Unity Temple rebirth still in labor

$23M renovation Wright masterpiece is making progress

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The wooden pews and the pulpit are gone and thousands of pieces of wood paneling have been stripped from the walls of Unity Temple, corner of Lake Street and Kenilworth Avenue.

Architects and restoration experts know there are thousands of panel pieces because they can account for every last one. Numbers have been noted on the walls throughout the building where each individual wood panel and beam previously existed.

Jeff Burandt, project manager with Berglund Construction, said they've been shipped to a wood shop in Peoria to be restored and will be returned and reinstalled sometime later this year.

It's just one example of the obsessive attention to detail workers are putting into the $23 million restoration project.

Gunny Harboe, principle of Harboe Architects, who has been working on various Unity Temple projects for about 15 years, said part of the challenge is not only making sure the restoration looks right but also allows for further improvement through future restoration efforts.

It's not Harboe's first Frank Lloyd Wright restoration rodeo — he's worked on the Emil Bach House in Rogers Park; the Robie House in Hyde Park; Taliesen West in Scottsdale, Arizona; and the Rookery Building in downtown Chicago.

Harboe got involved with Unity Temple in 2000, when he was hired to restore the concrete overhangs around the exterior. The current project goes much further — almost a complete overhaul of the building from the interior paint and wood paneling to skylights and the concrete exterior, as well as the installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system.

Seemingly simple things like matching the paint and finish of the interior walls to Wright's original vision has been a painstaking process for restoration experts. Harboe said Wright used a type of sand plaster that left a "soft and subtle kind of finish" that was discovered after excavating layers of paint and pulling up wood finishing.

Restoring the concrete exterior of the 108-year-old structure to its original glory has required the same level of diligence as the interior finishes. Shotcrete, a type of spray-on concrete used to repair the original concrete structure in the 1970s, is being reinforced with a metal mesh that serves to stabilize the material, Burandt said.

Though the majority of the shotcrete is still in good condition, matching the new shotcrete to the old is another detail that, if executed improperly, could give the temple a patchy look, Burandt said.

"The whole purpose is to make it look uniform," said Heather Hutchison, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation (UTRF) executive director.

Hutchison said the only concrete still visible from the original structure is in the decorative columns that adorn the upper exterior of the building. Those will remain, she said.

While the temple and Unity House, the adjacent building to the south, are getting a major facelift, some parts of the building were too expensive to restore this time around. Harboe said the skylight in the main temple, while in need of repair, will remain in place, but a new skylight, which will keep rainwater out and heating and cooling in, will be installed within a few inches of the original. "We don't want to remove the original fabric [of the building] if we don't have to," he said, adding that the workaround keeps the original skylight intact for future restoration efforts.

Hutchison said the project is expected to be completed this fall, but the restoration foundation is only about halfway toward its fundraising goal. She said UTRF still must raise over $11 million.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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