Wright described Unity Temple as his “Little Jewel” and it is a fitting description. From the outside it is somewhat of a stark, nondescript block of a building much like a jewelry box but once you go in (or open it) the jewel is revealed. Having just completed a multimillion dollar interior and exterior restoration, it is ready to shine for the next 100 years.
Designed in 1905 and completed in 1908 for the Unitarian Universalist church, Unity Temple is the last surviving public building of Wright’s early “Prairie School” period. It follows Wright’s “Path of discovery” ideal so the entrances are not clearly identified- you have to walk around the building to discover them. “For the worship of God and the service of man.” is the motto you see over the banks of doors you find on either side. When you enter into a dimly lit hall that unites the two parts of the building the first thing you see is Unity Hall. A space designed for the “Service of Man”. With its immense fireplace, warm colors, dramatic lighting, and welcoming feel you realize this is the secular space, a meeting hall for the community. Beautiful stained glass skylights, adorned with Wright’s signature floral abstracts, crown the room and allow the entire space to be brightly lit. Two large balconies flank the room allowing space for classrooms.
While Unity Hall is readily apparent when you enter the main hall, the temple access is not so obvious. You have to go on a “Path of discovery”. The cloisters are low dark passages meant to guide you gradually from the “Service of Man” to “The worship of God”. Entering the temple is inspiring- A complete contrast to the exterior of the building. This space is huge yet somehow feels intimate. Two tiers of balconies embrace the pulpit bringing everyone closer to the center. No seat is more than 40 feet from the center. The green, yellow and brown colors are very natural and add to the calming nature of the space. Twenty-five amber tinted windows are fit into the coffered ceiling which Wright intended “to get a sense of a happy cloudless day into the room… daylight sifting through between the intersecting concrete beams, filtering through amber glass ceiling lights. Thus managed, the light would, rain or shine, have the warmth of sunlight.”
Being inside the temple you can understand the reason for the stark, solid exterior. Virtually no sound enters from the well travelled Lake Street outside. Instead, a speaker can use a normal tone of voice and be heard by everyone without amplification. A festival squares and cubes surround you and a few seem to float. Behind the pulpit is a giant wall of unusually latticed woodwork and flanking it are the exit doors. It is a “wow” moment when you pass through and realize you are in the main hall and back to the entrance.
The restoration took over two years. The freeze and thaw cycles of Illinois having eaten away at the concrete. Between 2015 and 2017, the building was closed to the public while extensive repairs were made to the 16 separate flat roofs and the interior was stripped of multiple layers of paint. Seven miles of wood trim was carefully removed restored and replaced. The result is impressive. Unity Temple looks as though it could have been just built and you are walking into exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright did the first time he stepped foot into his completed masterpiece.
Guided and self-guided tours of Unity Temple are every day except Sunday through the Frank Lloyd Trust. http://cal.flwright.org/tours/unity/