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Dallas Enters New Era With Arts Center

The $354 million AT&T Performing Arts Center here is a bold, Texas-sized symbol that Dallas has come of age as a cultural hub.

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DALLAS — Nine years in the making, the $354 million AT&T Performing Arts Center here is a bold, Texas-sized symbol that this city has come of age as a cultural hub.

The center is projected to draw 600,000 people downtown each year and boost business, nightlife and residential development in and around the 68-acre Arts District, which also is comprised of I.M. Pei’s Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the Nasher Sculpture Center designed by Renzo Piano, and the Dallas Museum of Art by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. The Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art is at the base of an office tower across the street from the Nasher center.

With components designed by famed architects such as Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, among others, the performing arts center is a testament to the city’s philanthropy: Residents and businesses donated $300 million to the project, setting a record for the most gifts of $1 million or more to a U.S. arts campaign.

“It’s a big deal in terms of making Dallas a national city because of its art base,” said Allen Questrom, the retail turnaround specialist who retired in 2004 as chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and has a home in Dallas. “There is no other city I know of that has centralized its arts district the way Dallas has.”

The economic impact “will literally be hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Mayor Tom Leppert.

The center’s flagship is the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. Designed by Foster and his company, Foster + Partners, the Winspear’s dramatic horseshoe-shaped hall is rimmed in blood red glass and surrounded on three sides by a clear glass facade. Some of the exterior glass walls slide up to expose the lobby and cafe to a park with a reflecting pool. A canopy of fixed aluminum louvers was engineered to block the sun in all but the winter months more than 2.7 acres around the building.

Inside, the hall features walnut floors, tiers trimmed with grooved matte gold-leaf panels and custom charcoal chairs selected for their comfort by the late Bill Winspear, a native of Canada who donated $42 million of his building materials fortune, which was made in Dallas.

“It’s a refinement of the quintessential opera house,” said Mark Nerenhausen, president and ceo of the arts center. “Far from being closed in, it is large and sweeping and embraces the whole arts center.”

With 13,000 square feet of stages to enable repertory productions, the 2,200-seat hall will host the Dallas Opera, Texas Ballet Theater and touring Broadway productions. They formerly performed at the outmoded Music Hall at Fair Park next to downtown.

On one flank of the Winspear will be an open-air performance space called the Annette Strauss Artist Square in honor of the late Dallas mayor. It will accommodate audiences of 5,000 when completed next year.

The center’s second major structure is a glass and tubular-aluminum cube, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Dallas billionaire Charles Wyly, the co-founder of Michaels Stores and other companies, and his wife gave $20 million to the theater.

Seating 600, this innovative 12-level space features a movable floor, balconies and proscenium so the stage can be configured multiple ways. It was designed by Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus.

“This theater can be one very large room of over 10,000 square feet with three sides of glass, or it can be a dark, intimate theater with a thrust stage and balcony seats or in the round or traditional proscenium,” Nerenhausen said.

Inside it’s all gray concrete and aluminum fixtures with stark vertical tube lights and flashes of bright chartreuse on seats, carpeting and walls. The walls of the main stairwell are covered by flexible woven metal. A ninth-floor party space with fake grass carpeting, green walls and a balcony view over the city is a play on the celebrity “green room.”

Though the aluminum facade appears solid from the street, the pipes are spaced to allow panoramic views from the upper floors housing offices, conference rooms and a spacious, fully equipped costume-sewing studio.

The Wyly will house productions of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico and the Dallas Theater Center.

A third theater, City Performance Hall, is to be built by the city by 2012 atop a parking garage under construction next to the Wyly. The theater’s $38.2 million budget is in addition to the performing arts center’s overall cost.

The opening benefit last week spanned four nights, Wednesday through Saturday, and pairs of tickets for the three major events were priced from $5,000 to $50,000. Money raised from the tickets will support several free, public concerts and architecture forums this week to mark the opening.

Bruce Willis was host for the first big benefit night Wednesday, a music and dance revue at the Wyly.

The Winspear curtain went up Thursday for arias by opera stars Denyce Graves and Thomas Hampson and the premiere of a specially commissioned contemporary ballet by Christopher Wheeldon and his company, Morphoses.

On Saturday night, the Winspear saluted Broadway with performances by Patti LuPone and Kristin Chenoweth, among others. Chenoweth stole the show by walking onto the stage wearing a University of Texas football jersey and admitting, “I lost a bet.” Texas defeated her home state team, the University of Oklahoma, that afternoon in Dallas. After the performances, guests attended a black-tie gala styled by Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus.

The performing arts center “will change the face of the city…my friends think I live on a prairie,” said Jeanne Marie Clossey, a fund-raiser who is chairing the opening galas and performances.

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