DS+R Partner Charles Renfro presented Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s latest plans for the Kalita Humphreys Theater at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC), alongside DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty and DTC Board Chair Jennifer Altabef. Its location at the heart of a public green is both an opportunity and a challenge: while it is appreciated for its synthesis with nature, by the same token, it has never been truly celebrated as a standalone Frank Lloyd Wright building. The proposed makeover addresses this paradox.
Although the Kalita Humphreys Theater shares many features with Wright’s most famous works, including the Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater, it is often overlooked in Wright’s oeuvre. Indeed, over the years, a combination of neglect and additions have compromised the building’s integrity. Restoring the Kalita Humphreys Theater to its original state requires a multifaceted approach that involves surgical extraction, selective reconstruction, careful preservation, and faithful reinterpretation of Wright’s design intent.
In looking to the past and the future simultaneously, the masterplan proposal aims to achieve four primary goals: restore and celebrate the historic Kalita Humphreys Theater; transform the surrounding public green spaces into a bona fide park; stitch the park to Turtle Creek and the Katy Trail, one of the most visited destinations in Dallas; and activate the park every day and year-round, both as an expanded cultural landscape for performance and education and as a standalone natural resource with amenities that draw in new visitors, with or without a ticket.
At the civic scale, the masterplan reimagines the public green as a vibrant and democratic urban park. A network of bridges, pedestrian walkways, and bicycle paths will unite Dr. William B. Dean Park, Turtle Creek, and the Katy Trail, forming a connective tissue that integrates a series of landscaped courtyards, walkways, and programmed pavilions. New performance and public spaces proposed for Dr. William B. Dean Park resonate with its stratified limestone bluffs, creek, and lush vegetation.
Greenery will extend between and above new structural elements, activating the entire campus into a hybrid public realm that fuses culture, ecology, and recreation. The transformation of the public green will allow a newly restored Kalita Humphreys Theater to shine as the centerpiece of this revitalized landscape. The masterplan prioritizes the surgical restoration of the historic building, adhering as closely as possible to Wright’s 1959 design.
This involves the extraction of superfluous elements added over time, particularly the 1968 lobby extension that compromised the original massing of the building. Certain architectural details lost in these alterations will be carefully refurbished, including mid-century light fixtures, air grilles, door handles, window moldings, and furniture. Yet in order to safeguard the future of the Kalita Humphreys Theater, the project must not only restore but also renovate the theater to support the needs of contemporary artists and audiences.
Upgraded lighting, AV, stage infrastructure, and other back-of-house functions will provide much-needed flexibility for a wider range of performances. Seating will be re-raked to resemble the 1959 auditorium, but each row will be staggered to significantly improve sightlines. A central information point and historical center in the campus lobby will orient and engage visitors. Collectively, these and other enhancements will allow the theater to host more productions while honoring the beauty and integrity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design.
The theater’s surrounding landscape demands an equally sensitive touch that also responds to the past and the future. In keeping with Wright’s Organic Theory of Architecture, which advocated the unification of a building with its natural setting, the Kalita Humphreys Theater was originally nestled into a limestone bluff overlooking Turtle Creek. However, since its construction, this bucolic setting has been fragmented by large parking lots and a tangle of roadways. A new pedestrian approach to the building from the east will match Wright’s unrealized plans.
While the bluffs removed as part of the 1968 addition are irrecoverable, a lightly reshaped landscape will echo the original topography of the site. Invasive bamboo will be removed in favor of native grasses and shrubs, helping to control erosion and absorb runoff during increasingly intense climactic events. Improved visual and physical linkages will better connect the Kalita Humphreys Theater to the Katy Trail, Dr. William B. Dean Park, and the surrounding neighborhoods of Uptown, Turtle Creek, and Oak Lawn, establishing the theater as the nexus of a safe, sustainable, and interconnected urban oasis.
New programs woven into the landscape will activate this improved public realm while preserving the Kalita Humphreys Theater as the only freestanding theater in Wright’s distinguished body of built work. Expressed as discrete pavilions, these additions will be positioned along a shared public spine running parallel to the Katy Trail. The pavilions will be interspersed with a series of pocket courtyards, each featuring unique programmatic, horticultural, and elevational attributes. The scale and position of these new buildings are deferential to the Kalita Humphreys Theater, ensuring that the historic theater remains the crown jewel in a necklace of new cultural catalysts.
A multipurpose pavilion will offer a flexible infrastructure for formal and informal events, including public educational classes and workshops. More cellular spaces in the rehearsal and education ‘tower’ will incubate small, immersive productions, supporting the growth of both established and aspiring performers. An accessible elevator and a series of public stairways and viewing platforms will wrap around this tallest pavilion, affording generous views of the Kalita Humphreys Theater and the Dallas skyline.
A 250-seat proscenium theater will provide an intimate, on-demand performance space for regional and experimental productions. A restaurant perched above the proscenium theater will serve both performance patrons and Dallas residents at large. This casual eatery, featuring indoor and outdoor seating, will be easily accessible from the Katy Trail and the performance lobby below. As a warm and organic counterpoint to the mineral palette of the original theater building, each of these pavilions will be made of mass timber – a sustainable material that can be sourced and manufactured in Texas.
Endowed with a restored theater, a revitalized green oasis, and a series of new pavilions, the Kalita Humphreys Campus will become a village in the park – a lively civic, educational, and cultural resource for the city buzzing throughout the day. The creation of two smaller theaters and a multipurpose hall will allow Dallas Theater Center and smaller regional companies to perform regularly on the site, supporting the goals of the Dallas Cultural Plan. A variety of flexible spaces will also support a slate of educational programs, including monthly workshop meetings and a summer camp that can accommodate up to 300 children.
These new pavilions and connections, in conjunction with renovations that enhance the intrinsic beauty of the original building and surrounding park, will bolster the Kalita Humphreys Theater’s role as a space of cultural convergence. Taken together, these gestures will promote the cross-pollination of diverse populations, turning the Kalita Humphreys Campus into an intercultural, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational hub that nurtures the next generation of Dallas’ artistic pioneers. Source and images Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.