Unity Temple

Quick Stats

  • LOCATION: 875 W. Lake Street, Oak Park, Cook County
  • STATUS: Saved
  • BUILT: 1907
  • SITE TYPE: Religious structure
  • ARCHITECTURE:  Prairie Style
  • GEOGRAPHY: Suburban
  • OWNER AT TIME OF LISTING: Institution, church
  • THREAT AT TIME OF LISTING: Deterioration, lack of funds
  • CURRENT USE: House of worship
  • DESIGNATIONS: National Historic Landmark (1970), National Register of Historic Places (1972), Part of National Register Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District (1983), Oak Park Historic Landmark
  • LI PROGRAMS & AWARDS: Recipient of 2005 and 2016 Landmarks Illinois Preservation Heritage Fund Grants and recipient of a Landmarks Illinois 2017 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award
  • TAKE ACTION: Visit Unity Temple Restoration Foundation’s website for ways to help Unity Temple remain viable.

(Credit: Liz Chilsen)

Historic Significance

Frank Lloyd Wright designed Unity Temple in 1905 for his own Unitarian Universalist congregation. It was built between 1906 and 1908 and became Wright’s first major public building commission. However, it is also unique for a number of other reasons, including the new construction techniques and modern materials used to build it. Unity Temple is constructed entirely from reinforced concrete, cast in wooden molds. On the unusual choice of construction material Wright explained, “There was only one material to choose—as church funds were $45,000. Concrete was cheap.” The concrete was poured in six-inch layers to ensure solidarity throughout the walls. Steel rods reinforce the concrete, but as you can see, none of this structural steel is visible. These construction techniques were untested at the time and did cause challenges during the building phase, which is why it took over two and a half years to complete. It was also over budget by more than 50%, so perhaps not as cheap as Wright had originally intended.

Despite the challenges, Unity Temple is thought of as among Frank Lloyd Wright’s most beautiful and influential works, and it continues to be a model of modern architecture. At the time of its construction, it was a far departure from traditional Western religious architecture and received international attention. The entrance to the building, largely hidden away from the street, is adorned with the inscription, “For the worship of God and the service of man.” The sanctuary represents the heart of the building and is laid out in geometric forms, largely absent of religious iconography. In contrast to the monumental and monochromatic exterior, the sanctuary is an airy room featuring skylights and bright, lively colors.

(Credit: Liz Chilsen)

Threat at Time of Listing - 2000

In 1970, Unity Temple was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By 2000, however, the building was struggling with issues related to decades of deferred maintenance, the most significant of which related to roof leakage and resulting water damage. The deterioration of this historic temple landed it on both Landmarks Illinois Most Endangered list in 2000 and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2009 list of America’s Most Endangered Places.

Beyond funds, the restoration project faced many major technical challenges. These included: matching new exterior concrete repairs to the original tone and texture and recapturing Wright’s original vision for the interior spaces by matching the original plaster and paint finishes. Adding new building systems, including a new geothermal mechanical system, LED lights, AV system, ADA accessibility and code-compliant electrical and plumbing systems, without impacting the visual impact of the original design, was also a challenge.

(Credit: Liz Chilsen)

Preservation Efforts

Thanks to years of hard work by a large team of dedicated local advocates led by the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation (UTRF) and the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, funds were raised with primary financial assistance provided by the Alphawood Foundation to complete this extensive and meticulous $23 million restoration. These funds included grants in 2005 and 2016 from Landmarks Illinois’ Preservation Heritage Fund. Landmarks Illinois also obtained a preservation easement on the property, ensuring the building’s historical integrity will be protected and maintained in perpetuity.

Restoration work began in 2015, and the project was predicted to wrap up by the end of 2016. However, like the original completion of the building, the renovations finished slightly behind schedule. Instead, the project was completed just in time for Wright’s 150th birthday on June 8, 2017.

In recognition of the incredible work done in the rehabilitation of this historic architectural wonder, Unity Temple received Landmarks Illinois’ 2017 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Restoration. The transformative restoration of this internationally renowned work allows for the continued use for worship by the congregation, improved experience for architectural tourists and improved functionality for community programming.

In 2018, plans were proposed for a 28-story high rise tower two parcels to the east of Unity Temple. UTRF, the congregation, the Village, citizens, various organizations including LI provided input on these plans as there were fears the tower would cast shadows on Unity Temple’s east and south facades and that construction would possible negatively impact the temple’s structure. The developer of those plans ultimately withdrew its plans for the tower, citing a lack of community support.

(Credit: Liz Chilsen)

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