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.
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?)
Also, as with other Wright buildings, the entrance is hidden—he wanted visitors to go on a path of discovery to enter.
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.
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.)
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).
Wright’s religion was capital-N Nature and the soft, glowing earth tones of the sanctuary bring the natural world he worshiped inside.
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.
Cool light from the side windows, warm light from the stained-glass skylights, artificial light from the lamp orbs: ah!
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.
Your eyes make their own path of discovery, following all the wooden details that wrap around corners and extend into the ceiling.
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?
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.
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.
Linen dress? Check.
Happy to finally get inside this newly minted UNESCO World Heritage Site? Check.