As Director of the Victorian Society in America Chicago Summer School program, I have the opportunity to visit many unforgettable buildings in Chicago and the surrounding area. There are several “must see” sites on this program. Some of my favorites are the view from terrace at The Cliff Dweller’s Club, the tour of the Auditorium Theatre, visiting Crab Tree Farm, an early morning tour of Robie House and walking through the Rookery with Gunny Harboe. Along with the Associate Director of the Chicago program, John Waters, we have the privilege of introducing the students to another outstanding site, Unity Temple.
Initially, these visits coincided with major projects at Unity Temple. Our inaugural visit was in June of 2015. The Chicago Summer School was the last group allowed to tour Unity Temple before closing for the impending restoration project. The windows and wood trim had already been removed. Oddly, no one missed the glass or trim. The students were in awe of the remarkable space.
The second year that the summer school program students visited was when the restoration project was at its peak. The entire structure was enveloped in scaffolding, with some sections wrapped in tarp. We put on hard hats and safety glasses and made an examination of the ongoing work. To those of us who were familiar with the building, it was thrilling. For those students who had never seen it, the visit was a bit disappointing since there was so little of the building as we know it to see. I encouraged them to return the following year.
In 2017, the Chicago students were the first group to be admitted to the newly restored building following the grand re-opening. It was magnificent! The wall colors were breath-taking and the light more luminous than before the restoration. For the students, it was a “life-changing experience”, as was described by a student who is a preservation architect from New York.
The following year was a surprisingly entertaining event. Our knowledgeable and passionate guide, Peggy Lami, spoke to the group from the lectern in the Temple sanctuary. Following her remarks, Peggy continued speaking while reclining flat-out on the floor, discussing the skylights overhead. The entire class followed her lead, including our principal lecturer, Richard Guy Wilson. The pictures were remarkable and the visit extremely memorable.
Our visit in 2019 was equally gratifying. Peggy Lami was our guide again and provided an amazing and unique perspective. The class enjoyed every moment of being in Unity Temple. Little did we know at the time that the visit that June would be our last for a while, due to the pandemic in 2020.
Following the program, I have heard from several students regarding Unity Temple. Many alum considered Unity Temple to be the most important building they visited on the program. We all understand how the building, space and light can make an impact. It is intriguing to see how it affects the students simply by walking into the space. We are looking forward to returning with the students in 2022.
Tina Strauss, Director of the VSA Chicago Summer School Program