were also purchased around that time, saving the theater from becoming flanked by two high rise buildings. That land was turned into the William B. Dean Park. Eventually the theater fell into disrepair as responsibility for its upkeep fell to several entities at once, including the city’s Park and Recreation department and the DTC.

The city in 2010 hired the architect Ann Abernathy to complete a master plan for rehabbing the aging structure. 

“The city didn’t really have any specific thing they envisioned for the future,” DTC executive director Kevin Moriarty said of the 2010 plan. “The city staff didn’t bring it forward to the Council, and the Council never voted on it, so it was never adopted, and it sat dormant for a long time.”

By 2019, it became clear that something needed to be done.

There had been no major capital investments into the property since 1989. The city approached its primary tenant, the DTC, and offered this deal: a new lease, and in exchange the theater would assemble a team to create a master plan for the theater and Dean Park. 

“The city didn’t have resources to fund the master plan, so they put into our lease that we should create a master plan using private money,” Moriarty said. “We raised $2 million to fund the master plan, all of which is philanthropic.”

By 2020, the DTC had chosen Diller Scofidio + Renfro to lead the project. They’ve held a series of public meetings to explain the plan and get feedback, and will hold a meeting tonight at the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. A final master plan is expected to be delivered to the city by the end of the month.

Judging from the portion of the plan presented to the Landmark Commission (which focused primarily on the historical preservation aspect), the new master plan is ambitious and also mindful of Wright’s intent. 

“The goal is to open up the site and make it accessible and welcoming for all of Dallas so that people truly can encounter the Frank Lloyd Wright building, which is literally unique in the world of theater,” Moriarty said. “And then there’s the topography of the site—it is very unique in Dallas to have public access to the natural features of the site and then to have the activity of the Katy Trail right there and then the beauty of Turtle Creek.”

The theater’s additions will be removed, and architects pored over photos and drawings to ensure that the plan would bring the building back to something resembling what it looked like in 1959. 

“The plan is that the original entrance and drop-off will be restored, and the thought is that most people coming to the Kalita will still use that entry sequence,” Rice said.

Parking will be designed to blend with nature, and new paths will link the park and theater campus with the Katy Trail for the first time. A new rehearsal space could pop up nearby that offers treehouse-type views of the theater and grounds. A black box theater to the south of the building would include a removable wall that turns the space into an outdoor theater.

“I think we’re definitely bringing 21st century ideas about how a city can connect with its citizens to a restoration project that has at its heart a classic, mid-century building,” said Moriarty. “It’ll be one of the most significant historic restoration projects in Dallas, but it will also be in the context of thinking about what is the future of the city and its relationship to its people, so it sits in a really fascinating looking backwards and looking forward place, which is especially fun.”

Moriarty said that the committee will hand off its 600-page plan to the city at the end of the month. In January, the architects and Moriarty will begin making the rounds to city commissions, committees, and the City Council to make the case for why the city should fund the restoration work.

The entire master plan will be posted on the DTC’s website this week, following the meeting, which will also be recorded. To RSVP, go here.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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