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Will Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kalita Humphreys Theater Be Saved?

by Anne Bothwell 5 Jan 2018 5:31 PM

The Kalita Humphreys theater is the only free-standing theater by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright that was ever built. Nestled next to Turtle Creek in Dallas, it opened to national acclaim in 1959 and housed the Dallas Theater Center for 50 years. Now it’s fallen into neglect and disrepair. Today in State of the Arts, I sat down with Mark Lamster, architecture critic at The Dallas Morning News to learn about a plan to save the theater — and why that plan has stalled.

You can click above to listen to our conversation, which aired on KERA FM, or read it below.

The Kalita Humphreys was designed by a great architect, but what makes it worth restoring?

Not just any great architect. It was built by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was the defining American architect of the 20th century.  And it’s really a beautiful example of his late work. This project came at the very end of his career, when he had turned to sort of a monumental architecture of bold forms. People are familiar with the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  And here we have the Kalita Humphreys, a good example of that incredible period. So it’s a really fascinating time piece and testament to one of America’s great designers.

From the jump, there were some problems with the building. He didn’t believe in air conditioning for example. And he had an issue with elevators.

Wright was an idiosyncratic individual and his buildings are idiosyncratic. That is what makes them special. That’s also some of their drawbacks. He was a very difficult person to work with and some of the issues the theater has experienced over the years are a product of his obstinancy.

He originally didn’t want there to be elevators for the scenery. The original art director of the theater, Paul Baker, insisted that there be. Basically Wright threatened to walk off the project. One of them was built without his actually knowing it. One of  his assistants who believed that Baker was right, installed it. And Wright died before he ever got to see it in practice.

If you see the building, it doesn’t necessarily look like it’s in horrible shape. What’s wrong with it?

Over time there have been accretions after accretion, not really in keeping with Wright’s spirit, so there’s an added lobby, so it now opens in two directions.  There is an extra story that changed the way it looks.

And the theater itself has been dramatically compromised. It was really extraordinary when it was built, it was known as this golden room. The theater projected into the audience and really put the players in the same place as the audience. And now the seats are red velvet. It’s dark. It’s got none of the special jewel-like feeling that it originally had.

The building is in disrepair though, right?

It has been terribly neglected because it has so many organizations that are forced to care for it. The Dallas Theater Center is the primary tenant. It’s owned by the city but there’s a sub-leasee. It’s set in a park, so the Dallas Park and Recreation department oversees part of it and there are these gray zones between the building and the park where nobody really knows whose responsible for it.

It’s never really been taken care of properly.

There’s a master plan from back in 2010 to address those issues. What’s in that plan?

The 2010 Master Plan would rehabilitate the theater to its original design intention of 1959. There’s now a separate auxiliary building, it’s falling apart. So that would be replaced with a new facility with parking. There would also be a place for drinks, dining, etc.

There would be a welcome center.  A Wright building could by a linchpin for the city. Recently Buffalo took similar steps to rehabilitate one of Wright’s houses there. And now it’s one of the most successful tourist attractions in the city.

Why hasn’t this plan been implemented?

The plan hasn’t been implemented because there’s really no one to take charge. And the good news is there is now a conservancy that’s been formed that would take control. That would bring together all the different city organizations and private foundations and agencies, and get them together and oversee the reconstruction.

How much would that cost?

Estimates are $40 million.

There are so many needs in Dallas, from city streets to underfunded pensions. And there are so many grand plans that have stalled – I’m thinking about Trinity River, Fair Park. Why focus on this one?

I really don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. We have a conservancy here that is going to be devoted to raising the funds to make this happen. So it’s not coming out of the city purse. It’s not competing with Fair Park or the Trinity.

We have a gem here. And it’s not right to just let it rot and fester.

Here’s a video from the Art&Seek vaults of Dallas Theater Center actors reflecting on the secrets of the Kalita, what it’s like to work in the theater, and more.