Oak Park's Unity Church commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to rebuild its house of worship in 1905, following a fire that destroyed the congregation's facilities. Coming upon what is a simple concrete box (with some decorative columns) in 2018, it's hard to imagine any architect arriving at such a simple design just after the turn of the century that unleashed the Civil War. One might think that the Bauhaus' Walter Gropius influenced Wright with the rectangular planes, but the school of art and design opened its door in Weimar, Germany in 1919, a decade after Wright's Temple was dedicated in September of 1909. While Wright's effort may have radically changed architectural design principles, those efforts did not change one common denominator associated with architecture: The building's cost exceeded budget by 50%.
As is often the case, Plato's 2,500-year old adage from the Republic once again proved to be at work: "Necessity is the mother of all invention." The congregation only had $45,000 available, so Wright opted for a concrete. As for simplicity, well a baroque style would have required a cadre of skilled craftspeople, thereby escalating the cost. No gargoyles, spires, or decorative stone lattice work.
The payoff is found inside the nondescript box, and even then, the dark and largely empty entranceway and hallway is deceptive--Wright referred to this passageway as a cloister; a term which is in keeping with the overall meditative feel of the space. It divides two distinct halls, really two separate buildings. The one to the right is a large community room.
The magic becomes evident when you turn to your left as you enter the building, head to one of the corner entrances, and walk into what is the main sanctuary. Don't go down the first set of stairs you encounter as you head to one of the corner entrances. Those lead to rather nondescript bathrooms and office space.
On a sunny afternoon, the light pours in through 25 square skylights fitted with amber glass panes, illuminating the sanctuary. Light filters gently from those openings to the expansive cubicle shaped space below, which is formed by two levels of u-shaped worshipper space fitted with richly varnished pews. Access to the two levels is through Escher-like staircases located at the building's corner joints. Unlike the many European cathedral stairs that I have climbed over the years, the rise of the Temple's stairs do not tax the heart and lungs during the ascent, which is barely noticeable.
The walls are painted a lovely combination of lime and lemonade. In each corner, there are two Prairie-style light fixtures--each is comprised of one large frosted glass globe, with two flanking square glass cubes. These fixtures are instantly recognizable as Wright designs, as are the chairs located are on each side of the simple altar. A small organ is hidden by a partition that separates the altar from the back wall.
Today, I was fortunate. There was a scheduled afternoon tour, but for about thirty minutes, I had the sanctuary to myself, which permitted me to examine it from every conceivable angle. It is a very calming space, which obviously was Wright's intention. My one complaint: the light greenish-grey carpet shows every mark, which I assume was the intent, but photographically, those marks look like the mottling associated with color noise when a photographer pushes his or her camera's ISO capabilities to the limit. Photographers spend a lot of time trying to eliminate that sort of noise. I gave some thought to retouching the spots out, but decided I should portray the space as it appears--I did eliminate three red exit signs, which I assume were not part of the original design.
Wright once said that the heart of any building is its space rather than its walls. The Unity Temple serves as a testament to that maxim. The Temple's very existence makes Mies van der Rohe's subsequent tenure in Chicago part of the logical progression in Chicago architectural history that began with Adler & Sullivan, Wright's first employer. That firm was know for its modernist approach.
Since 1971, the building has been listed as a United States National Historic Landmark. One survey placed it in the top 100 most significant buildings in the United States, with the National Park Service and the Department of Interior submitting an application to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee for inclusion on that organization's list of World Heritage sites. In 2016, UNESCO turned down the nomination, but was encouraging about eventual inclusion. There is good reason to be optimistic: In 2017, the Temple re-opened after undergoing a $25-million renovation. Virtually every feature underwent repair, including 22 leaky roofs. The light fixtures were rebuilt; hundreds of windows underwent restoration in California. And there are some new features, including an air conditioning system hidden in the concrete walls.
Twenty-five million dollars is a lot of money, which makes the $10 price for a self-guided tour a bit surprising. You should consider dropping a few extra bucks in the lucite donation box that sits at the admission table.
Unity Temple: Main Entrance
Unity Temple: The Main Altar
Wright-Designed Light Fixture
Unity Temple: Looking Toward the Main Altar from the Second-Tier Balcony
Unity Temple: Contiguous Light Fixtures
Unity Temple: Looking East From the First-Tier Balcony
If you do visit Unity Temple in Oak Park, set the day aside to visit the other Wright sites located in the surrounding neighborhood. You will want to schedule a tour of Wright's Home and Studio, which serves as the focus of everything Wright in Oak Park. On that same block, you can see five other Wright homes, and close by, there are a number of other Wright-designed homes. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust sells a $4 map listing 35 structures that Wright designed. It is the largest concentration of Wright structures in the world. Pictured below are two of the houses on Forest Avenue.
Nathan G. Moore House: Stone Decorative Work
Nathan G. Moore House: A Prime Example of Tudor Revival Style
Arthur B. Heurtley House: A Prime Example of Prairie Style Design
Photographer's Notes: I will definitely be back with my view camera. Because you shouldn't walk on the private property, it is necessary to photograph these architectural gems from the sidewalk, making camera movements (e.g., rise and shift) essential. I am told the home owners are not surprised when photographers set up tripods on the sidewalks in front of the homes.