Unity Temple

During the very late 1800s, Frank Lloyd Wright became increasingly innovative in terms of his architectural style; this period was the beginning of what came to be known as Wright’s Prairie style. Inspired by the low and mostly flat landscape of the Midwest, the Prairie style home, according to Architecture.org: celebrated "the long, low landscape of the Midwest. Their most defining characteristic is their emphasis on the horizontal rather than the vertical. They spread out over their lots, featuring flat or shallow hipped roof lines, rows of windows, overhanging eaves and bands of stone, wood or brick across the surface."

Unity Temple
"Frank Lloyd Wright - Unity Temple" by TeresaHsu is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

It was a difficult time period for Wright. He had – in violation of the the tenets of his five-year contract with the architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan – designed (bootlegged, as some would say) several homes on his own, including one for Allison Harlan, located not far from Louis Sullivan’s townhome in Chicago’s Kenwood community. When Sullivan found out, he was furious. Some say Wright quit over the faux pas, some say Sullivan fired him.

With a loan given him earlier by Sullivan, Wright had built a small home in Oak Park in 1889. He established his own practice in Chicago, but in 1898 relocated his practice to the home he had built in Oak Park. Wright’s first child – son Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. was born in 1890. Three more soon followed (the number totaled six by 1903) and necessitated that Wright use his home studio space for additional bedrooms. The larger family also compelled Wright to design and construct a huge addition to the north side of the main house that would now house his studio. This would be the location for the birth of Wright’s emerging architectural creations… one of which was the Prairie style home.

The first modern building

In addition to many early Wright structures, including the Frederick Robie House and the Avery and Queene Coonley House – both masterpieces of Wright’s Prairie style – Wright also designed the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Wright was a lifelong member of the Unitarian church and, after the wood-framed Unitarian Universalist Church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1905, Wright offered to design a new building for the congregation. Completed circa 1908, it is considered by many as the first modern building in the world.

The budget was tight and available funds amounted to a modest $45,000; the architect was expected to design not only the building, but furniture and stained glass as well. Constructed almost entirely of reinforced concrete – because, as Wright had said: "concrete is cheap" – the building is formed as a perfect square. Of course, nothing is really "cheap" when it comes to Frank Lloyd Wright and the ultimate cost of the structure was much more than $45, 000…

The Space within

 Unlike many of Wright’s later structures, Unity Temple is taller and almost "bunker-like"; it does not exhibit the typical low, horizontal profile with long ribbons of windows and a low-slung cantilevered roof (e.g., the Robie House) of other Prairie Style homes. For the Temple, Wright placed his emphasis on the space and volume of the temple instead. The temple itself, located at the center of the building, is accented with muted yellows and dark browns; the light flooding down from high above comes from recessed stained glass, designed with nature’s natural colors: yellow, brown and green.

The Temple has two balconies and no one is seated farther than about 40 feet from the pulpit. It is positioned in the center of the structure and connects to a community space – Unity House – via a lower level hallway. Typical of Wright’s style, the corridor itself is a low and dark passage that must be traversed before parishioners ascend upward and into the open and brightly lit sanctuary. And, like Wright’s residential designs, the Unity House is centered on a fireplace hearth with a prominent central chimney. What would a Wright design be without a fireplace?

Also typical of Wright’s structures, the Unity Temple’s concrete structure – complete with an expansive and very flat roof – has suffered over time from extensive water damage: pieces of the roof have fallen inside the building and water has eroded some exterior portions as well. But in 2009, Unity Temple was placed on a list of most endangered historic places. Quoting from Wikipedia.com: "In April 2015, a $23 million interior and exterior restoration began… Restoration work was completed in June 2017 and the building reopened for tours as of July 1, 2017."

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More Information

Unity Temple exterior
"PA114149.JPG"by matt72 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2

Location

861 Lake Street
Oak Park, Illinois

Map

tour

Tours

Guided tours are available.  Please consult the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust website for more information.

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie