The Rev. Emily Gage chose not to take what happened shortly after she started at Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple as an omen. “Right after I began, in the fall of '08, a giant piece of ceiling fell down right above the pulpit,” she said.
This compromise of the building's integrity did not happen during a Sunday service. No one was hurt. And life with Unity Temple, Wright's modernist masterpiece in Oak Park and a mixed blessing of a structure if ever there were one, went on.
The Unitarian Universalist congregation that calls Wright's first major public building home put up some plywood, painted it in earth tones to blend in and kept hoping for a way to fix the crumbling architectural classic. Gage continued as a minister. And water kept seeping in, especially around the edges of Wright's flat roof and concrete exterior cladding, and plaster kept coming off.
As recently as this June, just before the congregation moved out, churchgoers seated in the center section of the upper balcony could choose to look down toward the pulpit, past Wright's elegant, suspended wooden chandeliers, into a sanctuary described as one of the most beautiful American public spaces ever conceived. Or they could look over their left shoulder at a white fissure, a massive scar in an otherwise serene green wall and an undeniable reminder that history was getting the better of this historic space.
Now renovation is trumping the effects of time. The building, on busy Lake Street in the center of Oak Park, is wrapped all in white plastic like a more purposeful Christo project, the better to keep dust and noise out of the surrounding neighborhood. The signs on the chain-link fence at street level warn passers-by, including the town's droves of Wright tourists, that you cannot go in, but if you are allowed, you must wear a hard hat.
And inside, most of the architect's art glass windows have already been removed and shipped to Los Angeles for restoration. A section of wall bears witness to experiments that will result in the restoration of Wright's original color scheme. Blue tape and signs mark the woodwork that will be stripped and sent away for repair. The exterior wall is being cleaned in preparation for its revamping. The roofs will be redone.
Beyond that, the building, constructed 1905-1908, is getting an even more modernist touch: nine skinny holes 500 feet deep in its north lawn that will provide a geothermal heating system and, for the first time, air conditioning. Previous summers have been so muggy that the congregation has cut services back. Now, when the building reopens in late 2016, it can plan for another four months of church programming and genteel tourism.
“I'm really excited about it,” said Gage. “For as long as I've been around in Chicago, the building has needed to be taken care of. And now it's getting done.”
With a price tag of $23 million, this is the deluxe rehabilitation package, a stark contrast to the mostly emergency work that's been done through the years to keep the building grunting along.
“It's top to bottom, inside out,” said Gunny Harboe, the Chicago architect specializing in historic preservation who has worked toward fixing this building for more than a decade and now, with a stack of blueprints almost an inch-and-a-half thick, is supervising its repair. He helped conceive the master restoration plan of 2006 and recently helped update it.
“I never despaired,” Harboe said. “But it's amazing to be able to do it. It's a feeling of euphoria for myself and the whole team. Many, many people have been waiting to see it happen.”
Heather Hutchison, who runs the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, the philanthropic organization that works with the congregation on behalf of the building, concurs.
“There are Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts,” she said. “There are historical building enthusiasts. There are Chicago and worldwide architecture enthusiasts. And there are just everyday fans who have been waiting for what seems like an eternity for this building to be brought back to its original condition.”
There is also Luis Porras. Porras is a 38-year-old craftsman who grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood that is home to the art glass firm The Judson Studios. As a teenager, Porras heard about an apprenticeship opportunity at Judson, won the job and has been there since.
On a June morning he was on scaffolding on the topmost exterior of the Unity Temple chapel with a crew of colleagues removing Wright's glass.
“I'm right up close to this column,” Porras said. “A lot of architects — a lot of people — would love to be in my position right now. I'm looking at the intricacies of this pillar. It's like a backstage pass.”
One by one, Porras and colleagues eased the geometric panels of glass, lead and zinc out, labeled them, passed them through an already open window frame and walked them down through the chapel for crating up and shipping to LA.
“It's your history that they're giving us to restore and preserve,” Porras said. “We're taking care of your churches, your treasures. We're very mindful of that.”
Getting to this point has been difficult, surprisingly so in some respects. Unity Temple is, by most reckoning, a great American structure. An Architectural Record poll of its readers in 1991 named it one of the 10 most important U.S. buildings of the 20th century. It's a National Historic Landmark. And it is currently under nomination, with nine other Wright structures, to join the list of World Heritage Sites maintained by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“It's one of Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest works, and it's a masterpiece of modern architecture,” Harboe said. “It's a building that changed a lot of architects' ideas about what architecture could do.” Ask him to elaborate, and he'll talk about its use of poured concrete, which ushered in modernist architecture, and about Wright's “totally dynamic expansion of space” and his “compression of space.”
Or visit the building and feel the proportions of the sanctuary. It's a room that feels comfortable and alive with a modest wedding (full disclosure: this writer rented the chapel and was married there in June of 1995) or with a well subscribed Sunday service (fuller disclosure: this writer and his family attended services there for a handful of weeks in 2010). The acoustics are superb and despite the room's capacity, no seat is more than 15 yards from the pulpit.
“When I finished Unity Temple, I had it,” Wright said of his own handiwork. “I knew I had the beginning of a great thing, a great truth in architecture. Now architecture could be free.”
Yet despite the near universal acclaim, especially from people who have experienced the place, Unity Temple languished. Part of the reason is that money for the grunt work of preservation can be hard to come by. Erecting a new building is sexy; mending an old one's failing seams and subpar HVAC system can come across as a fiduciary task akin to bathing grandpa.
But the greater part of the trouble, those involved said, has been the unique nature of Unity Temple's stewardship.
“It is a church in the United States,” said Gage. “That's kind of a tricky line, state vs. church.”
The Alphawood Foundation chose to see that line, instead, as a blessing. “Yes, it's owned by a church, but one of the cool things for us is this is the historic use of this building,” said Brad White, associate director of the foundation, the eleemosynary arm of Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner. “Here we have the historic owners of the building still in the building using the building for the purpose for which it was designed. I don't know any better way to say it but that it's really cool.”
So cool, Alphawood thought, that earlier this year it donated $10 million to kick-start the restoration (just as it had previously donated $2 million to kick-start construction of what is now the 606 linear urban park in Chicago). That's been blended with $1.5 million raised by the congregation of fewer than 700 to make the project happen.
“It needed a jump-start. That's the way we looked at it,” said White, who now chairs the foundation's board. “ The funding we were prepared to provide would really jump-start the restoration but also a larger fundraising campaign that is necessary to complete the project.”
So a campaign is underway to raise the remaining $11.5 million needed to complete the project, money that's currently covered by a bridge loan. The Getty Foundation recently pledged $200,000 toward restoration of the building's concrete facade.
“The building has been taken care of, but it was being done piecemeal,” White said. “My observation: It got to the point that it wasn't believable that the restoration was ever going to take place and that anyone was going to be able to mount a serious fundraising campaign to do it. The whole team believes that with the project starting, it will really jump-start our fundraising efforts.”
While that work, and the nitty-gritty of the rehab take place, Gage and her congregation are adjusting well to their new temporary quarters in a Lutheran church elsewhere in Oak Park, she said.
“It's a gift to kind of have somebody else do this so I can concentrate on being a minister,” she said, “and helping our congregation be a congregation and helping to change the world and not thinking, like, how are we going to fix the plaster that's falling off the wall."