February 2024

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

One of the most important projects in Kansas City’s history began with a vision. Muriel McBrien Kauffman, wife of Ewing Kauffman, grew up in Toronto, Canada where the arts were an essential part of the fabric of everyday life. After moving to Kansas City, she felt the city lacked a sufficient venue for the performing arts.

After Mr. Kauffman’s death in 1993, Muriel hired Ken Dworak as Project Manager to secure a site for the theatre and concert hall. However, things changed and following her death in 1995, her only child Julia Irene Dennie-Kauffman and Dworak continued to pursue her vision together. 

Internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie was hired to design the new structure. In 2002, he presented his beautiful design for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to Julia and Dworak during a dinner at the American Restaurant. They were seated with an extraordinary view of the proposed site when Safdie spontaneously sketched his vision for the iconic design on a napkin, an impromptu drawing that became a signature piece of architecture in Kansas City’s building landscape.  

The project’s technical requirements and necessary standards made it one of the most complex structures in the world to design and build, and one of the most complicated buildings ever built by JE Dunn.   

“We knew JE Dunn was the only company capable of building this complex design,” Chairman of the Board Julia Irene Dennie-Kauffman said. 

“We had these shirts that said, ‘World-Class Team’ on them, and it truly was a project that brought the world together to build this masterpiece,” JE Dunn Vice President Curtis Golba said.  “I have to give credit to Julia Kauffman because she really built a world-class team.” 

The unusual roof design needed extra attention due to the potential for uplift on the roof under high winds. This design necessitated rods connecting the roof to a 30-foot high, 4-foot-thick concrete wall spanning the entire width of the building to resist uplift.  

The 285,000-square-foot Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts houses two performance halls, a 1,600-seat concert venue, and an 1,800-seat proscenium theatre. The venues share a backstage space that runs the entire length of the Kauffman Center. There are dressing rooms that can accommodate more than 250 performers, along with 11 rehearsal rooms.  

According to Golba, both halls are designed to create the same experience for patrons, regardless of which seat they have. From the front row to the upper corner of each hall, the acoustics sound the same.  

The main lobby of the building is built of a glass ceiling and sloping glass walls that offer a panoramic view of the south side of downtown Kansas City. The 48,300-square-feet of glass in the atrium is supported by 27 3.5-inch steel cables, pulled to a tension of 500,000 pounds. When the steel cables were pulled taut during construction, the entire steel structure shifted up to six inches.  

“Watching everyone grow on the project and just work together to build essentially an instrument, not a building, is what I think really resonated with people,” Golba said.  

Following the initial napkin sketch, the entire project took nearly a decade to complete, using 1,200,000 hours of labor (equal to 600 person-years). The Kauffman Center includes 150,000 lineal feet of pipe, or 28.4 miles, and 10,800,000 pounds of structural steel.  

“It was an intimidating project, but it’s one that really springboarded my career, along with many projects that have since come after this for JE Dunn,” Golba said.  “The whole experience created no less than six leaders in the company, and it created better people just through the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it.” 

“Contributions from the Dunn family personally were testament to their belief in the project,” Julia Irene Dennie-Kauffman said. “The Honorable Peggy Dunn served on the Board of Directors for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts for 23 years.  Bill Dunn Sr.’s fundraising efforts were vital to the project’s success and Terry Dunn was always there to help and advise.”  

The project has won numerous awards, including being named one of the World’s 15 Most Beautiful Concert Halls by Emporis International in 2014, the Grand Conceptor Award given by the American Council of Engineering Companies, and the PCI Design Awards for Best Theatre.