By Garret Eakin
The Alphawood Foundation has announced the lead gift of $10 million for the restoration of the 1908 Unity Temple, rated by ZAGAT as "one of the coolest churches in America." This is big! The grant is intended to be seed money to support the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation in fundraising for $22-25 million to restore our stunning "Jewel Box" on Lake Street. I assume an endowment for programming, maintenance and staffing would be a significant part of the plan goal. This is an exciting time for one of the most important modern buildings in the world.
Here's how Wright described his concept: "Why not, then, build a temple, not to GOD in that way — more sentimental that sense — but build a temple to man, appropriate to his uses as a meeting place in which to study man himself for his God's sake? A modern meeting-house and good-time place. Build a beautiful ROOM proportioned to this purpose. Make it beautiful in this simple sense. A natural building for natural Man."
The first time I visited Unity Temple in the late '70s, it was shocking to experience such an exotic piece of architecture within the rather conservative Oak Park context. The bold exterior with its composition of mass and space is monumental in scale. The monochromatic grey cast-in-place concrete walls emphasize the beautifully proportioned volumes. Light and shadow dramatize the shear forms while the thinnest art glass strips provide articulation and minimal relief. Wright establishes a solid sense of place; massive, protective and permanent. The symmetrical exterior is a mystery — a perfect foil for the unexpected interior.
On the terrace, one is greeted by three pairs of French art glass doors, what Wright called "light screens," forming the entrance loggia and transition to the interior. Above this portal we see the Unitarian motto in bronze letters (made famous when stolen in 2010): "For the Worship of God and the Service of Man."
Anticipation grows as we penetrate Wright's masterpiece. The three-part plan is vintage Wright, with its compressed one-story foyer that intentionally manipulates your physical perception of space, leading you to the open two-story volume of Unity House. This room is perfect for receptions or meetings, complete with its massive fireplace and expansion options to the east and west, including balconies above, overlooking the volume. The room is flexible, formal in plan while informal in character.
Wright's plans were always hierarchical, with the main rooms commanding the best views, elaborated with detail and volumetrically dominated. This is true of Unity Temple. The square plan with four floating columns is accessed through a series of intimate softly lit passages and stairways. As one ascends to the light, the spectacular space reveals its order. Twenty-five ceiling coffers flood the room with sunlight that is filtered through art glass lay lights. In the corners, a pair of Prairie-Style chandeliers are suspended from the coffers — one of many of my favorite details.
The inventive U-shaped sanctuary with balconies face the podium, choir and pipe organ as well as the congregation. Plaster walls are articulated with wood trim and painted a variety of natural colors.
As one sits in the bench seating your eyes are drawn over the surfaces and shapes endlessly. Wright's organic language contrasts the cubic architectural expression. The surface patterns are delightful, playful and artistic. Without views to the exterior, this is a space where one can contemplate and be with others, unlike the traditional cathedral plan. This is architecture at its best: ordered, elegant, playful, mysterious, and celebratory.
Now with the anticipated Alphawood Foundation lead gift, we can start to envision how this rare piece of architecture can be preserved to draw many more visitors while continuing to be a church. The potential of this undertaking could enhance a powerful economic driver for our land-locked community. Tourism has the most potential for growth and Unity Temple is by far the most significant and accessible property.
The magic of Wright's architecture has endured for 95 years. Let's see if the "coolest church in America" can coordinate with all the other attractions and citizens in our proud community to achieve the funding challenge.