Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple Turns 100
The innovative concrete building is listed by the National Register of Historic Places as one of America's most endangered sites.
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 10/2/2009 12:00:00 AM
One hundred years to the day of its inauguration in 1909, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation organized the gala to call attention to the temple's importance and to its campaign to raise $25 million for restoration of the water-damaged structure. After a cocktail buffet in the reception hall, the guests journeyed to the main sanctuary for a concert by the Chicago Chamber Musicians and the world premiere of a specially-commissioned work, “The Coming of Light,” by composer Peter Lieberson, who was in the audience.
When the applause finally died down, Emily Roth, executive director of the foundation, announced that $800,000 in grant money had been received this year, providing a good start to the fundraising, which has targeted 2012 to reach its goal, and 2011 for the completion of the first critical repairs. As one of the first buildings, and certainly the first religious structure, to be built entirely of cast reinforced concrete, Wright noted that the modest budget of $45,000 allowed him no other choice. The Unity Temple won international attention for its innovative use of material as well as its radical modern design. Unfortunately, that material suffered over time, and extensive water damage—uncovered just last year—revealed the need for major restoration to preserve and restore both the roof and supporting structure, as well as to maintain the distinctive interiors.
Designed with Wright’s familiar overhanging roof and lack of a steeple, the temple also avoids a conventional church layout; pews are set in a congenial U-configuration, where no one in the congregation is more than 45 feet from the pulpit. To minimize noise, there are no windows at street level, but light streams into the interior through clerestories along the upper walls, and stained glass panels in the coffered ceiling. The color scheme of greens, yellows, and browns reflect the architect’s love of nature, and, despite its imposing exterior, the Unity Temple is a warm and welcoming place.
Acknowledged as one of Wright’s most important buildings, it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1971, and the Foundation was formed two years later, but its designation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation this year as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places brought considerable publicity that will certainly help the fundraising efforts.
Happily, the centennial event was long on entertainment and short on speeches. After brief remarks by board of directors president Rebecca Cooke and gala benefactor Sidney K. Robinson, it ended with a celebratory toast, a birthday cake designed in the shape of the temple, and a silent auction.
All images copyright 2009 by Lisa Kelly and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation.