The Kalita Humphreys Theater is nearly impossible to spot from the road. For four years, I drove by it every day on my way to work and never knew it was there. Now, as I head up the drive past towering elm trees, five stories of cantilevered concrete shapes come into view. The exterior has hairline cracks, chipped paint, and a pair of dormant triangular fountains so rusted over you can’t discern their original color. I try to picture what it must have been like to arrive on opening night, December 27, 1959, for Of Time and the River, an American coming-of-age tale by Thomas Wolfe. But the daydream is interrupted by the memory of what my city councilwoman, Paula Blackmon, said weeks earlier: “I don’t want to be the city that tore down a Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Before Dallas had the mega, multivenue AT&T Performing Arts Center and the glitzy Moody Performance Hall, there was the Kalita. Sandwiched between the historic neighborhoods of Oak Lawn and Uptown, the theater is still used today, mostly by smaller, regional theater groups that put on intimate plays and musicals, such as the current The Rocky Horror Show, the precursor to the cult-classic film. Except on show nights, most of the surrounding parking lots sit empty amid the lush greenery of William B. Dean Park, which caters to dog walkers and the occasional fisherman casting a line in Turtle Creek. The theater seems quaint by modern standards, but it’s like nothing else in Dallas—or the world.
The Kalita is the only stand-alone theater that Frank Lloyd Wright ever built. Of the four buildings he designed in Texas, it’s the only one that’s open to the public (the bulk of his portfolio involved private residences). The Kalita was on the drafting table around the same time as the Guggenheim Museum, in New York City, and it’s sometimes referred to as the “Little Guggenheim” because of its similar circular profile.
In other words, “it’s something other cities would kill to have,” says Norman Alston, an architect and past president of the nonprofit Preservation Dallas. “It’s certainly in the top three or four [historic] buildings in Dallas, but you wouldn’t know it by its treatment. And you wouldn’t know it by how long it’s taken to get to this point, where we’re looking really seriously at putting major investments into bringing it back.”
In 2005, the Kalita was designated a Dallas landmark, a distinction that affords some protection from demolition but, as preservationists point out, no guarantee. “Demolition by neglect is a real thing,” Alston says. For now the Kalita is safe from the wrecking ball. But there’s another, slower death that buildings can suffer. The theater has struggled through decades of deferred maintenance, brought on by a cash-strapped city government and bureaucratic red tape. But last month, Mayor Eric Johnson announced that the Kalita was among his top priorities for the next two years. His office said via email that the mayor is motivated by the theater’s importance “as a historic Dallas landmark and cultural amenity.”
The Kalita serves the broader public (in addition to performances, it can be rented for meetings or even weddings) but also plays a special role in the theater community—and has since its inception. The building represents Wright’s decades-long fascination with a concept he called the “New Theatre.” It involved eschewing the traditional setup, with a proscenium stage—in which audiences stare straight ahead with a single, framed view—and instead creating a circular, revolving stage that joined the actors and audience in a more unified space.
“Wright had a number of ideas about theater—how it should work, what its role was in artistic culture—and [the Kalita] reflects his concept of what experimental avant-garde theater should be,” says Kathryn Holliday, professor of architecture and director of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. Over the years, Wright attempted to realize his dream in other cities, but the theaters never got built. “Dallas was the place that was actually able to follow through,” she says.
The Kalita was commissioned by the Dallas Theater Center (DTC), a Tony Award–winning regional theater company established the same year the theater opened. Back then, the DTC tapped Paul Baker, chair of the drama department at Baylor University, to be its founding artistic director. Baker and Wright had a similar vision, but they often fought over specific design choices.
Wright wanted windows at the back of the auditorium, but Baker worried they would interfere with stage lighting. Wright vehemently opposed a freight elevator, insisting that sets and props be wheeled up subterranean ramps (an elevator was secretly installed without Wright’s knowledge). Wright even went so far as to suggest no air-conditioning, a thought immediately dismissed by Texans who knew better.
According to his daughter Robyn Flatt, the first time Baker saw the plans for the theater, he told Wright they simply would not work. “Wright was furious,” she says. “He threw my dad out of [Wright’s home] Taliesin West and told him he could walk back to town.” Eventually cooler heads prevailed and the theater was completed, with some compromise, in just over a year.
One night in late April, as I wait for the doors to the theater’s auditorium to open, I spot many of Wright’s characteristic optical illusions in the lobby. There are no right angles in sight, and a long wall of windows visually brings nature inside. The evening’s performance is a satirical musical put on by Uptown Players, one of the only LGBTQ theater groups in Texas and one of the Kalita’s main tenants. Before the curtain goes up, coproducer Craig Lynch thanks the audience for attending the show, the group’s annual fundraiser. “We are needed in Dallas and we are needed in Texas,” Lynch says, in reference to the controversial “Texas Drag Ban.” The audience responds with the biggest applause of the night.
Wright and Baker’s attention to acoustics means that through the first act, even those in the back row can hear the faintest whisper without a mic (key for when the sound system cuts out, which happens a few times). You can even see the veins popping on the performers’ necks as they hit the high notes. “On the main floor, you’re never more than thirteen rows from the stage,” says Jeff Rane, Lynch’s counterpart. “There aren’t very many four-hundred-seat theaters around the country that have that intimacy.”
At intermission, I encounter two season ticket holders who gush about the theater. “It’s the best bang for your buck,” they say, adding that they often prefer the shows at the Kalita over the bigger Broadway productions around town. While tonight’s performance may have attracted a slightly younger crowd, the Kalita is showing her age. The laminated wood bar is missing chunks and the primary bathrooms haven’t been updated since the eighties. Rane details other woes: an “archaic” rigging system, outdated sound cables, and a backstage area that is “not ADA-compliant at all.”
I climb the angled stairs (yet another of the architect’s optical illusions) for a tour of the rehearsal space, a later addition that people sometimes joke is haunted by a disapproving Wright. The hardwood floors are worn with deep gouges and several air vents have dark splotches that look like mold.
Lee Walter, an Abilene native, is one of the night’s performers and has been with Uptown Players for almost twenty years. “Every time I work here,” she says, “I always get sick.”
The Kalita’s maintenance issues alone are complex. Add in local politics, and the path to progress has been anything but straightforward. The latest attempt at a breakthrough is a 218-page master plan, developed by a 26-person steering committee consisting of representatives from the DTC, leaders of nearby neighborhoods, architects, preservationists, and city officials. The plan was presented to Dallas’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee in January. The meeting did not go as the steering committee had hoped, but the result—no significant funding for the Kalita—was consistent with the challenges the theater has faced in recent years.
In 2019, Dallas began pursuing a public-private partnership model through which the city would pay for deferred maintenance for many of its buildings and then turn them over to arts organizations that would handle upkeep going forward. The city made the transition with the Dallas Symphony Association overseeing the Meyerson Symphony Center, designed by I. M. Pei. Officials wanted to do the same with the Kalita, which the DTC donated to the city in 1973 to create a park and prevent the development of high-rises next door. As part of that deal, the city agreed to lease the building back to the theater company for $1 a year. Between 1973 and the early 2000s, updates occurred periodically, but no capital investments have been made since the late eighties.
A 2010 master plan, paid for with bond money, proposed a $25 million renovation, but it was never adopted by the city council, for reasons ranging from the 2008 recession to staff layoffs. In the ensuing decade, the Kalita continued to decline, and in 2020, the DTC’s lease was up. As part of a renewal agreement, the city tasked the DTC with establishing the aforementioned steering committee and developing a new master plan for how the Kalita could best serve the community over the next hundred years.
The DTC raised more than $2 million to pay for the plan and selected Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York–based firm responsible for the High Line and the renovation of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (partner Charles Renfro is also a Texan). The firm tapped Gunny Harboe, a Chicago architect who has worked on multiple Frank Lloyd Wright–designed buildings, to consult. Together, the steering committee and the architects created an ambitious plan that tried to address a long wish list.
To satisfy preservationists, additions to the theater would be removed, restoring the Kalita to its original 1959 design. To appease theater groups and make up for the loss of the additions (which were added in the sixties partly so actors wouldn’t have to rehearse in the lobby or, worse, outside), new buildings would be constructed to house two smaller theaters, classrooms, a conference room, and rehearsal and coworking spaces. For outdoor enthusiasts, an underground parking garage would replace surface lots, creating more green space, and there would be a connection to the popular Katy Trail. The plan also detailed ways to attract new visitors and identified sources for additional revenue, including an on-site restaurant, rental venues, and historic tours of the property. And the Kalita would be modernized to meet accessibility standards.
The cost was estimated at $308 million, of which $52 million would go toward the restoration of the original Kalita. The DTC hoped the city would allocate $50 million from upcoming bonds. The remaining 84 percent, or $258 million, would come through private donations—an important point that the steering committee says has since been overlooked because of “sticker shock.” “We never asked the taxpayer to foot a three-hundred-million bill,” says Katherine Seale, a member of both the steering committee and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a national organization that advocates for endangered Wright properties.
At the January meeting, city council members did not hold back, calling the plan a “bait and switch,” a “vanity project,” and something that “none of us asked for.” They worried about the DTC’s ability to fund-raise amidst competition for other projects in underserved areas and wondered what would happen if the plan was approved and the money could not be secured (not an unfounded fear, considering it has happened in the past with other city-backed projects, theater attendance is down across the country, and the DTC experienced a round of layoffs in May). The city’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee agreed that the Kalita needed to be restored, but it unanimously voted for the steering committee to go back to the drawing board and consider a phased plan with reductions in scope and cost.
Kevin Moriarty, the DTC’s executive director, says it did just that—creating an updated, three-phase plan in which the restoration of the Kalita would take place in phase one. But in July, Moriarty wrote in an email that the city had communicated that “they are focused on other essential priorities at this time.” He added that “there is no immediate plan for the City to adopt either the Kalita Master Plan or a modified version of it.”
Benjamin Espino, interim director of the City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture and a member of the steering committee, offered insight into other pressing concerns, which include a new Racial Equity Plan. “The master plan is beautiful, but the city has to balance its priorities with limited funds,” he says. All of the facilities that his office oversees have deferred-maintenance needs, totaling around $166 million. Espino hopes to address fourteen of the buildings with a 2024 bond request, which would allocate $5.9 million for the Kalita’s most urgent needs, including improvements to the HVAC system and roof as well as “interior repair.” If Dallas citizens vote to approve funds for all fourteen buildings, Espino says work could begin on the Kalita as early as 2025.
Many of the steering committee members I spoke with were not surprised that the city raised questions about the master plan, but they were surprised when, in August, Mayor Johnson tasked the Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture committee with examining another option: “establishing an independent, non-profit entity that can take the lead in restoring the Kalita Humphreys Theater and manage the site.”
Other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are managed by nonprofits—the Robie House, for one, is owned by the University of Chicago but managed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust—so there is precedent, and it’s an idea that others think could work, including Flatt. A seasoned theater director herself, Flatt says her father was “dismayed” at the state the Kalita was in toward the end of his life (Baker died in 2009 at the age of 98). “He was afraid of what was happening,” she says. “He knew that the city really was not taking care of it . . . and they were supposed to keep it up.”
After my evening of show tune sing-alongs and shimmying drag queens, I head to the now-full parking lot. In the darkness, you can no longer make out the cracks or the discolored concrete. Only the structure’s outline, growing out of the surrounding cliff and silhouetted against the night sky, remains. I take comfort in seeing the Kalita as it once was. While board members, politicians, and preservationists argue about next steps, the actors and directors will be there, blocking and running lines and painting sets. For how much longer, it’s hard to say.