Unity Temple

Added by Janine Wilkosz, last update: August 17, 2012, 12:55 pm

Unity Temple
875 Lake Street
Oak Park, IL 60301
United States
41° 53' 18.978" N, 87° 47' 48.5808" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Religion (REL)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

In 1901, the congregation of Unity Church in Oak Park, IL under the leadership of Rev. Rodney Johonnot decided to build a new structure to house their growing congregation as well as a Sunday school and meeting room. At the time, the village of Oak Park was expanding as well, and “between 1900 and 1906, six new congregations were founded and seven new church edifices were constructed” (Siry 59). Fundraising began and in December 1904, Rev. Johonnot appealed to the congregation for increased funding. Six months later Unity Church was struck by lighting and burnt to the ground. With this immediate need for a new facility, four committees were created to oversee fundraising, site selection, plan selection, and architect selection. In August 1905, a plot of land was purchased along Lake Street that was owned by a wealthy patron of the church, Edwin Gale.

In September 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright was chosen as the architect for the new church. Wright, his wife, mother, and two sisters were all parishioners of Unity Church. Wright was a well known architect in the church for having designed homes for other parishioners and residents of Oak Park, including Edwin Gale, the previous owner of the site where the new facility would be built. Charles E. Roberts, who was on the committee of architect selection, was a well known supporter of Wright, and it was through this strong connection that Wright claims he received the commission.

On December 17, 1905, Wright showed his first plans for Unity Temple to the committee. The final set of drawings was not accepted until February 24, 1906, after issues with the seating arrangement in the auditorium and financial issues were worked out. On May 15 1906, ground was broken and a month later Rev. Johonnot published a brochure which gave a detailed description of Unity Temple including Wright’s drawings. Since Unity Temple was built using reinforced concreted, a new building material, Wright altered construction techniques which only structurally modified Unity Temple. Although Rev. Johonnot had hoped that the structure would be
completed within one year, construction took a little over two years and was finished in October 1908.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Commission: September 1905 (c) / Completion: October 1908 (c)
Architectural and other Designer(s): Frank Lloyd Wright, architect; Richard Bock, sculptor
Others associated with Building/Site:
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): 1901 (c): The congregation of Unity Church in Oak Park, IL decides to build a new structure. December 1904 (a): Rev. Rodney appeals to the congregation for increased funding for the new church. June 6, 1905 (e): The original 1871 Gothic revival church burns to the ground after being struck by lightning. June 9, 1905 (e): The trustees of the church appoint four committees in planning to build their new church: ways and means for raising funds, location selection, plan and architect selection, and construction. August 1905 (a): The site on Lake Street is chosen. September 16, 1905 (e): The committee chooses Frank Lloyd Wright as their architect. December 17, 1905 (e): Wright presents his first plans for Unity Temple to the committee. February 24, 1906 (e): A final design is accepted by the committee. May 15, 1906 (e): Construction begins on Unity Temple. October 1908 (a): Unity Temple is completed. 1938(c): William Drummond informs Wright that Unity Temple’s cantilevers are sagging, the rebar within the concrete is exposed and rusting in certain areas, and cracks have formed along the overhangs. 1961(c): The national Universalist and Unitarian churches merge and the Unity Temple, now The Unitarian-Universalist Church, uses its own funds restore the building. The roofs are repaired, classrooms partitioned, interior repainted earthen tones, and the exterior is resurfaced with Albitol. 1966 (c): The original coat rooms beneath the auditorium are replaced with classrooms and bathrooms. 1967 (c): Unity Temple begins a tour program to help bring in necessary funds for restoration. 1968 (c): The skylights are restored. 1969 (c): An article by Henry Wright about Unity Temple’s restoration prompts Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. to match the funds raised over a three year period which allows for an extensive restoration effort. January 1971 (a): After a fire, the interior walls are repainted and woodwork stripped and refinished. March 1971 (a): The U.S. Department of the Interior designates Unity Temple a National Historic Landmark. 1972 (c): Roofs are repaired for a second time. 1973 (c): The Unity Temple Restoration Foundation is created. 1973-74 (c): The exterior is refinished again: Albitol sandblasted and Gunnite is applied. This exterior more closely matches the original. The concrete flower boxes are reconstructed. 1979 (c): After paint analysis, the interior is repainted to match Wright’s original color scheme. 1982 (c): Third reroofing. 1984 (c): Unity Temple’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Woodwork is cleaned, plaster repaired, and the entrance’s original colors are restored. 1987 (c): Interior surfaces are reexamined to determine original colors. The Unity Temple Restoration Foundation commissions a report on the building’s condition. 1988 (c): The roof slabs are analyzed. Art glass begins to be repaired and restored. Preservation easement granted to Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.
Current Use: Unity Temple continues to function as a house of worship, Sunday school, and meeting place for the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Oak Park, IL.
Current Condition: The restoration effort is on-going and with the exception of the replacement of the coat rooms with bathrooms and classrooms, the original fabric has been restored or maintained as to Wright’s original conception.
General Description:

Unity Temple is actually two buildings, Unity House and Unity Temple, connected via one entry hall. Unity House contains classrooms and meeting rooms, while Unity Temple is the house of worship. Unity House is slightly smaller in scale than Unity Temple, but both buildings are cubic forms with flat slab roofs.
Both buildings are constructed from reinforced concrete which gives the structures a flat, although textured gray surface.

Construction Period:

Reinforced concrete, steel frame used for balconies.

Original Physical Context:

Oak Park, located 8 miles outside of Chicago, was fighting being annexed into the city ca. 1900. Oak Park wanted to assert their own identity as a religiously minded community. Lake Street, the main thoroughfare in the town where the street cars ran, contained a high concentration of religious structures which served to display the beliefs of Oak Park. It was in this location that Unity Temple was built.
In his autobiography, Wright discussed the noisy nature of the street as the reasoning for moving the entry way off of the main street. Unity Temple was also moving to Lake street to assert its identity in Oak Park as a strong Unitarian and Universalist congregation in the town.

Technical Evaluation:

Unity Temple, including ornament, was entirely constructed from reinforced concrete which was cast in wooden molds. None of the structural steel is visible. Originally Wright wanted concrete with a crushed limestone aggregate for the upper walls, piers, bearing walls and column footings. The beams and floors were to be a lighter concrete mixed with cinder. Once realized that the wall surfaces and cores could be poured as a whole, the limestone aggregate was replaced by cinder and reinforced with steel rods. The concrete was poured in layers of six inches to ensure solidity and that the aggregate would not separate out. Wright used a mortar finish that was applied to the interior of the molds. Granite was the first choice, but gravel was used instead due to cost issues.
Oak is used on the interior and casein paint was applied to the plaster walls. Art glass was used in the skylights.


Unitarians and Universalists were at the forefront of liberal religions in the United States at the time Unity Temple was built. Rev. Johonnot felt that his congregation needed a building that expressed their liberal beliefs. A church did not have to adhere to the traditional basilica plan. Instead, the facility should be “multi-purpose” and include space for a school, meetings, dinners, and other events. Unity Temple married the two separate facilities by creating one entryway.
Unity Temple was innovative in its strong cubic forms and use of concrete. This was deliberate in expressing the liberal and “modern” beliefs of the Unitarian and Universalist religions. At a time when many congregations were forming in Oak Park and building new structures, Unity Temple was unique in its design and inhabited a prominent place on Lake Street to display the liberal religion's beliefs.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
Upon opening, Unity Temple was praised by the congregation for not only its wonderful accoustic properties but also design which expressed the liberal faith and successfully joined the school, place of worship, and meeting rooms. Outside of the intended users of the buildings, the design and the use of concrete was still praised. The move towards an ultra-functional building using new construction techniques was viewed as the epitome of modern architecture.

The building is seen as a landmark in both technical and design aspects. Reinforced concrete and strong geometric forms were at the forefront of modern architecture at the time and Unity Temple was used as an inspiration for Wright in his later designs as well as other architects.

General Assessment:
Unity Temple, in Oak Park, IL, was a structure that needed to function in multiple ways and also express the liberal notions of the Unitarian-Universalist congregation.
Text references:

Cowles, Linn Ann. An Index and Guide to “An Autobiography” the 1943 Edition by Frank Lloyd Wright. Hopkins, MN: Greenwich Design, 1976.

Johonnot, Dr. Rodney F. “The New Edifice of Unity Church, Oak Park, Illinois. Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect.” Oak Park, IL: New Unity Church Club, June 1906.

Siry, Joseph M. Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

The Early Work of Frank Lloyd Wright: The “Ausgeführte Bauten” of 1911. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.

Wright, Frank Lloyd. Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1958.

Recorder/Date: Janine Wilkosz / March 6, 2008
P.O. Box 230977
New York, NY 10023
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