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.
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.
Reinforced concrete, steel frame used for balconies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.