Letters replacement project completed at Unity Temple in Oak Park

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

The bronze letters that adorn the two main entrances of Unity Temple in Oak Park have found their place back in history now that the newly cut letters are securely attached, nearly 20 months after the originals were stolen for their metal value.

On first appearance, the shiny finish on the phrase "For the Worship of God and the Service of Man" seems out of place contrasted with the lackluster bronze lettering that sat on the building for more than 100 years. Research shows, however, that's likely how its architect designed them to be.

"Frank Lloyd Wright would have wanted them shiny to maintain the importance of the building," said David Wilke, director of administration for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. "They define the building; why it was built and why it was built the way it was built."

The letters slowly lost their shine due to a lack of preservation substances available to protect the metal. Wilke said research shows beeswax, which washed off quickly, was likely the only protectant available.

The new letters, however, won't lose their shine since modern-day bronze protectors last 10 years and can be reapplied.

The letters were worth about $227 during their installation. Today, they'd be worth closer to $5,200. But the true cost of the letters was the $44,000 price tag it took to get them made and put back up.

But this time, the letters are extra secured and are surrounded by security cameras.

Another authentic method the group stuck to when restoring the letters was hand cutting. Laser cutting is the norm, but wouldn't produce the same results.

"We wanted to create the uniqueness that comes from hand cutting," Wilke said. This includes having textured edges instead of being overly smooth.

The biggest problem behind the restoration was that 56 of the 72 letters were stolen so old photographs pieced together the precise location of how the letters were configured. Luckily, the letters were last removed in 1974 for building work so the holes for replacement were still in good shape.

"That was an essential guide to putting them back in place," Wilke said. The metal beam found underneath also helped guide the placement.

A celebration for the completion of the work is being planned for mid-June. But until then, interested guests can visit for free on June 3 during Oak Park's A Day in Our Village festival.

Emily Roth, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, said the effort to restore the letters was a joint project between the foundation and the congregation.

"It was a great example of how we work together," Roth said. "The Temple is still in the hands of its original owner and it still serves its original purpose."

The congregation community can celebrate its purpose again now that the letters have found their home. That's something Roth said everyone is excited about.

"You can't talk about the building without talking about that phrase," she said. "They are part of history."

Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

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Unity Temple Lover from Oak Park  

Posted: May 30th, 2012 8:59 PM

I am so happy for the Congregation and the Restoration Foundation that the letters have been replaced! Unity Temple is one of our most beautiful structures. The next time you are mailing a package at the post office or strolling down Lake Street, take a few minutes and look at this stunning edifice that Frank Lloyd Wright built.

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