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How one architect is remaking Dallas in his own modern image, one skyscraper at a time

Critic Mark Lamster on the work of Ron Stelmarski, design director of Perkins & Will.

A few months ago, the architect Ron Stelmarski was offered a six-figure sum for his car, a bubbly black Porsche 911 from the early 1990s, by a collector who saw it parked in front of his Lake Highlands home. For an architect, even a successful one, that is a lot of money, but Stelmarski turned it down. He likes the lines of the car and he likes to go fast, and over the last decade he has been taking Dallas with him.

Though his name may be familiar to only a handful of local architects, nobody has done more to shape the city’s built environment this century. You know his buildings even if you don’t know his name, because you will find them in virtually every neighborhood of this city and its suburbs — downtown, West Village, Deep Ellum, Oak Cliff — stretching from the former Red Bird Mall to the Frisco Star.

These projects are as diverse as they are ubiquitous: There are skyscrapers, residential projects, works of adaptive reuse, medical centers and civic buildings, not to mention master planning for Fair Park. Disparate as these may be, they exhibit a consistent and distinctive rigor that has endeared him to clients and his architect peers, if not always the general public.


It is not a soft and fuzzy aesthetic, but cool and sharp-edged. “We’re not trying to decorate anything,” he says of his design philosophy. “I’m trying to find the essence of the programming.”

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The Epic II tower is located on Pacific Avenue just east of downtown Dallas.
The Epic II tower is located on Pacific Avenue just east of downtown Dallas.(Mark Lamster / Mark Lamster)

Stelmarski is an anonymous figure, in large part, because he does not practice under his own name, but leads a large team of architects. Since 2011, he has been the design director of the Dallas office of Perkins & Will, the corporate architecture firm founded in Chicago in the 1930s.


“In a large firm you can’t help but be collaborative. There is no way around it,” he says.

His office’s prodigious output recalls that of George Dahl, the prolific Dallas architect whose firm designed dozens of Dallas buildings, among them downtown’s Neiman Marcus flagship, the First National Bank Tower and the old Dallas Public Library (now home to The Dallas Morning News). But Dahl began building in Dallas in the 1920s and took more than a half century to develop his estimable catalog. Stelmarski has been building in Dallas for little more than a decade.

His first completed project here is among his most prominent — and polarizing. Commissioned for the Richards Group advertising agency, it is an 18-story black-glass block that lords, or perhaps looms, over North Central Expressway. Completed in 2015, it artfully disguises 10 stories of parking below eight floors of offices. The building has an offset structural core that opens up space for a central atrium and staircase intended to promote collaboration. (The recent sale of the building and departure of its original client has left the future of its interior plan in jeopardy.)

The Richards Group Building, looking over the North Central Expressway, designed by Ron...
The Richards Group Building, looking over the North Central Expressway, designed by Ron Stelmarski of Perkins&Will.(James and Connor Steinkamp / James Steinkamp/Perkins&Will)

The building is impossible to miss from the highway — at night, it glows from within, like a giant lantern — and its dark, modern severity sets it apart from most of its brick-clad West Village neighbors. Does it look like a CIA black-ops site? Perhaps. Critics have also lamented, with justification, its 10 above-grade stories of parking, despite its location adjacent to the CityPlace DART stop.

“I learned early on not to look at social media too much,” Stelmarski says.

The precision and sculptural clarity of his work has earned his projects a seemingly endless string of professional accolades. The Richards Building, for example, won honors from both the local and state organs of the American Institute of Architects.

That praise extends even from the city’s leading independent practitioners, who are not typically prone to extol the virtues of their corporate colleagues. “He seems to think like a small-firm, hands-on guy while heading up design for a large firm,” says Gary “Corky” Cunningham, perhaps the city’s most recognized architect.

That opinion is shared by Russell Buchanan, another distinguished local practitioner. “He’s elevated the quality of architecture in our city with projects that are thoughtful, dynamic and well crafted.”

Distinctive concrete numerals animate Dallas Fire Station 27.
Distinctive concrete numerals animate Dallas Fire Station 27.

The admiration is not taken for granted by its subject.


“I’m glad to have fit into this mold where I can work at scale and still be well respected,” Stelmarski says.

Stelmarski’s architecture is a pretty accurate reflection of his character. Like his buildings, he tends to wear black. “There’s a seriousness to it,” he says. “I can’t imagine wearing really bright colors. I think it would almost take away from my work.” He is tall and thin, with unruly graying hair, and he always seems to be in a rush. He speaks rapidly and with conviction, projecting a sense of efficiency and competence that quite evidently appeals to corporate clients

The 53-year-old was born in Cleveland and raised in Chesterland, Ohio, a small town about 30 miles to the east. As a child, his first exposure to architecture came watching a team of Amish builders construct the family home.

“It was pretty fascinating,” he says. “When the wood frame was up you could walk sideways through all the walls and see where your bedroom was going to be.”


He studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati, becoming the first member of his family to earn a college degree. Upon graduation, he moved to Chicago and found work with a small firm designing affordable housing. He moved on to graduate school at Yale, where he took classes with the architects Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, and served as a teaching assistant for the legendary architectural historian Vincent Scully.

After graduation, he joined the New Haven office of César Pelli, where he worked on the design of the 54-story Bloomberg Tower in midtown Manhattan. He returned to Chicago in 2001, finding work with the interior designer Eva Maddox, a specialist in branded environments. That experience was formative. “I had gone through two degrees in architecture and still hadn’t really talked about materiality and real interior environments,” he says.

When the Maddox firm was acquired by Perkins & Will, his focus shifted back to architecture and he began working under firm principal Ralph Johnson, a modernist widely respected for the clarity and quality of his designs.

With Johnson, Stelmarski worked on institutional and commercial projects around the world.


“I was impressed with his detailing ability and his sense of material,” Johnson says. “He’s very articulate and a very strong leader.”

In 2010, Stelmarski was given a choice: He could take the position of design director for the firm in either its Boston or Dallas office. He chose Dallas, seeing the city, as so many have before him, as “a place for reinvention.” The challenge: Expand and diversify a practice that was almost exclusively devoted to work in the health care field.

The Singing Hills Recreation Center sits on a bluff in southern Dallas.
The Singing Hills Recreation Center sits on a bluff in southern Dallas. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

A pair of civic commissions represent that augmented range. Completed in 2015, Dallas Fire Station 27, at the intersection of Northwest Highway and Douglas Avenue, is easily recognizable by the enormous Helvetica numerals stamped into its cast-in-place concrete shell.


The Singing Hills Recreation Center, from 2021, brought sophisticated modern design to an area of southern Dallas that rarely sees advanced architecture. Set adjacent to the Camp Wisdom DART stop, the bar-shaped building is enclosed by gray metal panels and vertical windows that give it a distinctly minimal appearance. Floors of white terrazzo and ceilings of blond pine create warm, limpid spaces within.

At the former Red Bird Mall, Stelmarski has orchestrated the transformation of a shuttered Sears outpost into a 150,000-square-foot medical center for UT Southwestern. The once grim retail space, originally built in the 1970s, was sliced open down its middle to create a central garden, bringing light and natural views into its interior.

“It has really been great to have people look at nature and not concentrate on the chemotherapy treatment,” says Victoria Doby, a clinic practice manager for UT Southwestern.

Clad in crisp white panels and large glass panes, it is unequivocally the most aesthetically advanced work of architecture at the formerly dilapidated mall, which is in the midst of a $200 million makeover into a mixed-use urban center by developer Peter Brodsky.

UT Southwestern Medical Center at Red Bird Mall.
UT Southwestern Medical Center at Red Bird Mall.(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

Stelmarski has also led design on two major projects for Baylor Scott & White: a sports medicine center attached to the Dallas Cowboys’ Star development in Frisco and an administrative complex on the eastern fringes of Deep Ellum. The latter is essentially a skyscraper turned on its side — Stelmarski calls it a “groundscraper” — with about 300,000 square feet of space on floor plates that each cover 3 acres. The plan maximizes natural light and (at least theoretically) fosters collaboration among employees by keeping them on two principal floors.

On the opposite, westside of Deep Ellum, Stelmarski has built two genuine skyscrapers. The Epic complex, developed by Westdale, includes a pair of office towers (Epic I and Epic II), a parking garage and the adaptive reuse and expansion of the former Knights of Pythias Temple — in its heyday, the center of Black life in Dallas. The complex also includes a residential building by another firm.

Stelmarski calls the Baylor Scott & White administrative center in Deep Ellum a...
Stelmarski calls the Baylor Scott & White administrative center in Deep Ellum a "groundscraper."(James Steinkamp / James Steinkamp/Perkins&Will)

The towers reflect Stelmarski’s aesthetic proclivity for sculptural form-making. The first, the 16-story Epic I, was completed in 2019 and is a composition of stacked and staggered boxes, the offsets allowing for terraces while disguising the building’s overall bulk. The 23-story Epic II is just to its west, with a distinctive projecting cap that is visible from much of downtown. The building, originally to be occupied by Uber, is virtually complete. Its chamfered mass is defined by vertical fins of powder-coated aluminum that provide solar protection.

The complex is notable not just for its architectural expression, but for its plan. Stelmarski has divided the “super-block” site with internal streets and pedestrian paths to create a sense of place and connectivity within the complex and to its Deep Ellum environs. Reinvigorating the long derelict Pythian building, designed by the pioneering Black architect William Sidney Pittman (son-in-law of Booker T. Washington), stands as a considerable accomplishment, though its status as a luxury hotel is an unfortunate departure from its originally intended purpose.

Architect Ron Stelmarski stands in front of the Epic I in Deep Ellum.
Architect Ron Stelmarski stands in front of the Epic I in Deep Ellum. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

“There’s thousands, maybe tens of thousands, who will experience these buildings on the inside,” says Stelmarski. “But you’ve got millions who will experience them from the outside, and it better be a damn good experience in terms of what they’re seeing and how they’re interacting with it.”


What is arguably his most impressive work, both formally and for what it means to the city, stands just across I-345 from the Epic complex on the eastern edge of downtown.

The Galbraith is a 15-story, 217-unit mixed-income residential building divided evenly between affordable and market-rate apartments. Seen from the highway, it is a chunky block of gray metal. On its northern and western flanks, windows are framed by cherry-red screens that give the composition a visual pop. “I wanted the building to be monolithic,” says Stelmarski, and it is certainly that.

The Galbraith, a mixed-income apartment complex along the DART line in downtown Dallas.
The Galbraith, a mixed-income apartment complex along the DART line in downtown Dallas.(Mark Lamster / Mark Lamster)

“If you’re going to change the world you can’t change it hidden away,” says Jack Matthews, whose firm, Matthews Southwest, was the lead developer for the project. “It had to be a statement.”


That statement: Affordable housing matters, and so does architectural quality.

The building sits adjacent to the Arts District DART stop, with retail space at the ground level. It features all the amenities of a luxury building (pool, fitness center) and they are accessible to all tenants. There is no segregation between the affordable and market-rate units. Although some of the apartment plans are a bit wonky (the market-rate units have it worse), each one comes with a dramatic view.

It is the kind of building the city needs more of in terms of both aesthetics and function; the rare work of multifamily housing (affordable or otherwise) that eschews the generic and ubiquitous, cheaply made greige block for genuine, thoughtful architecture. Does it need 312 parking spaces? No, but for that you can blame the city’s outdated code requirements coupled with the potential of expansion.

Stelmarski can check in on that project daily, because it sits right next to the Perkins & Will offices, located in the former Dallas High School. The adaptive reuse of that long dormant building (also a Matthews Southwest project) was a too-rare victory for Dallas preservation advocates.


“When people hire you, they put their trust in you,” says Stelmarski. “That’s why they hire you. And you can take them on a journey that gets you to really cool places.”

Dallasites are fortunate to be along for the ride.