AN ESSAY BY JORDAN MELNICK
More rain fell on Chicago on September 13th, 2008 than on any other day in more than 130 years. That evening in Oak Park, some 170 architecture lovers braved the historic downpour for a gala at Unity Temple, one of 25 Frank Lloyd Wright structures in the near Western suburb. In semi-formal attire, the attendees drank, ate and mingled with fellow contributors to the building’s restoration fund, the men eventually removing their jackets in the rain-steamed, unventilated interior. Later, all enjoyed the music of Chicago trumpeter Orbert Davis in the temple sanctuary, a bright, intricately designed space that Wright called his “little jewel box.”
The gala, an annual event held by the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, was a small pocket of calm amid the storm raging outside. And it was a success. A silent auction brought in $7,000, a pittance compared to the estimated $15-million sum needed to restore the aging building. But, still, good for one night. Furthermore, the Temple, which had had its roof repaired in 2001, appeared to have weathered the storm. A few leaks notwithstanding, things could have been worse. In nearby Plano, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House was under two feet of water after the Fox River jumped its banks. Third flood in 12 years. Donations needed urgently. The crisis had kept Farnsworth’s caretakers from attending the gala.
Yes, things could have been worse. And then the ceiling caved.
It happened nine days later, Sept. 22, in the middle of the night. The sanctuary spalled in its southeast corner, dropping a six-foot-by-six-foot section of plaster and concrete to the floor. If it had been Sunday morning, the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation might no longer have a piano – or a pianist. Rainfall from the storm had filtered through cracks in the concrete roof, saturating the ceiling until it gave way. Further inspection revealed extensive water damage not just to the plaster, but to the concrete slab overhead and the reinforcement bars embedded therein. “The steel felt like sawdust,” says Emily Roth, executive director of the Foundation.
All told, the damage added about $7.5 million to the existing restoration project. A year shy of its centennial, Unity Temple needed more than $20 million of invasive surgery to look the way it did for its dedication ceremony in September of 1909. Or, perhaps, to keep from crumbling.
“It put us into crisis mode,” Roth says.
For the congregation, which commissioned Wright in 1905, the ballooned restoration costs raised the question of whether to uproot from its home of nearly a century. It was not a thought that just dropped out of the sky. With yearly maintenance expenses of $100,000, excluding contingencies (“things that come up,” in church business manager David Wilke’s words), the congregation had long considered moving for financial reasons. But after the spall, its vague musings about staying or going turned into focused debate. “It became so much more acute once we had concrete fall in the sanctuary,” says Rev. Alan Taylor.
Since September the congregation has held regular meetings to discuss leaving the Temple, named one of the country’s most endangered buildings by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in April. Drawing about 100 people, the meetings reveal a church divided. “There are people for whom worshipping is a transcendental experience in that building. There are others who think it is a severe limitation,” says Taylor. Architectural historian Sidney Robinson, a major donor to the Temple, cuts it even drier: “There are people who are there because of the building, and there are people who are there in spite of it.”
That the Temple has driven a wedge between the very congregants Wright hoped it would unite is an irony cast in concrete. To understand it, you have to understand the history of a building that, at only 144 feet long and 100 feet wide, looms large in the pantheon of American architecture.
* * *
June 4, 1905, another storm. Lightning strikes the spire of Unity Church, a traditional Gothic revival building erected in Oak Park in 1872. Church trustee James Heald Jr., quoted in Joseph Siry’s Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion, bears witness:
“The blazing steeple fell to the ground with a great crash, and fire seemed instantly to spread to all parts of the building. The stained glass windows melted and ran out of their frames and our dear old church building was a mass of flames….Providence had decided we must have a new church building.”
The congregation’s minister, Rev. Rodney Johonnot, had wanted a new building even before the fire; he’d given a sermon on the topic just a month earlier. A true turn-of-the-century man, Johonnot desired a church that eschewed convention while symbolizing truth, reason and, above all, unity. As head of the plans committee, he charged Wright, an Oak Park resident and Unitarian himself, with expressing these ethereal concepts in the bold language of architecture.
When Wright unveiled his exterior plans on Feb. 24, 1906, the local paper proclaimed them “the most radical departure in traditional church architecture ever attempted.” This was hardly hyperbole. The design’s poured-concrete envelope of bare monoliths defied the ornate exteriors of buildings like the Grace Episcopal Church across the street, whose stone tower, carved ornament and large stained-glass cinquefoil window epitomized the dominant Gothic style.
Rev. Johonnot endorsed the steeple-less design. “Without tower or spire,” he wrote in June, 1906, “it expresses the thought, inherent in the liberal faith, that God should not be sought in the sky, but on earth among the children of men.” With these words, Johonnot blessed one of the boldest schemes to keep the rain out in architectural history: 16 slabs of cantilevering concrete whose evident weight sought not to defy gravity, as did the church steeple, but to deify it.
For all the restrained grandeur of Unity Temple’s exterior, it was the inside that Wright called the “reality of the building.” With its labyrinthine oak banding and yellow, green and gray plaster surfaces, the architect’s “little jewel box” is as embellished as the outside is austere. One enters, after a series of turns, into a dark side cloister. Stepping up into the sanctuary, warm sunlight filters through 25 art-glass coffers in the ceiling and the clerestory windows high in the room’s four walls. This passing from dark into light along a maze-like route mimicked the arduous path to truth at the heart of Unitarianism. It also placed the Temple’s entrance on Kenilworth Avenue rather than Lake Street, whose clamorous trolleys threatened to disturb the peace within.
With Unity Temple’s sanctuary, Wright hoped to achieve the intimacy of a Quaker meeting house. The room as a cube – “a noble form,” Wright thought – can accommodate about 400 people in close quarters. A space of just 35 feet separates worshippers sitting in opposite galleries so that no one ever seems far away. When Sunday service ends, congregants exit through doors on either side of the pulpit – there is no altar – so that they face the minister in leaving, rather than “in the usual disrespectful church fashion so the pastor missed contact with his flock,” as Wright once wrote.
In these ways Wright, at the age of 42, redefined the house of worship. Upon completion, Unity Temple was praised locally and soon earned international renown after its inclusion in the Wasmuth portfolio of 1910. Mies van der Rohe later called it “the fountainhead of modern architecture.” But the building had structural flaws, including a ventilation system that never worked and a faulty drainage network. This network, hidden in the Temple’s articulated stair towers so as to avoid unsightly gutters, failed to swallow enough water the night of the gala. After nearly a century, one night of storm and flood brought the ceiling crashing down.
Risen from fire, the Temple had now succumbed to water.
* * *
Rev. Taylor, 41, can give the impression that Unity Temple is a burden and, in many ways, it must be exhausting for a minister to share his church with Frank Lloyd Wright. He admits that he knew little of the architect or the building before moving from Seattle to Oak Park. “I came for the congregation,” he says. Asked how it felt to first preach in the “noble room,” another pet name Wright gave the sanctuary, Taylor doesn’t take the bait: “It was a bit of a challenge looking in nine different areas at people,” he says, adding, “Now I’ve learned to like it.”
An equally pressing problem is the lack of classroom space, which Taylor says “limits us greatly.” As the congregation has grown, it has had to move its religious education to another historic building, the Gale House, due south of the Temple. The administration has also moved its offices out of the building in search of more elbow room.
Taylor hasn’t taken a side in the debate over whether to move. “It’s not my role to do that,” he says. “I’m the minister.” Still, he worries aloud that the Temple, cube that it is, might be boxing his congregants in, keeping them from interacting with the wider Oak Park community. “My job as the minister is to hold the congregation to its mission and not allow the building to distract too much from that mission,” he says. “It’s a problem when a building becomes an idol.”
The congregation’s conversations about moving over the last year have shown that many members share his concern. During the regular meetings, a sizable minority has expressed a surprising willingness to leave the Temple. “The Board [of Directors] was not aware that there was 15 to 20 percent of the congregation, perhaps more, who don’t see the building as important to the identity of the church,” Taylor says. But it is “hard to imagine” his congregation leaving Unity Temple, Taylor says, because “the identity of a large portion … is wrapped up with the worship space.” More likely is a situation where the church gives up ownership of everything except the sanctuary, though an outright sale is not out of the question. “It’s in the realm of possibility,” Taylor says.
If the congregation does decide to uproot, the consequence for Unity Temple, as a work of art, would be the sundering of form and function whose pitch-perfect harmony made the building an architectural Mecca in the first place. (Of the Temple’s 30,000 yearly visitors, 15,000 come from abroad.) It would be an irrevocable divorce. Wright did not build Unity Temple for any congregation or even any Unitarian Universalist congregation. He built it for his congregation. It was not meant to be a museum – its most likely reincarnation. Turning it into one would diminish its vitality. “It would be a building without a job to do,” Roth says.
To be sure, divorce is a prospect of last resort, perhaps befitting a marriage of bygone days. But the chance that it could happen raises intriguing questions about historic preservation: If a building retains its form but loses its function, what happens to its identity? Is it the same place just because its walls remain intact? Can it live on once its reason for being – its spirit – fades away? In the case of Unity Temple, should its metamorphosis into a museum, a place visited rather than used, be regarded as a kind of death?
Maybe not. It was after all Wright who, in a fit of frustration while designing the Temple, said “no organic building may ever be ‘finished.’” Which would seem to imply that such buildings will inevitably transform and, following logic, one day meet the fate of all organisms, death. “That’s one of the real conundrums about organic architecture … it has the dimension of time built into its name,” says Robinson, a professor at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Spring Green, Wisconsin. “Organic means time.” Robinson says Wright struggled to reconcile his commitment to organic architecture, with its implication of finitude, and his desire to leave his work to posterity. “I don’t think he ever resolved it in himself,” he says. “It’s really a conflict between mortality and immortality.”
Indeed, Wright could send mixed messages. In May of 1957, at the age of 89 (two years older than he admitted to being – out of vanity, according to biographer Ada Louise Huxtable), the architect appeared at the Robie House, his Prairie-style masterpiece of 1910 near the University of Chicago. In a pork pie hat and trench coat (his trademark cape concealed underneath?), Wright denounced a Chicago Theological Seminary proposal to demolish the house to make way for married-student housing. “I think this is a special species of vandalism,” he said, adding, “A religious organization has no sense of beauty.” (One can imagine what Unity Temple thought of that.)
But Wright had no problem with the house being taken over by Phi Delta Theta, his fraternity at the University of Wisconsin, which proposed reconditioning part of it as a museum celebrating the architect himself. “It could be a clubby little rendezvous … with models, drawings and books on architecture,” Wright said, never doubting his fraternity’s sense of beauty.
Besides airing Wright’s pompous irreverence (“I’ve done my damnest,” he said. “Angels can do no more”), the episode shows how far he was willing to follow the dictates of organic architecture. He would defend his house’s walls. The persons and purposes they enclosed were negotiable. (A New York real estate firm eventually converted the Robie House into an office.)
It is one thing to take this attitude with a house, especially one that changed hands twice before the Seminary bought it in 1926. But a sacred space is something different. Many of Unity Temple’s congregants feel a profound connection to the building. Joyce Marco, a church member for 25 years, remembers the first time she attended service in the sanctuary. “It blew me away,” she says. “It was the most powerful worshipping experience I’d ever had. I had that feeling that spiritual light was coming from above.…There was a feeling of peacefulness. Like I wasn’t in a strange place.”
It was an interesting counterpoint to Rev. Taylor’s remark about keeping the building, and the ever-present personage of Wright, from distracting his flock from its mission. Scanlan considers Unity Temple part of that mission, almost as if it is a galvanizing force, not boxing the congregation in but inspiring it to achieve its aims. “The words you see outside of the building, ‘For the Worship of God and the Service of Man,’ that’s really what this building is about,” she says, referring to the congregation’s motto, lettered in bronze over the art-glass entryways. “To take the congregation out of here really takes the soul out of the building.”
The Foundation, which Wood co-founded in 1973, has raised more than $1 million over the last three years, including a $200,000 matching grant from Save America’s Treasures, a partnership between the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and $250,000 in state funding for an HVAC system. But Wood says it has struggled with “seven-figure fundraising,” and he believes that the added burden of maintenance and labor costs, both currently covered by the congregation, would prove too much.
In the early 1960s, Wood participated in a vote on whether to leave Unity Temple for financial reasons in which he says the congregation “overwhelmingly” elected to stay. He believes there will be another referendum in 12 to 16 months if a substantial sum is not raised for the Temple’s restoration. “I would think it would be imprudent not to begin to plan more seriously to look at options other than Unity Temple,” he says. “Imprudent because I think the survival of the congregation is slightly more important than that of the building.”
Wood, a heavy-set man with a whimsical voice, calls himself a pragmatist on the issue of whether to move and calls those who are bent on staying “tree huggers.”
“We definitely have them,” he says. “But we have some people that are adamant the building is an albatross, it’s a millstone around us.” He says the latter group resents sharing its building with the Foundation, a tax-exempt non-profit, as well as hosting community events and “weddings of outsiders.”
Wood’s main concern, and the guiding principal behind his pragmatism, is allowing the congregation to grow and improve for the next generation – and he says Rev. Taylor feels the same way. “He’s an ordained minister not for architectural preservation, but for leading a religious community,” Wood says. “And I would expect his final allegiance, if it came to a severe test, should be – and will be – toward the health of the congregation.”
Given the choice, Wood would not want to leave Unity Temple, which he says provides him with “soul refreshment.” His best case scenario would be raising enough money for its restoration and constructing satellite buildings to house the congregation’s various non-worship activities. But he says there is a 10-percent chance the church will move within five years – which, in his reasoning, means a 10-percent chance the Temple will fall into disrepair shortly thereafter despite the Foundation’s best efforts.
And after 51 years that, Wood says, would be hard to take. “I would probably have a period of grievance, probably for several years.”
He would not be alone. The entire congregation, “even those who profess not to be particularly happy with Frank Lloyd Wright,” would mourn the loss, Wood says. It is a reality Rev. Taylor would have to prepare for. “A wise ministry … will treat the moving as if there were a grieving process that had to be consciously planned for,” Wood says. “So that we could go through the grieving of the loss of magnificence and real architecture, but begin to get on building the new institution that holds our community together. For our kids’ sake, if not for our sake.”
So, though nearly 100 years have passed since Unity Temple’s dedication, it is conceivable that the same congregation that commissioned Wright retains the progressive vision of its forebears. If Wood is any indication – and the 71-year-old retiree says he is – then it does. “I don’t want steeples going into the sky so I remember which direction heaven is,” he said at an Oak Park café one August afternoon. “If you’re dealing with a church that’s built in a cruciform shape, I would not be happy with that.” As for the congregation as a whole: “We would want to design a building borrowing heavily from what we like about Frank Lloyd Wright design and not borrowing what we don’t like – primarily concrete roofs that leak.” Then he paused, sipped his coffee, and said with a grin, “We’d be a terrible group to sell to.”
And there was something in his tone that made you want to see the building.
* * *
On a cool Sunday in August, Unity Temple looks indestructible from a distance down Lake Street. Its stern monolithic exterior gives it a sense of permanence, like the mausoleum of an ancient king. But get a little closer and the cracks start to show. Fissures spread across the concrete envelope, which was refaced with cement, sand and a pea gravel mixture in the early 1970s. The steps leading up to the foyer exhibit corrosion. The letter “v” is missing from the word “service” above the eastern doors.
Inside the sanctuary about 100 people, congregants and tourists alike, file into the pews. The service begins with a prelude for violin, recorder and two flutes. Suffused with light, the room fills with soft music accompanied by the humming of the congregation. The voice of a woman with an operatic, ultimately cloying soprano soars above the chorus.
Rev. Taylor sits behind the pulpit, listening with a heart-warmed expression. Above him, the ceiling looks bad. Large sections of yellow plaster have eroded, exposing reddish patches of deteriorated concrete and rusted rebar. The clerestory windows, all original, are boarded up, and spokes of light pierce through gaps in the plywood. A metal workers platform lies like a stretcher across the southern piers.
But on this morning, the congregation is not thinking about the deterioration of Unity Temple (though perhaps the tourists, denied a perfect picture, are). The building is not mentioned once during the service, a calm progression of song, sermon and meditation ending with the extinguishing of the flaming chalice, a Unitarian Universalist symbol with no one meaning.
Afterward, everyone crowds into the lunch hall. Eating bagels and sipping coffee, friends and strangers break into small groups to talk about the sermon, the economy, their children, whatever. At one point, an older woman tells me she has been collecting pieces of the sanctuary ceiling for the congregation’s Nov. 14 auction. “People think I’m kooky,” she whispers, embarrassed. “But these are original pieces.”
Later, as I am looking for signs of water damage on the exterior south slab, another congregant, a man who has previously expressed a strong desire to stay put, walks by. “So what do you think – you want it?” he asks, meaning the building. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Then he laughs and walks inside. pm
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Images copyright Prairie Design Group
Jordan Melnick is a graduate student in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. A freelance journalist from Miami, Fl., he contributes regularly to QSRMagazine.com.