The dress code is linen at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple

HOB and I used to take a staycation every spring.  We’d run around Chicago, visiting far away neighborhoods, going to concerts and plays, and walking around with an architecture book doing self-guided tours.  On several of these vacations we took the train out to Oak Park, our visits always seeming to coincide with an event called Wright Plus, which is a walking tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses.  The Wright Plus tour was fun and we sort of scammed our way into it without paying, not really on purpose but not entirely accidentally either.  Passing as legitimate Wright Plus tourists was easy, since we fit the demographic: middle-aged people wearing linen.  (If you doubt me, the Wright Plus webpage has photos).

Wright’s famous Unity Temple is in Oak Park, and we tried to see it during our staycations, but somehow it was always closed, either for a private event or due to restoration.  This summer, we finally succeeded in touring Unity Temple—extra satisfying since it has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

unitytemple

Completed in 1908, Unity Temple was constructed from reinforced concrete, a novel material at the time which was meant to keep costs down.  Of course, as is the case with seemingly every Wright building, there’s a lot of backstory about how he ran way over budget anyway.  (What’s the point of being a celebrity architect if you can’t run over budget?)

sideentry

Also, as with other Wright buildings, the entrance is hidden—he wanted visitors to go on a path of discovery to enter.

centralcasting

Can you spot the linen-clad, middle-aged people in our tour group?  Hint: HOB and our excellent tour guide are both wearing linen pants.

yellowroom

As you can see in the exterior shot, Unity Temple is composed of two sections joined by a lobby.  This section is where classes are held.  (The low wall next to the upper-level classroom is clearly a code violation, apparently allowed for a building this historic.)

cornershot

There’s another path of discovery to the sanctuary, which you enter through a sort of mini cloister, up a small stairway (behind HOB in this photo).

light

Wright’s religion was capital-N Nature and the soft, glowing earth tones of the sanctuary bring the natural world he worshiped inside.

lights

As is appropriate for a Universalist Church, there is no religious iconography or any symbols in the sanctuary.  However, Wright’s space is not minimalist—there are hanging lamps, decorative glass windows and loads of wooden trim details.

 

grid

Cool light from the side windows, warm light from the stained-glass skylights, artificial light from the lamp orbs: ah!

lookingup

I would like to meet the painters who created such velvety color.  The recent restoration was perfect—Wright must be smiling in his Deist heaven.

wraparound

Your eyes make their own path of discovery, following all the wooden details that wrap around corners and extend into the ceiling.

diaperdeck

Unity Temple is uniformly pristine, warm and human-scaled.  This is the baby changing table in ladies’ room—when have you ever seen a diaper table like this?

nonutsforyou

This is a living church and is still used by the Unitarians who commissioned Wright to build it at the beginning of the 20th century, though there’s little about it to remind me of other messier, community based churches, with their spaghetti dinner fundraisers, cork boards with thumb-tacked announcements and classrooms strewn with abandoned toys.  As much as I adore Wright’s buildings, they never seem quite comfortable for a messy person like me and I wonder if there are congregants of Unity Temple who wish they could just pin some kids drawings on the wall and post a few bake sale notices around without competing with all that perfection.

view

Looking through a window in one of the sanctuary’s balconies, I saw this conventional church across the street.  It brought into focus just what Frank Lloyd Wright had accomplished with this Japenese-Greek-Deist-Midwestern and above all modern, temple.

linendress

Middle-aged?  Check.

Linen dress?  Check.

Happy to finally get inside this newly minted UNESCO World Heritage Site?  Check.

 

How we got to Unity Temple: Chicago Transit Authority.
Where we slept: at home. Price: mortgage, assessments and utilities. Recommended: highly.

 

18 comments

  1. Now I know why I have been buying linen clothing…I must be anticipating sliding into a Wright Plus event without paying….or does paying for the clothing count?
    That was a fascinating tour….the atmosphere of the place really came across from your ohotographs and text.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew it—fellow Wright Plus scammer well met! I also recommend the linen hat, which I was wearing but not in the photo.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Blast! I should have bought a floppy linen cricket hat when in the U.K……

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you have some linen in your closet—admit it!

      Like

  2. The inner sanctum of the temple looks suspiciously like my hometown’s court house! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re Italian, yeah? What is your home town?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed! A small town called Biella

        Like

      2. I couldn’t find a picture of Biella’s courthouse but what a lovely town! I have a mad crush on Piedmont since the first trip I made was though a rotary club exchange program at the age of 16 to Torino. The area was enchanting! And the food!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ha! Good old Piedmont. The court looks something like the photo in the link, which I admit looks nothing like Frank’s temple, but the roof is actually quite similar. However I cannot find a photo.
        https://biella24.com/tag/tribunale-biella/

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wright walk! Another thing that goes into my Chicago list.
    Linen in Chicago? Maybe only in August.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even the not famous Wright homes are great—like this one which is a short walk from our apartment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emil_Bach_House

      Only the foolhardy wear linen during Chicago winters.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. More reason to work a weekend or a day off into any future visit to Chicago.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m glad to see the term staycation used in the proper sense. It means staying in your own home and visiting stuff nearby, not merely staying in your own country. Pedantic, me?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would further qualify it—that you have to do stuff you normally don’t do very often. So like really being on vacation but without the jet lag, hotel bill and anxiety about leaving your pets.

      Like

  5. I haven’t had any linen for years – it was a total pain to take care of and I didn’t find it anymore comfortable than cotton. Fast forward to last month and I bought a beautiful blue linen top at a thrift store. It said to hand wash, but AGMA doesn’t ever do that so I threw it in the washing machine with the delicates and air dried it. Perfect!! I feel very relieved that I now will be able to go into FLW buildings – maybe. Ha!
    Fascinating post about this stark temple – thanks for writing about it! I love Fallingwater and the house on the UofC campus and his home in Phoenix (Taliesin West), but this building left me cold. Is that blasphemous for me to say? Am I forever forbidden to wear linen? Could I sneak tape a bake sale post on the changing table? :-).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve thrifted some lovely linen-cotton blends. All the comfort and easy clean and no wrinkles!

      Shamefully I’ve never been to Fallingwater, and neither the Phoenix Taliesin or the my-family-got-ax-murdered Wisconsin Taliesin. The Robie House (on the U of C campus) is a UNESCO site now too!

      No blasphemy and I get it. My favorite churches have bloodthirsty art, incestuous art and lots of warning signs warning you to cover your shoulders and to avoid using cell phones from the 90’s.

      Like

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