Will Oak Lawn Committee Help Right Decades of Neglect to Dallas’ Only Public Frank Lloyd Wright?

Last night’s Oak Lawn Committee meeting was different. There was no developer wanting to build a 500-unit apartment building in a teacup. There was only a neighbor seeking support for a worthy cause.

Preservation architect Ann Abernathy spoke to the OLC about a conservancy group’s masterplan for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater that sits on the banks of Turtle Creek between Blackburn Street and Lemmon Avenue. I give the location because unless you recognized Wright’s font lettering the building or grasped some of the few remaining interior Wright elements, the only way you know the building is a Wright is because someone told you.

Today the building, once the toast of Dallas live theater, might understandably be pictured as part of an architectural thesis covering bastardization. The 1959 building dates from the last period of Wright’s career when his style turned to circles. In fact, Wright died before the theater was complete.

V.C. Morris Gift Shop is privately maintained versus municipally neglected

If you’ve visited New York’s Guggenheim or its diminutive predecessor the V.C. Morris Gift Shop located on a side street off San Francisco’s Union Square, you will begin to understand the Kalita Humphreys Theater as it was intended. Both the Morris Gift Shop and Kalita Humphreys Theater are small projects for Wright, whose tired description as jewel boxes is apt.

Alas, even though the 1959 Kalita Humphreys Theater is one of Wright’s last projects, its deterioration should be unsurprising to Dallasites. We dream big and occasionally build big, but then we let it all disintegrate big too.  Like barnacle covered treasure, the Kalita Humphreys Theater has consistently been “improved” by architects unworthy of the title and ignored by a city that places little value in preservation.

Wright’s original golden interior circa 1959

Abernathy hit the high points of its architectural demise citing the addition of the second floor and the “repurposing” of a library and second, lower level theater space into glorified junk drawers. The interior of the theater itself would be unrecognizable to Wright.

In my series of columns titled, “Why Can’t Dallas Have Nice Things” I explore the world of modern architecture by firms Dallas lacks the imagination, money, and talent to hire. Places like Fair Park, Kalita Humphreys Theater, Reverchon Park, and even City Hall are showcases of our neglect – Why Can’t Dallas Keep Nice Things Nice?

Dallas’ 2006 bond package included monies to research and deliver a master plan for the theater and surrounding grounds. After research and study, the plan was largely completed in 2010 where it promptly was placed on a shelf without the city even bothering to adopt the plan it had paid for. The Recession blinded the city to responsibilities attached to dollar signs. However, during this Recessionary time, the no-cost work of navigating the witch’s brew of city departments could have been done.

Original stage with wings intact

The net of the plan is to return the Kalita Humphreys Theater to its 1959 glory by removing the dilettantes’ barnacles and restoring the spaces as they were intended. It means moving out the occupants of the second floor and relocating them to a new, secondary building to replace the crumbling styrofoam-and-stucco Heldt Administration Building with a space large enough to accommodate the discommoded.

This brings us to 2018, when the Kalita Humphreys Theater Conservancy visited the Oak Lawn Committee with hat slightly in hand. While the Kalita Humphreys Theater isn’t technically part of their PD-193 purview, it is surrounded by it.

Original Kalita Humphreys Theater Seats. One currently listed on eBay for $1,595

The Master Plan

Abernathy spent an hour presenting the history and general outlines of the Kalita Humphreys Theater master plan. Their goal was to seek support from their neighbor for their desire to get through the city’s warren of approvals – Office of Cultural Affairs, Parks Board, Plan Commission, and City Council to name a few. This is in addition to negotiating the needs, desires, and non-negotiables of the current tenants and sub-lease holders.  The hope was that OLC support might goose a few butts to get the loooooong overdue process moving.

The problem is that while I heard clear as day what the master plan was, many could only concentrate on what it wasn’t. Think of it this way: The master plan says, “We should paint that wall.” The conservancy want agreement from stakeholders that yes, they should paint that wall.

Instead, every fiefdom wants details, input, and approval on the color, number of primer coats, number of final coats, type of brush, dates and times painting will occur, names and addresses of the painters, 14 references, and a final cost.

The conservancy said they’ll happily work with the stakeholders to figure all that stuff out, but they need to get the skeleton plan (“to paint the wall”) adopted by the city first. That sorta empowers them to open those negotiations and to seek the private donors needed to fund it all (you didn’t think Dallas wanted all that control AND offered to pay, did you?). The city and stakeholders want ultimate approval with almost none of the estimated $40 million in restoration costs coming out of their pocket. (That’s a 10th of the cost of Fair Park.)

It must also be noted that Abernathy is a conservation architect who also led the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois. That cultural and tourist attraction draws 80,000 visitors per year (at $18 a head) as a restored cultural reference compared to the 2,000 it attracted before the home’s restoration. She’s hardly a Home Depot paint mixer with delusions. She has the résumé to not only backup what she says, but the results.

Original exterior and color

And I’ll be clear, there was no opposition to the Kalita Humphreys Theater being restored. I mean seriously, who’d be on the “bulldoze it” or “let it die” side of the argument?  But just as municipal fiefdoms create undue complexity to what should be a simple cause to rally around, the OLC spent an hour picking fly poop out of pepper as they battled over what the master plan did and didn’t do. It didn’t help that OLC vice president Leland Burk is also on the Cultural Affairs Commission and seemed to be driving his cultural affairs issues through the OLC agenda.

It was a disheartening end to a presentation filled with such promise to restore a maligned piece of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on the banks of Turtle Creek.

Isn’t it funny that these stakeholders, who couldn’t decide for years who was responsible for basic maintenance, are suddenly back to dictate KHT’s revival now that someone else is footing the bill?  They’re the deadbeat Dads who suddenly return seeking control of their child’s life now that the child they abandoned has a well-paying job.

Fountain back in its operational days

In December 2017, Dallas Morning News Architecture Critic Mark Lamster wrote about the Kalita Humphreys Theater and its plight. The story is a trove of information and pictures. After the OLC meeting, one quote struck home discussing how the land for the Kalita Humphreys Theater was acquired from its owner, “The land was the property of Sylvan Baer, a reluctant philanthropist who seemed more interested in placing conditions on its use (so he might stay relevant) than in actually moving ahead.”

He also pointed out that the original Frank Lloyd Wright fountain has dissolved beyond repair, a trophy to city finger-pointing on what began as minor maintenance that ultimately resulted in destruction.

Sound all too familiar?

What can you do?

Call or write to your city council representative to spur their Cultural Affairs Commission to put the Kalita Humphreys Theater on their June 21 docket (as Abernathy hopes), otherwise, they take summer off and it waits for more months.

Get on the mailing list for the Kalita Humphreys Theater Conservancy to keep up to date on their progress. While you’re there, scroll to the bottom and read about the theater and its decline into the barnacled gem we see today.

 

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

 

One Comment

  • When I moved to Oak Lawn in 2013, I was amazed and appalled that this decaying gem was hidden away in my neighborhood when I literally STUMBLED upon her. I used to visit the Guggenheim often and this theater reminds me so much of that curving, feminine design.

    Beautiful Kalita Humphreys, the girt and the theater, deserve so much more from the people of Dallas. They must have our respect, love and action. Thank you for this excellent article.