Historic theft: Only a few of the bronze letters remain above the west entrance to Unity Temple.REBECCA LOMAX/Staff

The theft of metal in Oak Park and River Forest has focused mostly on copper downspouts and coping. But overnight between Sept. 28 and Sept. 29, the epidemic hit one of Oak Park’s most famous landmarks, and hit it hard.

Fifty original bronze letters were stolen from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple.

The iconic bronze letters, which adorn both of the building’s main entrances, say “For the worship of God and the service of man.”

The police summary said it wasn’t clear how the letters were removed, but Unity Temple’s Director of Administration, David Wilke, said they were stolen from both sides of the building, and only a few were left behind.

“It’s a very important part of the building, and it’s unfortunate that after more than 100 years, someone decided to rip them off,” Wilke said.

The inscription defines the two main sections of the church: the large sanctuary for worship, and the equally large Unity House, for community events and activism.

While the original police report estimated the total loss as $80,000, Wilke wasn’t sure that was accurate.

The congregation hasn’t figured out how much it’ll cost to replace the letters, he said, and there are a lot of parties that need to be consulted on the matter considering the building’s landmark status. Beyond the congregation, the village, the state and landmark groups need to be consulted.

Wilke said they’re keeping their options open. They’re still waiting to hear back from their insurance company on what, if any, coverage they’ll get.

Beyond that, though, there’s the question of what to restore them with. Should they bring back the original bronze, or replace them with a material that looks good, but is perhaps less appealing to criminals?

“We’re working with a restoration person, but we haven’t priced this out yet,” Wilke said. “Given that it’s specialty work for a historic landmark, we can’t just look up the price in a book.”

A very low-end estimate, though, would be roughly $10,000 to replace and repair them, Wilke estimated.

“It’s a very delicate situation, because we have a lot of constituents,” Wilke said. “They’re really an important part of the structure.”

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...

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