It is easy to find contrasting architectural styles throughout Oak Park. The starkest contrasts are often between the steeply peaked roofs and turrets of Victorian structures and the horizontal lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style houses. A contrast in styles is also very evident in the neighboring houses of worship on the northeast and southeast corners of Lake Street and Kenilworth Avenue – what is now the First United Church of Oak Park and Wright’s Unity Temple.
In the early days of Oak Park, the town was often referred to as “Saint’s Rest” because of the large number of churches. Every major Protestant denomination, as well as a Catholic parish, were represented by a church. Most of these churches were along Lake Street and were designed in some variation of Gothic architecture with tall steeples and/or bell towers. On the northeast corner of Lake and Kenilworth Avenue stood the First Congregational Church. The land for this church was donated by a prominent early settler of Oak Park and founding member of the church, James W. Scoville. The original Gothic stone church with a 190-foot spire was completed in 1874. This very traditionally styled church stood on the site as Unity Temple, in a much different style, was constructed on the other side of Lake Street between 1906 and 1908, on land that had been owned by another prominent early settler, Edwin Gale.
As is well known, the impetus for the Universalist congregation to hire Wright to design a new church was that their original church, with a tall wooden spire, was struck by lightning and burned in 1905. Eleven years later, 1916, the First Congregational Church was also struck by lightning and destroyed by fire. A new church was built on the same site, using much of the original stone. The bell was also saved and installed in the new belfry.
The new building, completed in 1918, retained the Gothic style, with front doors facing Lake Street. It continues to provide an interesting contrast to the linear features and “path of discovery” concealed doors of Unity Temple. When illuminated from within at night, the large multicolored rose window above the front doors, is another point of comparison to the monochromatic exterior of Unity Temple. Enduring examples of Old World and New World architectural styles; face to face.
In 1975, the First Congregational Church merged with the First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park to become the First United Church of Oak Park. Like Unity Temple, First United underwent a major restoration project recently that included renovation of the 100-year old slate roof.
Authored by Ken Simpson.