Unity Temple model welcomes visitors for decades

OPRF school project still helping tourists understand Wright's masterpiece

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

The vast majority of school projects have a limited lifespan. Displayed proudly on a refrigerator door or living room book shelf, they are often secreted out to the recycling when their creators are sleeping or away at school.

In Oak Park, a school project has proven an exception to the limited-life-span rule. Created in 1976 by an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior, a model of Unity Temple has had a remarkably long life and remains an attraction at Frank Lloyd Wright's historic Oak Park structure, with a little help from a very dedicated volunteer.

John Seminerio, who works as a graphic designer outside of San Francisco in Marin County, looks back on his years in high school as pivotal to his lifelong love of design. 

Until recently, he was not aware of what became of his high school project model of the Unity Temple, but a little sleuthing from Bob Trezevant, a longtime Oak Park resident and volunteer at the Wright's Home and Studio and Unity Temple, brought the two together and revealed that Seminerio's high school project is well-tended and part of the architecturally significant site.

Lighting a spark

Seminerio credits the curriculum and teachers at OPRF High School in the 1970s for instilling a deep love of architecture in himself and countless others. He recalls fondly his teacher Byron Urbanick. 

"My memory is that in 1972 and 1973, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation was just starting to get its sea legs," Seminerio said. "Bob Urbanick was a wonderful teacher who got us all involved with Frank Lloyd Wright."

Seminerio says the high school offered a four-semester architecture sequence, complete with competitions through the Illinois Institute of Technology. The class used a 10-by-10 room to create their models, and during senior year, the students worked on a group project to create a model. 

Seminerio's group worked on a model of the Unity Temple, but he wasn't happy with their final product. Urbanick encouraged him to recreate the model himself and reach out to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to see if they would be interested in purchasing the completed project.

The foundation, today known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, agreed to Seminerio's offer to build the model for $150, and offered him access to the Unity Temple. 

During the six weeks before he headed off the college, Seminerio worked long hours on the model. He recalls that the foundation let him borrow blue prints for his work, which he copied for reference. 

"One of my greatest treasures is that I have a copy of those today," Seminerio said.

He says that he decided to build the model on top of quarter inch copies of the blueprints of Unity Temple. 

"I decided to use the blueprints as grass, and the temple kind of grows right out of it," he said.

When he went away to Iowa for college, Seminerio would occasionally stop by the Unity Temple on visits home to see his model, but a move to San Francisco pulled him away from the area. 

Noting that one of his biggest regrets in life is not becoming an architect after taking what he calls a left turn into graphic design in college, Seminerio said that the lessons he learned at OPRF and in building the model have stayed with him in his chosen field of graphic design. 

"I still work with my hands," Seminerio said. "I still have a do-it-yourself approach to making things."

Caretaker

Bob Trezevant has longstanding ties to the community and the Unity Temple. A retired teacher for Oak Park Elementary School District 97, Trezevant has volunteered for 35 years at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and Unity Temple. 

His ties to Unity Temple go back generations through his late wife, Katherine Gervais. Katherine's mother, Helena Saxby Gervais, arrived in Oak Park as an infant in 1909, just as the Unity Temple was being dedicated. 

Raised in the congregation, she married Paul Gervais there in 1935. When Bob married Katherine Gervais in 1966, Helena was working as an assistant to the minister of Unity Temple's congregation, and she gave him his first tour of the building.

When Bob and Katherine returned to live in the Gervais home in 1977, Bob became an active volunteer at the Home and Studio and Unity Temple. When Katherine passed away in 2005, her memorial service was held at the temple.

Their son, Warren Trezevant, then a senior animator at Pixar, spoke at Unity Temple in 2010 in the Break the Box series, becoming the fourth generation of his family to have ties to the building.

During his years as a volunteer and tour guide at the Unity Temple, Bob Trezevant took special interest in the model, feeling it was an integral part of explaining the building to tourists.

"The model is so important for appreciating the building," Trezevant said. "Visitors can readily see its layout and easily perceive the beauty of its design. It is especially helpful to use when the weather prevents us from taking visitors outside, and visitors love to photograph the model itself."

When the table that Seminerio had created for his model began to deteriorate, Trezevant built a new one. During the recent restoration of the Unity Temple, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust displayed the model at Wright's Home and Studio, and today it is back on display in the Unity House gathering room of the temple.

"The model is an absolute treasure," the former executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, Heather Hutchinson, said. "It looks so beautiful, and I love that it sits so prominently in Unity House. We owe thanks to Bob for being such a magnificent steward of what I'm now calling our little jewel inside Frank Lloyd Wright's jewel box."

When the model was moved back to the Unity Temple this summer in time for its reopening, Trezevant researched Seminerio and found him easily with the help of the internet. Seminerio was delighted to hear that his model was still on display.

"I'm so touched to know that Bob is not only an advocate but has been taking care of the model," Seminerio said. "To me, the story runs from Byron Urbanick to Bob Trezevant. What is it about people who do these sort of things?"

While he might live far from his roots in Oak Park, Seminerio notes that he continues to live in the shadow of the architect who inspired his project. 

"I'm never very far from Frank Lloyd Wright," Seminerio said. "One of his biggest buildings, the Marin County Civic Center, is close by. He's never been that far away from me."

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