The Church That Wright Built

Progress at Chicago's Unity Temple

Exterior
Unity Temple was Frank Lloyd Wright's first public building, commissioned when the architect was 38 years old. It is still open and operating as a church.

Credit: Unity Temple Restoration Foundation

To Frank Lloyd Wright, Unity Temple was his "first expression of this eternal idea which is at the center and core of all true modern architecture. A sense of space, a new sense of space," he said near the end of his life.

The building in Oak Park, Ill., which is still home to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation that commissioned its construction in 1905, was Wright's first major public building. With its flat roof and concrete facade, the building challenged traditional visions of ecclesiastical architecture, sending spirits soaring with the mastery of light and space visible within its walls.

11 most markDespite its revolutionary history and beauty, Unity Temple is fighting a battle against time. One of the first monumental structures to be created entirely of poured concrete, the temple has cracked and failed in many places. After a severe rainstorm in the fall of 2008, part of the sanctuary's ceiling collapsed, closing the building temporarily and leading the National Trust for Historic Preservation to place it on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in June 2009.

People have been concerned about the building's condition for more than three decades. The Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, a non-religious 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, was created in 1973 to help stop the deterioration showing even then. "There was a definite need to keep the building in good condition and preserve it for posterity," says Emily Roth, the foundation's executive director. "The congregation knew the building was important beyond its religious significance." 

T. Gunny Harboe of Chicago-based Harboe Architects, who is serving as preservation architect on Unity Temple restoration efforts, says, "This is one of Wright's greatest works … an extremely influential building." He points to the use of concrete—a simple material, previously viewed as inappropriate for monumental structures. (The congregation's limited budget—only $40,000—is one reason Wright specified concrete for this job. Even so, construction costs exceeded budget by $20,000.) "Concrete was a radical building material at that time," Roth says. "And in Unity Temple, the concrete was left exposed—it is both the exterior and interior of the building."

Because the structure was built without expansion joints, water infiltration and cracking have posed continual problems since the building's completion. They've been made even worse by a flat roof with inadequate and an inaccessible drainage system within the walls. Construction crews "really didn't understand how concrete was going to behave in monolithic structures at that time," Harboe explains.

When the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation was first formed, its goal was to develop a stopgap measure to halt cracking. The foundation hired Wright's son, who recommended applying a one-inch layer of "shotcrete," or concrete applied with a pressure hose, over the entire building (save for its ornamental columns) to protect it from further water infiltration. That solution lasted 30 years, but now the foundation must determine another approach.

Roof Work Sponsored by Partners in Preservation

Last year the Unity Temple Foundation won a $80,000 grant from Partners in Preservation, a joint program of American Express and the National Trust. The foundation used the money to repair some of the temple's roof drains and also formulate a solution for other problems. "It ended up being helpful in a different way than they anticipated," says Chris Morris, program officer at the Trust's Midwest Office. "They used some of our funding to find a new overall solution to the roof drains to correct the problem that caused it to be listed on the 11 Most in the first place."

Members have approved a restoration plan developed by Harboe Architects, but implementation of the entire plan would cost $20 to $25 million, according to Roth. Not surprisingly, the foundation does not have that kind of money. Foundation members have, however, managed to come up with nearly half a million dollars to stabilize the roof. In September, the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences awarded a grant of $80,000 for improvements to the visitors' center. Other funding includes a Save America's Treasures Challenge Grant, contributions from the state of Illinois, an $80,000 Partners in Preservation grant from the National Trust and American Express, and a large donation from the Unity Temple congregation, which today includes about 500 people. Stabilization work began this fall, but much more remains to be done.

"[The foundation] has taken some very good steps to get the building stabilized," says Chris Morris, program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Midwest Office, "but they still have a huge amount of fundraising to do. … The fact that they're still able to use the building and have kept it open to the public is a tremendous achievement in itself."

The same issues plaguing the roof are also plaguing its walls, and the chimney in the Unity House portion of the structure needs work. Art-glass skylights also need to be reconstructed because they're leaking. "Water is our big enemy everywhere," Roth says.

The foundation also wants to overhaul the building's climate control systems, (there is no air conditioning, which contributes to moisture issues), and outfit the whole building with a geothermal HVAC system, in addition to other restoration efforts.  "We see this as a long-term project. We hope our successes will build on one another," Roth says. "This building belongs to the world."

For more information on the Unity Temple restoration, contact the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation at 708-383-8873, or visit www.utrf.org.

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Comments

Submitted by Anon at: February 5, 2010
Don't blame Wright for engineering failures. He was ahead of the curve; technology has to catch up with his genius.

Submitted by WilliamE at: December 23, 2009
12 years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Unity Temple, after decades of knowing about it. The building is transcendental. There is simply no way you can experience this space without being there. Photos and plans cannot convey the magic. As I sat there I realized that Wright had managed to create a room that was based on spacial volume rather than walls. Don't blame Wright for engineering failures. He was ahead of the curve; technology has to catch up with his genius. Don't let this treasure leave us.

Submitted by Elcy at: December 21, 2009
During the time that I lived in Oak Park, (10 years), I never learned to worship Mr. Wright's work. It seems that all of his "masterpieces" are flawed in their engineering and falling down. This building looks like a giant and boring mausoleum. Let nature take it's course.

Submitted by marty at: December 17, 2009
i'm a former docent o Unity Temple & it brings me great pleasure 2 c progress made by th foundation 2 protect this mportant icon 4 th future. i ncourage everyone 2 send a check, no matter how small!