Restoration of Unity Temple Revives Glory of Wright’s ‘Little Jewel Box’

Outside, it is a landmark of modernism clad in concrete. Inside, Unity Temple has been called one of the most beautiful interior spaces in America.

“Chicago Tonight” went inside and out, both during and after the recent renovation of the Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork.

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Here is what we found.


Phil Ponce: By July 2017, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s finest public buildings was ready for the public again.

Three months earlier, it was a construction zone.

Completed in 1908, the Oak Park home of a Unitarian Universalist congregation had been closed for two years. It was a restoration of unprecedented scope.

Gunny Harboe, restoration architect: We can make literally thousands of design decisions on a project like this, but they’re a little bit different in that they’re informed by the historic documentation that we’re bringing to the floor before we even start the project, and they allow us to make good decisions about what we want to do to the building that will return it back to what it once was.

It’s one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important buildings anywhere, and it’s one of the 10 sites that have been nominated for World Heritage, and it was certainly in his mind one of the most important buildings that he ever designed. So, in that sense, it couldn’t be any more important, and therefore for us it couldn’t be any more important as a project to actually get to work on.

Wright always thought of it as his gift to modern architecture, as he called it, “his little jewel box.” It was one of his favorite projects for sure, but it also had wide impact on what modern architecture was to be.

Ponce: It was also a personal project for the architect. His mother was a member of the Oak Park congregation – and Frank Lloyd Wright had worked on the construction of Unity Chapel in Spring Green, Wisconsin, when he was just 18 years old.

Lee Bey, architecture writer, photographer: The beautiful thing about Unity Temple and why it was so striking at the time is that, the church we’re standing in front of, this is what church architecture looked like for a thousand years.

Lee BeyLee Bey

Even in churches built in the 20th century, the early 20th century, it still looked to old Europe, old England, old France, architecturally, but then when you compare that to this building—to Unity Temple, right across the street—even though it’s slightly before this one, here you get a sense of the future where you have an architecture that is reverent, that is religious, but there aren’t spires reaching to God; the reverence is in the space inside, the mystery of religion, if you will, is in the shadows, in the kind of the unplanned spaces in this.

As you go through the spaces you get some trademark Wright stuff. The spaces that you enter into are small, you’re compressed, and then when you go into the worship area of the church, the building explodes, you get this sense of volume and lift. So in a way it gives you the same thing that the early churches and neo-classical churches give you, this idea of ‘Ahh,’ looking up, right? Of being reverent, there’s something above you to consider and to ponder, and he does it with space as opposed to ornament, and that’s really significant.

Harboe: He was creating these very complex and beautiful layers of space within a building, and that’s accentuated by the architecture itself, in particular the surfaces which now have all been restored, and the way that he utilized the wood trim, and also just the planar engagement of the architecture itself into the space, creating space.

Ponce: Led by a $10 million gift from the Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation, the $25 million project includes a first for the nearly 110-year-old building: air conditioning, pumped in through geothermal wells drilled 500 feet below ground.

And while the building is open for public tours, it is still home to a congregation that predates the building.

Rev. Alan Taylor, senior minister, Unity Temple: This building is really significant religiously and in religious architecture. It was the first time a stained glass window was in the ceiling, and for us it’s theologically significant. The holy is in our midst. It’s not a steeple pointing elsewhere, and that was really important to Frank Lloyd Wright—that what is holy is here among us and is between us.

Rev. Alan TaylorRev. Alan Taylor

Harboe: The building needs to have another life for another 100 years, with the same congregation hopefully. One of the unique things about this building is that it’s the same use, the same owner, if you will, as built it, and that’s a bit unusual in this day and age.

It is a living, working building.

Bey: You know there are very few buildings of this vintage that we get a chance to see as clearly now as we’re seeing this one. Many have been altered, added onto, whether they’re Wright’s or others, or there’s wear or compromises are made over the years but now we get a chance to see what this building, as much as we can possibly see, what this building was really like.

So when you see something like this come together, you’re really seeing something special.

More on this story

Restoration architect Gunny Harboe defends Frank Lloyd Wright from his reputation as a better artist than engineer (a frequent matter of conjecture).

“Wright is often criticized for not fully understanding the engineering of a building. I don’t think that’s a fair statement. I think he was completely up-to-speed on whatever the state of the art was. I think he often pushed the envelope, I think that’s well-documented, particularly on building’s like Fallingwater, where he was reducing the amount of steel-reinforcing and so on. This building [Unity Temple] had very little steel reinforcing. It has some. And of course he was always trying to be economical so sometimes that ‘value engineering’ effected the engineering. But I think overall he had a very good intuitive sense of how bldgs. function, how they work, and how they live.

“He was also a man of a different generation so if there was some inconvenience or you had to wear a coat at certain times or take it off, that was okay with him. That’s how you live your live and he didn’t expect that we should live in a perfect environment at 70 degrees all of the time, and I think that was a pretty fair way to approach things.”

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