Wright in Dallas

By Charles Marshall

The story of modern Dallas cannot be told without Frank Lloyd Wright. Before the Kalita Humphreys Theater was built, and long before the sleek geometries of Dallas’ skyline, the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright set the stage for it all.

When Wright first visited in the 1930s, in the midst of the Depression, the architect and the city may have seemed an unlikely pair, but had much in common. Dallas, which Wright called “young and architecturally untouched,” was flush with newly discovered East Texas oil revenues and cosmopolitan aspirations. The aging architect, clamoring to shake unrealized designs of a lifetime out of his sleeve, galvanized the city with his principles of organic architecture. From the encounter, Wright gained a client in the young retailer Stanley Marcus, for whom he designed a long, airy, horizontal home for the Dallas landscape and climate, accentuated by overhanging eaves, ribbons of windows, and terraces cantilevered in all directions. Though it remained unbuilt, the ribbon windows and open terraces would reappear in the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Wright returned to post-war Dallas for a 1946 hotel project for an East Texas wildcatter. The Rogers Lacy Hotel, which Wright called the “Lone Star” and modestly predicted would “mark the spot where Dallas once stood,” was a soaring 47-story tower wrapped in translucent diamond-shaped glass panels rising above an immense interior court covering a city block. Although the Rogers Lacy project too remained unbuilt, its prescient vision of the future captured Dallas’ imagination.

Stanley Marcus, who had invited Wright to Dallas for literary and architectural enlightenment, and John Rosenfield, the Dallas newspaperman who orchestrated the city’s fascination with Wright, would play prominent roles in fundraising and publicity for the Kalita.

A tall, eccentric bachelor and oil engineer/geologist, John A. Gillin, commissioned one of the largest, most expansive Wright houses ever built. Gillin was given freedom to tinker with elements of the design, and his details were drawn on the letterhead of his company, National Geotechnical (later acquired by Teledyne). Because of his height, ceilings of the Gillin house are much taller than other Wright houses.

Drawings commenced in 1950 and continued through 1957, and the house was completed in 1958, the year that construction started on the Kalita. Both projects were managed by Wright’s supervising apprentice, W. Kelly Oliver. Both projects were designed on an equilateral parallelogram grid, and both had angled wings extending from a central domed space, round at the Kalita and hexagonal with a gilt ceiling at the Gillin House. Built on a gentle slope along a creek, the sinuous house extended dramatically to the edges of its 7-acre site. To the west, this form was built almost entirely of native stone, and to the east, the walls were almost entirely glazed. Like the Kalita, the terraces surveyed a creek below and, in both projects, the angled bridge over the creek was never built.

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Posted on November 1, 2018

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