(Photo by Heidi Reuhle)

The basement of UNESCO World Heritage site Unity Temple flooded after a heavy early morning rainstorm, July 23. About two inches of contaminated water covered the floor of the church’s lower floor, but the historic character of the building was not compromised by the flooding nor was any of the extensive recent restoration work damaged.

“This is as though a finished basement got damaged,” said Heidi Ruehle, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation executive director. Unity Temple is at 875 Lake St.

The damage done to the basement, however, is extensive, requiring high levels of expertise and refinishing, according to Ruehle. Restoration firm Green Water & Fire has been contracted to carry out the necessary work to fix the basement, which holds offices, storage and a couple bathrooms. Green Water & Fire holds certification through the non-profit Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration.

Church services, tours and rentals are still available as the flooding has not necessitated a closure of Unity Temple, which was built in 1905 and designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The air quality also remains good. Fewer restrooms are available at the moment – a relatively minor inconvenience. The church has a fully functional accessible bathroom on the first floor open to guests.

“I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think we’re closed again because we’re definitely still open,” Ruehle said.

The flooding was caused by a sewer backup, but the contaminated water did not come from sewage. Rather, the water came through contaminated pipes. While the water looked clear, the restoration crew found bacteria in the water.

“They didn’t want that to spread or mold,” said Ruehle, “so unfortunately we weren’t able just to do a thorough cleanup.”

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Crews had to remove the materials touched by the water, including the vinyl tile in the hallways and the ceramic tile in the bathrooms, as well as some carpeting. Sections of drywall also had to be removed due to water creep. Fortunately, much of the basement is concrete, preventing worse damage. All of the church’s technical equipment is stored on shelves in the basement, saving it from damage.

The damage was first noticed at about 9:30 a.m. the morning of the flood by a member of the church’s congregation. By that time, Ruehle said, most of the water had receded. The flood water was about two inches at its highest, but that height was not consistent throughout the basement.

Green Water & Fire was able to get to Unity Temple open within a couple hours of the damage’s discovery, which proved a huge relief as many contractors were busy with other flood-related projects.

The expense of the repairs is unknown at this time because it still needs to be determined how much of the cost insurance will cover. Labor is likely to make up the majority of the costs, according to Ruehle, as nothing of high insurance or historic value was damaged by the flooding. No one was harmed by the flooding either.

“If anything’s going to happen, you want it to be when no one’s there,” said Ruehle.

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