History of Unity Temple
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple is an icon of 20th-century modern architecture. Designed for the Unitarian Universalist congregation in 1905, Unity Temple was constructed between 1906 and 1908, and dedicated in 1909. For more than 100 years, the building has continued to be the home of the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation. In 1973, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation was established by a dedicated group of volunteers to steward restoration and preservation of the building.
During the late 1980s, UTRF opened the building for guided tours, and raised funds to present cultural programs and events. With the support of the Alphawood Foundation’s $10 million seed grant, UTRF began a comprehensive restoration of Unity Temple’s exterior and interior in the spring of 2015, at a cost of $25 million. The restoration is now complete and the doors to Unity Temple are open to the public.
During a summer storm in 1905, lightning struck the spire of the wood frame, Gothic Revival-style Unity Church in Oak Park, and the building was destroyed by fire. In the Fall of 1905, the congregation commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright, then 38 years old and a congregation member, to design a new church. The church was Wright’s first major public building.
The construction contract called for the building to be completed by November 1906. More than two and one-half years later, after ongoing challenges of unprecedented design elements, untested construction techniques, and Wright’s practice of modifying designs during construction, Unity Temple was completed.
In September 1909, at a cost that exceeded the budget by more than 30%, Unity Temple was dedicated. It is a testament to the architect, that, despite construction delays and budget overruns, the congregation issued a resolution thanking Frank Lloyd Wright, declaring: “We believe the building will long endure as a monument to his artistic genius and that, so long as it endures, it will stand forth as a masterpiece of art and architecture.”
Wright’s bold, experimental design for Unity Temple incorporated the use of poured-in-place reinforced concrete, used primarily at that time for industrial structures. In a radical departure from traditional Western religious architecture, Wright designed the building to house two distinct spaces — Unity Temple, a four-level cubic sanctuary for worship, and Unity House, for the congregation’s social and cultural gatherings. The two spaces, connected by a single-story central entry foyer, feature monumental art glass laylights.
The building, which received international attention following the 1910 publication by Ernst Wasmuth of Unity Temple drawings in Ausgefürte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright, was hailed as a masterpiece of modern design, and is still praised for its geometric massing, use of modern materials, and innovative configuration of space.
In 1970, Unity Temple was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1973, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation was established to steward necessary building repairs and restoration which were conducted in 1973-74. The innovative, experimental design elements of this modern masterpiece, including its 16 separate flat roofs, had created unforeseen structural problems. Over time, the building’s concrete structure and interior finishes suffered extensive water damage and surface cracking. Additional repairs to the building have been made in recent decades.
A comprehensive restoration master plan was developed from 2000 to 2006 to address the complete restoration of Unity Temple, including the building’s exterior and interior, decorative, and environmental components. In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Unity Temple as one of “America’s 11 most endangered historic places,” drawing attention to the critical need to restore and preserve this architectural masterpiece. In 2013, the Alphawood Foundation announced a generous seed grant of $10 million toward a restoration of Unity Temple. Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation also made a commitment of $1.5 million to the restoration. Those two gifts launched the 2015-2017 comprehensive restoration of the iconic structure. In 2013, a team of architecture, design, and construction professionals, led by Harboe Architects, was selected. The master plan was updated in 2014 to include additional testing and reports in preparation for the restoration. The restoration began in the Spring 2015. The comprehensive Unity Temple restoration was completed in June of 2017 and has been heralded as a “Triumph.”
Unity Temple is still home to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation for whom it was built, and will continue to serve as an inspiring house of worship. Since the 1980s, Unity Temple has held guided public tours and has served as a center for community gatherings and cultural events such as performances, lectures and workshops, meetings and conferences. UTRF hosts a variety of programs with the aim of educating about Wright’s contribution to modern architecture, while embracing cultural experiences open to the public. After the restoration of Unity Temple was complete, UTRF embarked on producing new or relaunched programs including the Unity Chamber Music Series, break::the::box lecture series, dance performances, art exhibitions and youth summer camps focused on building and design.
In July of 2019, the World Heritage Committee officially inscribed The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, is comprised of eight major works (including Unity Temple) spanning 50 years of Wright’s career, on the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are only 24 World Heritage sites in the United States.