Bath House Cultural Center Undergoes Renovation Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Center scheduled to reopen in the fall; 2020 Festival of Independent Theatres canceled

Bath House Cultural Center
City of Dallas

A global pandemic is an ideal time to renovate a historic building-turned-arts center. The Bath House Cultural Center, one of Dallas’ most popular arts centers, kicked off a $1.5 million renovation in late May.

The Bath House Cultural Center was built on the banks of White Rock Lake in 1930, becoming one of the first Art Deco buildings in the southwest. The popular swimming destination closed in 1953 when swimming in White Rock Lake was discontinued.

Aerial photo of Bath House Cultural Center
City of Dallas
Historic aerial view of the Bath House Cultural Center

In 1981, it reopened as the City of Dallas’ first neighborhood cultural center. The center includes a 116-seat theater, two gallery spaces, the White Rock Lake Museum, and several multipurpose spaces. Each summer, it is the home of the Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT).

The renovation funding is part of a 2018 bond package, allowing the renovation to move forward during the pandemic. “The good news for us is bond money is considered essential,” Marty Van Kleeck, Manager of the Bath House Cultural Center, said.

The renovation will address the more problematic aspects of producing at the center. “I’ve been onstage and if someone flushes the toilet in the women’s bathroom, you can hear it,” Susan Sargeant, WingSpan Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director, said. “The Bath House is a beautiful historic building and we all love it, but things get old and need to be fixed.”

The renovation makes the facility ADA compliant and includes a complete update of the restrooms and dressing rooms throughout the facility, a reconfiguration of the center’s workroom, and an update of the box office.

On the basement level, a damaged concrete slab will be replaced, and a new stage installed. Outside, the lakefront site grading will be improved to prevent basement flooding and a concrete back walk and patio will be added with landscaping.

Groundbreaking at Bath House Cultural Center renovation
Sharon Shero
Groundbreaking for Bath House Cultural Center's renovation. From left to right: Lea Oakley (Friends of the Bath House President), David Fisher (Assistant Director of the Office of Arts and Culture), Marty Van Kleeck (Manager of the Bath House Cultural Center), Councilwoman Paula Blackmon, Maria Hasbany (Parks Board) and Martha Welsh (Senior Architect for the City of Dallas Bond Office)

There will be accessibility improvements to the front parking lot and a path from the front to the lower basement and lakefront area will be added. ArchiTexas is the design consultant and Nedderman and Associates is the contractor. “It will be a more gracious space,” Jennifer Scripps, Director of City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture (OAC), said.

The renovation comes at a difficult time for the arts community and the OAC. Arts organizations canceled shows, concerts, and exhibitions, and Dallas’ cultural centers closed in the spring at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Thirty-three OAC employees are on furlough through the end of July.

There is a silver lining to these closures and cancellations. “We’ve seen a lot of our bond projects pick up steam because there are no arts events in conflict with construction schedules,” Scripps said. Scripps noted bond packages have gone forward for Dallas Black Dance Theatre, African American Museum and Meyerson Symphony Center.

While the center is closed, the artists and cultural center employees continue to create online. The Bath House Cultural Center hosts “Storytime with Dog and Rabbit” featuring Gene Raye Price and “Nancy and Her Friends” on its Facebook page. The center is sponsoring the creation of Cheryl Allison’s film Honk a Quarantine Love Story, a child-friendly story about an unlikely friendship between a woman and a goose during the pandemic. “This is all children’s programming because we got a grant for educational programs without using city funds,” Van Kleeck said.

Normally limited to the 116 seats at the center’s theater, Van Kleeck is excited to have as many as 800 views for their virtual programming. “Sometimes our constraints become our guide to creativity. It has sparked the creative soul,” Van Kleeck said. “There have been so many wonderful things online and we’ve found ways to reach a new audience.”

Van Kleeck has noticed a transition in the purpose of virtual programming as the pandemic-related closures continue into the summer. “It moved from staying in contact with patrons to providing programming,” Van Kleeck said.

Developing virtual content has become a long-term priority. “One of the biggest learnings and needs now is to train up more groups and artists on best practices for how to do this. We have heard from artists and now our Cultural Affairs Commission that this would be a service to the whole entire arts ecosystem, and we are working on this training, and ideally building out a production studio for these groups to use,” Scripps said.

For independent arts organizations that use the Bath House Cultural Center, 2020 is a lost year. “Bottom line for WingSpan, I’m not producing in 2020 because of COVID-19,” Sargeant said. “I haven’t lost that much. My budget hasn’t been touched. For once, being a small independent theatre, not dependent on grants, I’m in a good place. I’m okay. The model I’m under is not a bad model considering the times we’re in.”

WingSpan Theatre Company's "Jo & Louisa"
Lowell Sargeant
WingSpan Theatre Company produced the world premiere of Jo & Louisa by Isabella Russell-Ides for the 2019 FIT.

WingSpan Theatre Company is a founding company of the FIT and has participated in the festival for the last 21 years. Because of the renovations, FIT has been canceled. Although performing arts venues may reopen at 50% capacity as part of the third phase of Governor Abbot’s plan to reopen Texas, Sargeant does not think FIT would have fared well.

“The eight selected FIT theater companies share in the box office revenue.  So, cutting the revenue model to half of the projected revenue stream would be a hard hit. Crowd control would also have been a major consideration. Part of the joy for FIT patrons and FIT artists is the atmosphere of FIT. Patrons like to come to White Rock Lake in July and August to see something entertaining and unexpected. Patrons and artists alike, enjoy being at the Bath House for a full day and hanging out in the lobby in-between shows and interacting with the artists.  This type of environment does not bode well with the ‘social distancing’ protocol,” Sargeant said. “Even if FIT was able to handle all the protocol requirements and re-envision aspects of the current FIT model the question still looms: ‘Would patrons return in July and August due to Covid-19?’"

The Bath House Cultural Center’s renovation will be completed in the fall. In the era of coronavirus, reopening the facility will not be as easy as turning on the lights. “The Bath House is not a large facility, which is part of its charm and why it works as a showcase of our smaller and emerging arts organizations. But that makes social distancing a challenge. The bathrooms are not particularly spacious, the theater is small. So, we will likely start to think about reopening leveraging the more open gallery spaces and outdoor balconies and adjacent green spaces,” Scripps said. “A large part of the renovation is refurbishing the lower level into a wonderful, flexible performance space with proper electrical and technical capability, restrooms, and storage. The Bath House has been doing performances down there for several years, but the new space will be more useable and welcoming. Because the lower level is so large - it’s almost the footprint of the entire upstairs - and flexible, it will be much easier to configure that space than the upstairs space.” 

To celebrate the reopening, the Bath House staff are planning to take advantage of no occupancy limits for outdoor performances. “We have some ideas for doing things outside,” Van Kleeck said. “We want to be sure we can do them safely. They will be small events and we’ll have protocols in place.”

The cultural center will also be home to Boat House by Legge Lewis Legge, an artist-designed sculptural pavilion that will provide usable program space for the Bath House's programming schedule and for the public. “The current renovation of the Bath House includes finishing out and improving the lake-level performance space at the Bath House. This space, open to the outside at the lake-level, also provides a flexible space with lots of room for audience members to spread out,” Scripps said. “And, it has one of the most beautiful settings and views in our city to boot!”

Rendering of Legge Lewis Legge's "Boat House"
Legge Lewis Legge
Rendering of Legge Lewis Legge's "Boat House"

In addition to Bath House Cultural Center, the City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture operates six other arts facilities: Moody Performance Hall, Majestic Theatre, Latino Cultural Center, Oak Cliff Cultural Center, South Dallas Cultural Center, and the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House.  Since the closure, the City has been investigating how to reopen the cultural centers safely, consulting with the Association of Venue Managers and the City’s own Back to Work Task Force, CDC guidelines and the State’s guidance to design protocols for artists and audiences.

The cultural centers will reopen in phases. “We have decided to reopen our galleries at two of the cultural centers: the Latino Cultural Center and the South Dallas Cultural Center. Both will open shortly after the 4th of July. Gallery spaces allow for staff to create paths and visitor flows from one door to another. In doing so, they can manage social distancing protocols most effectively. This decision was made before the latest guidance from the Governor’s office. Now that we have some better idea around the stipulations for performing arts spaces, we are focusing on the theater spaces at both of those cultural centers and beginning to talk and plan with the groups that utilize them. We need to also understand staffing considerations in light of recent furloughs, as we do not currently have our full staff, including full technical teams right now! So, it will be at least until September before the cultural centers’ theaters reopen,” Scripps said.

When the renovation is complete, the Bath House Cultural Center will reopen to a changed world in need of creative inspiration. “It feeds the soul. The arts, in some ways, are more important than ever,” Van Kleeck said.

Learn more about the Bath House Cultural Center: http://bathhouse.dallasculture.org/

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