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Restoration done Wright: A look inside Unity Temple

Regarded as one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important works, Oak Park’s Unity Temple will reopen this week

The first thing you notice about Unity Temple’s fortress-like exterior is the door—or the lack thereof. It takes a first time visitor a moment or two to walk around the religious structure and figure out where exactly he or she is supposed to go. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright called this his “path of discovery,” and in the case of Unity Temple, the journey leads to one incredible eureka moment when you step foot in the church’s dramatic sky-lit sanctuary.

After peeling back decades of deterioration and half-hearted repairs, the historic structure is preparing to reopen its well concealed doors to its congregation and the public following a thorough $25 million makeover. We stopped by the Oak Park landmark and spoke with Gunny Harboe, the Chicago-based architect charged with bringing Wright’s creation back to its original glory.

Unity Temple’s entrance is concealed behind an exterior wall. Visitors must navigate several turns before arriving in its airy sanctuary.

Frank Lloyd Wright seemed like the logical choice to pen a new building for the congregation of Oak Park, Illinois following the loss of their original structure in a 1905 fire. Born into a Unitarian Universalist family in the year 1867, Wright had an intimate familiarity with the faith and created the building at 875 Lake Street on a modest budget. A stark contrast to the Victorian ornamentation that was en vogue in 1908, Unity Temple utilized a poured-in-place construction topped by relatively minimalist pre-cast decorative columns.

Though it may look simple at first glance, the exterior was one of the trickier parts of the Unity’s recent restoration. With the original concrete deteriorating, so-called ‘shotcrete’ was used to patch the building’s facade in the 1970s. In the years that followed, the patches were starting to pull away. Fixing the old repairs was anything but straightforward since the shading of the aggregate materials used differed from spot to spot. The painstaking matching process has resulted in an exterior that is generally uniform—though some patches stand apart if you are keen to find them.

The exterior of a building which is a temple. The facade is brown brick.
From Lake Street, the structure appears almost bunker-like.
Nick Fochtman
Upon closer inspection, the mixed aggregate nature of Unity Temple’s exterior becomes apparent.

Unity Temple’s rather monolithic exterior, however, belies what’s inside. After taking a few sharp turns and entering through the intentionally-obscured side doors, guests find themselves in a low ceilinged foyer at the center of the structure. “Here people have to make a clear choice,” explains lead restoration architect Gunny Harboe. “Are you going to the sanctuary or will you go the communal area? Wright forces you to be aware of the space around you.”

With no obvious route to the sanctuary presented, once again you must embark on the path of discovery. The temple is accessed by a pair of sunken—almost claustrophobic— cloisters running along the left and right hand sides of the main worship hall. These low passageways make the arrival in the open space of the main temple that much more impactful. “A big thing for Wright was something he called ‘compression and release.’ This was a revolutionary idea and this building exemplifies it in an extraordinary way,” says Harboe.

The space is flooded with natural light through art glass windows lining its upper balcony and stunning coffered ceiling.

Once the initial—and again intentional—disorientation fades, visitors stand in essentially a bright cube of serenity. The tall sanctuary is large, but also intimate. The space is tiered in such a way that no one is more than fifty feet from the pulpit. Even the sunken cloisters have good sight lines to the front of the church.

“It was phenomenal before but it’s even more amazing now,” says Harboe as he glances upward from the main level. “We were able to recapture the original intent and feeling of the space. Its organic pallet of colors is executed in a way that provides a rich softness that was missing for some time.

“Wright called this building his contribution to modern architecture,” Harboe explains. “It really did change the way people perceive space and the way a building presents itself. In the temple, you’re quite contained, yet spatially there is all kinds of movement going on. It’s not four blank walls. There are intricate layers of intersecting planes creating this sense of real beauty—spatial beauty.”

It’s also here in the sanctuary, that the restoration really shines. All plaster, all paint, every piece of woodwork, and every panel of art glass has been restored or replicated. The process was much more involved than simply stripping decades worth of over-painting and reapplying Wright’s original color palette. Microscopic forensic analysis was employed to ensure that things like plaster texture and translucence were recreated. It’s these once missing details that make the restoration of Unity Temple so powerful.

Squares within squares: the structure of the ceiling is repeated within the room’s decorative glass and bespoke light fixtures.

Rev. Alan Taylor, Unity Temple's senior minister, points to Wright’s own pantheist beliefs for informing the building’s design. Unlike a traditional church, Unity Temple has no steeple. Rather, “the Holy comes down inside this space instead of us pointing up to somewhere else,” explains Taylor. With light diffusing through the art glass-adorned coffered ceiling and flooding the earth-toned sanctuary with a heavenly glow, the comparison is more than apt.

Beyond cosmetic improvements, the restoration of Unity Temple also brings 21st century technology to the space. Upgrades include a new sound system, a modernized lighting system, and a fully concealed pop-up projection screen behind the pulpit. The building’s HVAC system arguably saw the biggest overhaul thanks to the addition of nine, 500-foot subterranean geothermal wells and—for the first time in the structure’s 109-year history—air conditioning.

Unity Temple's pews are original from 1908.
The restored light fixtures now feature updated wiring and controls.
The impressive geothermal HVAC system is hidden out of sight.

Though the grand reopening was originally scheduled for last fall, the project was delayed and now—rather poetically—coincides with this week’s celebration of Wright’s 150th birthday. After a two year absence, Unity’s Unitarian Universalist congregation is prepared to resume services in the building on Sunday, June 11th.

The upper level of Unity Temple reveals how Wright was able to cleverly bridge the interior and exterior.

The following week, members of the general public are invited see the restoration first hand during a free open house event scheduled for Saturday, June 17 between 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

So, was there anything about the Unity Temple restoration project that was particularly surprising for Gunny Harboe along the way?

“We had a lot of anticipation that the finished product was going to be gorgeous, but the actual physical reality of it was a revelation. It’s every bit as fabulous or better than anything we imagined,” Harboe explains.

“Of course I’m biased,” the architect continued. “But I don’t think that there is a more important work by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is one of the ten sites that are part of the collective serial nomination for World Heritage consideration along with Robie House, the Guggenheim, and Falling Water. It’s right up there with the best of Wright’s work which really makes it the best of any work.”

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