Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple among National Trust's 11 Most Endangered

Frank Lloyd Wright's 1909 Unity Temple was named Tuesday to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2009 list of the Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places. This may come as a shock to the thousands of visitors from all over the world who make the pilgrimage to Oak Park each year specifically to see one of the most important works of the self-proclaimed, and quite possibly actual "world's greatest architect."

Unity Temple replaced a previous church which had burned down when lightning hit its steeple. Call it an omen. Wright worked to subvert the top-heavy hierarchy that traditional Christian houses of worship took in both form and operation, and a create a new alternative that was both democratic and spiritual. The result is among America's greatest spaces, a perfect cube whose shallow surround of balconies, where worshippers face each other as well as the alter, creates an intense feeling of fellowship and sanctuary.
Unfortunately, as at Wright's Fallingwater, where the supports for the spectacular cantilever sagged over time and required an expensive replacement, innovation has its costs. At Unity Temple, this was Wright's use of not brick or stone, but concrete to create an entirely plastic sense of form. As the National Trust says in their press release:
Since Wright’s experimental concrete design did not call for expansion joints, there is extensive cracking. A coating of concrete applied in the early 1970s is no longer performing its vital, protective function and must be restored.

With its innovative and geometric design, the building has 16 separate flat roofs. Instead of using gutters, Wright designed an internal drainage system with downspouts hidden inside the four main interior columns of the temple. The system was undersized and essentially inaccessible, and to this day water continually overflows the drains and permeates the concrete roof slabs. Heavy rains in September 2008 caused a large chunk of plaster and concrete to fall from the sanctuary ceiling.

Many of Unity Temple’s art glass windows – there are more than 75 of them, in 10 different designs – are cracked, bowed and in need of professional conservation. In addition, much of the beautifully modulated wood banding throughout the building is in need of refinishing, plastered and painted surfaces require expensive restoration, and the original Magnesite floors – a signature feature – are cracked from heaving and require extensive repairs.

While Unity Temple has been well maintained, water infiltration has caused extensive damage to the concrete structure and interior finishes over the years. Now structurally compromised, the building urgently requires a multi-million-dollar rescue effort, a capital investment that Unity Temple’s community of dedicated supporters cannot afford.
The Unity Temple Restoration Foundation estimates that $4 to $6 million needs to be raised quickly just to stabilize the building and execute the most pressing repairs to the concrete. The full cost of restoration, including the interiors, is pegged at $25,000,000.

Unity Temple, 875 Lake Street, is open to the public. If you think you know what it's like from photographs, think again. It's an easy half-hour ride from downtown via the Green Line. Open Monday-Friday 10:30 - 4:30, Saturday and Sunday 1:00 - 4:00. Self-guided and pre-arranged tours. Admission: children 5 and under free; seniors and students with a valid ID, $6.00; adults, $8.00. The experience of one of architecture's greatest glories: priceless.

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