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And Speaking of Frank Lloyd Wright …

by Jerome Weeks 18 Mar 2009 1:41 PM

… which I was, down there in the post about the Stanley Marcus home. But over in the DMN’s Arts Blog, theater critic Lawson Taitte was also speaking about the architect, specifically the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater (left), and what the city plans to do with it, now that the Dallas Theater Center […]


dallas_theater2… which I was, down there in the post about the Stanley Marcus home. But over in the DMN’s Arts Blog, theater critic Lawson Taitte was also speaking about the architect, specifically the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater (left), and what the city plans to do with it, now that the Dallas Theater Center is moving to the Wyly Theater this fall. It’s a question I’ve heard pop up in local arts and theater conversations for many months now.

Lawson reports that the Office of Cultural Affairs is developing a master plan about What To Do with the Wright.  “A team of a dozen distinguished consultants has been studying the history of the building …  Now they’re seeking input from arts groups and the public at large. I went to the Tuesday meeting at the South Dallas Cultural Center. There’s another, open to everybody, at the Latino Cultural Center at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

The city is trying to balance the needs of arts groups and the desire to preserve the building while getting some real use out of it. Lawson goes on to recount his own contribution to Tuesday’s meeting — arguing that the additions and changes that were made to the lobby 20 years ago have always struck him as distinctly un-Wright — that is, Wrong.

I’m of the opposite opinion. No, not that the additions are very much in Wright’s manner. Rather, we should face a few facts about the Humphreys.

Chief among them: It’s simply not one of Wright’s masterworks.  It wasn’t designed for that site — it was designed for a theater in Connecticut — and making a building respond or reflect the landscape around it was, after all, one of the chief insights Wright brought to modern architecture. So it fails that benchmark right off. The unsuitableness of the Kalita for that site is apparent in the way it faces up the hill and toward the Katy Trail, while  everyone driving up gets to see what is essentially the butt-end loading entrance.

What’s more, several of Wright’s ideas about theaters didn’t work and have simply had to be corrected for practical, even first-aid reasons. For example, Wright hated all the wiring and lighting equipment dangling down from the typical theater’s lighting grid. So he developed those semi-circular metal slits you see in the auditorium’s ceiling. The equipment was supposed to be tucked away behind them, with the beams of light shining through the slits.

Or you might be able to see the slits,  if they weren’t obscured by the pipes and lighting equipment that the Theater Center, over the years, has had to improvise up there to make the stage lighting actually work. Ditto the infamous slanted stairwells that found many an elderly matinee-attendee collapsed at the bottom. The stairwells were eventually straightened out — along with a lot of other improvements.

The Guggenheim (which the Kalita resembles, having been designed in roughly the same period) exemplifies Wright’s equally misguided and somewhat dictatorial notions about museums. But that building is so striking, even lovely in its dimensions and scale and curves, that it offsets the fact that, say, visitors can’t step back too far to look at an artwork or they’ll fall off the ramp into the lobby atrium.

The chunky, blocky Kalita, on the other hand, simply lacks the same graceful, coherent design. From many angles, one can’t help but think of a concrete bunker or defensive gun turret.  So I don’t see why some additional (minor) changes shouldn’t be done, if needed, if this space is going to continue as a working theater — just as the lobby was added to and the management/support building was constructed off to the side and the parking lots and driveways have been re-routed around the building to make traffic flow more sensibly. None of those were in Wright’s original design, and you can’t say they haven’t helped.

I don’t see why an architect’s failures need to be preserved, even a great architect’s, particularly if we’re to continue using the building, but I’m well aware I’m in the minority here. It’s plain the city could never tear it down — not with the incredible outcry that would inevitably follow. It is one of only three theaters Wright designed, after all, even though how highly prized the building is by Wright’s fans can be adduced by the fact that it’s regularly left out of the illustrations in the hundreds of books written about the man and his work. Often, it’s not even mentioned.

Lawson is certainly ‘wright’ about one thing: Deciding on a future use/preservation plan won’t be that easy — beyond what I take to be Jac Alder’s perfectly sensible position, that theater companies should be allowed to continue to use the building and that it shouldn’t be turned into some mothballed museum landmark.

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    I am sorry that you were not able to attend one of the public meetings. I was able to attend this evening. I have been involved with thepreservation of the building for a half dozen years and I have never heard anyone from the preservation community, the arts community, the neighborhood, at the city, or on the consulting team suggest that the building should be a “mothballed museum landmark” and not a working theater. However, I think it is fair to say that over the years some practical changes, as well as some insensitive alterations,have been made to the building. A successful restoration will mean that we were able to tell the difference between the two.

    As for the entrance to the building the original intention was to enter the site from a parking lot on the other side of the Katy Trail When not all the land was acquired that plan went by the wayside.

    As for the design being one designed for Connecticut I am unsure that is exactly correct. Wright designed a number of theaters over his life and this is the only free standing one ever built. You can view that in 2 ways. One is the way you view it which would be to make it a leftover. I prefer to view it as we received the benefit of many years of planning.

    I hope going forward we will see this building for what it is – both cultural and architectural gem.

  • Bill Marvel

    Its been well-established for years that the plans were destined for a theater elsewhere that was never built. Mr. Wright took them from the shelf and dusted them off for Dallas.

  • JDear Jerome:

    If we want to attack architecture (which is sorta fun) we really should be talking about the lack of any architectural distinction of the Heldt building which is part of this master planning study but little discussed. For all its lack of architectural distinction, though, it’s a valuable asset of space needed now and undoubtedly in the future by performing arts organizations.

    The Sammons Center houses numbers of organizations with small administrative offices and rehearsal needs. They’re out of office and rehearsal space to offer to more organizations. The Heldt could rectify this. The rehearsal spaces in the Heldt building (or for that matter, the “educational” spaces in the Kalita) can satisfy many needs. We’ve been very busy building structures and ignoring infrastructures.

    The future of what we now call the Dallas Theater Center will be, to my mind, a Turtle Creek Cultural Center. Its idiosyncratic Wright building has proved at least that good theatre people can put on a good show in it –that is, if new occupants are permitted to use remedies (for audiences as well as stage designers) that suit the range of theatre literature being housed. Decades of gifted designers and directors have appropriately enhanced the way theatre works in the space.

    The truth is, hundreds of artist and hundreds of thousands of playgoers have given the space a kind of communal blessing, and it is that investment of attention that makes the place especially valuable — in addition, that is, to its celebrity architectural value.

    It’s obviously fascinating to dwell on Wright’s reputation. In the practice of theatre, we are constantly working toward being able to say “that works”; a line, a line reading, a piece of business, the focus of the ellipsoidal, or the way a piece of scenery moves into place. In that way we’re much like Wright’s THEORY — seeking the organic, and pushing to find the forms that follow function.

    Those who have produced in the actual result of how he applied the theory are entitled to critique how well the theory was realized. We all appreciate that Wright was a master form giver. And, when he had the budget, he was visionary about how to place his buildings in the landscape. IThere were compromises made to his design for Kalita (for budget reasons) that gave us (as you named it) a “butt end” view to those driving up. (Jerome, the way you talk!)

    I’ve always hated the huffing and puffing required to walk up the steep drive, but I’ve admired the composition of the building’s masses from every angle. And, its concrete wok (who WAS the builder — he has my admiration) is far superior to the Guggenheim.

    But all this re-hashing the original design is more interesting than useful in a very real sense. The point of the Master Planning process should be to be making good public use of what we have. This publicly owned pair of buildings and the park and its parking site are, however we slice it, special assets for performing artists and audiences of Dallas.


  • I apologize. My response wasn’t to any real suggestion that the theater should be mothballed — only to the implication in Lawson’s remarks that some original intention of Wright’s should be honored and preserved, even to the detriment of more practical uses. I certainly think the city would like to see the Kalita continue to be used, what with a) the need among local theater and dance companies for an affordable theater space larger than the Bath House and smaller than the Majestic, b) the fact that the land along Turtle Creek is considerably valuable — thanks, in part, to the Kalita itself, which was one of the original and most spectacularly successful uses of a city arts project to spark commercial real estate, thus encouraging and rewarding private developers with a city’s risk, and c) the fact, as I noted, that it’s pretty much impossible to tear the Kalita down. So it’s valuable, both historically and in terms of real estate — and possibly, if all goes well, in its future use by other civic groups.

    I like Jac Alder’s idea concerning the use of the Heldt. Yes, the Heldt is undistinguished but the fact is, it almost doesn’t exist, it’s so completely unassertive. Because of its generic design qualities (and caliche-like coloring) and its response to the location, you almost don’t see it. Really. Drive along Turtle Creek, look across to the Kalita and in many cases, you’ll barely see the thing. Given the constraints of the site and the freestanding nature of the Kalita, I prefer that wallflowerish response. What other solution would have worked years ago with the need for increased administrative and rehearsal space and with the same problems inherent with the Kalita? A separate, secondary, support building that would compete with Wright’s design? A large, curving wing-extension added directly to the Kalita?

    Ms. Munoz-Blanca and I must respectfully disagree. Other than Dallas sources, who are somewhat sentimentally biased (or so I’d maintain), I’ve never read a Wright expert or Wright biographer or any serious architecture critic cite the Kalita as an out-and-out masterpiece of Wright’s. Probably some people do, almost everything Wright did gets tagged that way by fans. Don’t get me wrong; I love many of Wright’s works, but I’m not blind to their problems — the recognition of which has been the essence of my argument here. Let us recall that New York City has spent a fortune renovating, repairing and expanding Wright’s related masterpiece, the Guggenheim (and see also, for example, my post about the Stanley Marcus home). I grew up in Detroit, which has a Wright house that, like the Kalita, is generally left off the fans’ list of holy sites, and for good reason. It’s an aggressively unattractive bunker.

    In addition to the technical failures I’ve already mentioned concerning Wright’s ideas on theater, I can add these for the Kalita: Those odd “voms” (vomitoria or entrances) on either side of the stage which add unnecessary entrances — they’re almost never used in productions — entrances that often confuse audience members (I”ve seen some mistakenly walk out onstage). Also, for someone who insisted on the democratic nature of his designs, Wright preserved the tradition of box seats in a theater that didn’t need them and for no aesthetic reason I can find. The giant cylindrical nature of the stage itself is something of an acoustical nightmare (that’s why, for such a small space, actors still have to be miked), and even Lawson approves of the original scale of the lobby — but mostly because that was a quirk of Wright’s, the occasional, awkward, cramped space. And that’s what the lobby was, before its expansion.

    Speaking of the lobby, I will say I’ve always loved the golden columns. And I like the compact nature of the auditorium itself; it ‘feels’ good, both sizable and intimate. People are often surprised by the number of seats it holds (primarily because the balcony is often overlooked — it really is tucked away up there, and speaking of cramped and undemocratic, its theater rows certainly qualify). I actually have built up a great deal of affection for the Kalita, but then, I don’t have to live and work in the thing every day. It’s like a charming but crabby aunt I visit occasionally and can escape.

    Jac notes that the theater HAS worked for many people and groups over the years. Absolutely. And I expressed a wish that it will continue to do so, although I suspect that a chief reason we’ve put up with the Kalita is precisely because it IS a Wright design. If the architect had been a nameless local, I wonder if it would have survived this long. Wright’s worst excesses, as I’ve noted, have been altered in the course of those years, while some of them (the voms, the confusing layout of the downstairs spaces — audience members often get turned around) have just been put up with or, as is often the case with resourceful theater folk, worked with. Theater artists can make the Undermain space a success; it’s little wonder they’ve made the Kalita work with all its advantages.

    Besides, I never seriously advocated replacing it. But if it’s such a successful space, why is the Theater Center so eagerly leaving it? The company grew out of its limitations? OK, so then why has the Theater Center worked for 25 years, half the company’s existence, to get a different home?

    Finally, I apologize once more, this time for the tardiness of my response here and the lack of corroborating evidence on this last point. But then, I’m not in the office, I’m on a brief “vacational interlude,” as my wife puts it, at a lake resort in West Texas. But I’ve no doubt that, as Ms. Munoz-Blanco maintains, Wright’s designs were adapted to suit the Turtle Creek site, but I believe my original point (repeated by Bill Marvel) is accurate: Wright had designed the Kalita for a space in Connecticut, but it got shelved when money fell through. Dallasites approached him with his price, and he pulled the design out of a drawer. The Theater Center is at work on a 50th anniversary history for next season, perhaps it will contain details.

    At any rate, if the Kalita had a different entrance angle, it would improve one’s appreciation of its exterior. The entrance side of the theater (with the Kalita name) is a handsome one and would be shown off better. I’d heard about the tunnel under the Katy Trail, but thought it was just a suggestion that didn’t go anywhere, not a real design consideration that failed.

    Frankly, though, a tunnel through that rocky hill and under a railroad track doesn’t exactly sound like Wright suiting his plans for the site, so much as it sounds like a wholesale excavation needed to make the landscape conform to his pre-ordained design. I also enjoy the thought of well-dressed Dallasites, for the past 50 years, walking under a railroad track via a tunnel.

  • Jerome, we don’t need to keep tearing down all our landmarks, and I’m glad you corrected the impression that we should. Just think how fast some would condemn Old Red.
    I’d suggest an art center with mixed uses. A theater for all purposes, not just plays, but performances of all kinds, or speakers. And room for art displays, maybe a library of books on plays, etc.
    Don’t lock it into anything. That is a major mistake that well intentioned bureaucrats do. The best city planning is the one that lets the plans grow.

  • Amanda Glazier

    Let me start out with I have drove by this building a many of times but did not realize it was a Frank Lloyd Wright. But it is a beautiful building but not for it’s location. It is my opinion that they should not have changed the stairs, why not an elevator? As for what it could be used for? I think a library, museum or art exhiibit. But it really could be anything you want it be if the city wants to keep remodeling and changing things up like they’ve been doing… I don’t agree with it, they need to think alot more on this.