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Local News

Then & Now: Unity Temple – Oak Park

During a brief storm in the summer of 1905, lightning struck the spire of the Unity Church in Oak Park and the woodframe Gothic Revival-style building was destroyed by fire.

Within months, the congregation commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright, a congregation member, to design a new church. For the 38-year-old architect, the church commission would be Wright’s first major public building.

According to the contract, the church was to be completed by November 1906. Because of construction delays, and Wright’s appetite for modifying designs during construction, Unity Temple was not finished until 1908.

In September 1909, at a cost that exceeded the budget by more than 50 percent, Unity Temple was dedicated.

Wright’s unique design for Unity Temple incorporated the use of poured-in-place reinforced concrete, primarily used at that time for industrial structures. 

Wright designed the building to include two distinct spaces – a worship hall and a social space. Unity Temple, a four-level cubic sanctuary, was for worship, and Unity House, was for the congregation’s social and cultural gatherings. The two spaces were connected by a single-story, central-entry foyer, which included monumental art glass lights.

The cubic space of the worship space of Unity Temple seats about 400 people, all of which share an intimate relation to the pulpit. The balconies on three sides also create the intimacy for both the spoken word and for music performances.

In time, Unity Temple was praised for its geometric massing, use of modern materials and innovative configuration of space. The poured-in-place concrete structure was considered by many, including Wright himself, to be the architect’s most notable contribution to modern design.

For more than 100 years, the Oak Park building has continued to be the home of the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

In 1970, the building was designated as a National Historic Landmark. The same year, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation was established by a dedicated group of volunteers to help with restoration and preservation efforts of the structure.

The unique architecture of Unity Temple was not without problems. The innovative and experimental design elements, including its numerous separate flat roofs, have created a number of unforeseen structural problems. Even heating the building often was a challenge.

Over the years, Unity Temple’s concrete structure and interior features have suffered damages, including cracking and water seepage.

Because of these problems, a comprehensive $23 million restoration effort began in spring 2015, and was completed in June 2017. The restoration of the church includes the building’s exterior and interior, decorative and environmental components.

The interior work includes repairing the damage to the historic plaster wall, returning the space to its original paint colors, upgrading the lighting, art glass restoration, wood door and trim repairs and upgraded electrical service.

The exterior work includes conservation, skylight repair, new roofing and drainage, door and window repair, landscape restoration and exterior lighting.

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