Wright in time

Unity Temple's reopening coincides with Frank's sesquicentennial

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Frank Lloyd Wright was born on June 8, 1867, and, just in time for his 150th birthday, what is probably his most famous public building will once again be re-opened to the public and to its congregation. Unity Temple, designed by Wright in 1905 and named a National Historic Landmark in 1970, remains one of the architect's most important works and is considered by many to be the world's first "modern" building. 

Its place in history

Wright designed Unity Temple when he was a member of the local Unitarian congregation. Construction of the building took two years, and Unity Temple was dedicated and open to its congregation in 1909. The temple is one of very few Wright-designed buildings that have continuously served its original purpose, acting as a place of worship, community life and cultural stewardship since its dedication.

The temple was one of the first, non-industrial buildings to be clad in poured-in-place, exposed concrete, creating a monolithic gray exterior at odds with many other houses of worship constructed during the same era. Indeed, Unity Temple earned the classification of "temple" due to the absence of outward symbols of religion. Unity has no bell tower, no steeple, and no sculptures or religious ornamentation to outwardly signify its role in the religious community.

Restoring Wright

Rev. Alan Taylor, senior minister at Unity Temple, who has headed the Unitarian-Universalist congregation since 1998, said the lack of overt symbolism is consistent with Wright's architectural and spiritual principles.

"It's disorienting to walk into Unity Temple. If we don't have someone in the foyer to point you the right way, it is very easy to go the wrong way. It's an opportunity for us to be welcoming. There's no steeple pointing to the holy. For us, the holy comes in and is in our midst. A sense of the holy is here among us, not somewhere else. It reflects Frank Lloyd Wright's pantheist ideals."

Chicago architect Gunny Harboe, who was charged with restoring the landmark, agreed, noting that the sanctuary's grid-like coffered ceiling with squares of art glass also reflects Wright's intent to create an intimate connection with nature. "You can look up and be connected to the outside world," he said, "which is very moving."

Harboe was also inspired by how the temple combines Wright's signature architectural style with his religious background. The style is evident from the moment a visitor tries to enter the temple. 

"It may seem hard to find the front door," he noted. "Wright's 'path of discovery' is at play here. It's very intentional."

The foyer, he added, is an opportunity to be mindful. 

"You get inside, and you have to make a clear choice. Do you go to the sanctuary or to the communal space? The other great thing here that was very important to Wright was compression and release. In the cloister you feel very compressed, then it opens up when you reach the sanctuary. This building exemplifies this in a powerful way."

Nuts and bolts

The exterior of the building had been revamped in 1973 with a coating of "shotcrete," meant to stabilize the cracking and leaking original concrete, but the fix was not fool-proof. Problems persisted on the interior as well. Taylor recalled the moment he knew the building needed help. 

"A piece of concrete fell eight or nine years ago in the sanctuary, and it was a wake-up call that the building needed to be stabilized," he said. "The congregation really didn't know how we were going to do this."

The process was significantly aided by a $10 million lead gift from the Alphawood Foundation. The congregation raised $1.75 million, and the rest of the roughly $25 million restoration budget will have to be provided by private donations.

The two-year restoration process was comprehensive, focusing on the building's exterior, mechanical systems and interior finishes. For Harboe, it was a process of returning the building to its original glory. 

"It was phenomenal before," he said, "but it's even more amazing now."

While repairing plaster and removing decades of old paint, the architects and Philadelphia's Building Conservation Associates used historic drawings and microscopic paint analysis to recapture the original soft palette of natural colors chosen by Wright.

The electrical system and safety features were revamped. All of Wright's original light fixtures, miles of original woodwork and the original art glass were carefully restored. A geothermal system now provides not only heating, but a new and badly needed air-conditioning system for the temple, and a new roof and drainage system should ensure that the building will no longer suffer the water damage so typical of many of Wright's designs.

The new exterior shotcrete is also a big improvement over the leaky material applied in the 1973 remodel. The color of the 1973 shotcrete was not consistent, and creating a new covering that would blend in proved to be a challenge.

Harboe noted there is good reason the project took more than two years. "In concept, the restoration was quite simple: restore the entire building outside and in. In practice, it was quite complex. We did a lot of planning, forensic research and months and months of work to get to the point where we knew what we wanted to do. Then it took another 14 months to execute."

Home at last

Brad White, board president of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and associate director of the Alphawood Foundation, agrees the transformation is remarkable and rather unique in historic preservation circles. 

"I'm amazed every time I look up at the ceiling coffers," he said. "They're all one color, but as light passes over them, you see changes. One of the things that really intrigued us is that often when a commercial building is preserved, it ends up being for a new use. It's really exciting to restore a building for the historical occupants. The UTUUC [Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation] has been worshipping in this building since it was built. We don't see that in historic preservation very often."

For the congregation, which has been meeting in borrowed space (United Lutheran Church on the north side of Oak Park) during the restoration process, it will be good to be home. Dan Crimmins, president of the Board of Trustees for Unity Temple, said of the lengthy remodel, "It's been a long journey and a chance for our congregation to see what we are outside of this building. We're anxious to get back home again and experience worship in a way that this place makes possible."

Unity Temple will be formally reopened on Saturday, June 17, 2017 with a private ribbon-cutting ceremony. A Neighborhood Open House will follow from 2 to 5 p.m. This free event, open to neighbors of Unity Temple, and presented in partnership with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, will open Unity Temple for tours.

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