Interior Tour of
Frank Lloyd Wright's
Unity Temple

Welcome to Unity Temple, one of the most important buildings Frank Lloyd Wright built during his long career. This tour is sponsored by the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. The challenge for your tour will be to relate how the building looks on the outside to what you will see on the inside. You will experience how Wright creates anticipation by leading us through low, dark spaces into high, light spaces. Wright uses materials, color and geometry to define the character of the spaces. We begin with a discussion about the building's history, the only public building from Wright's early career still in use. Frank Lloyd Wright was associated with this Unitarian Universalist congregation when they asked him to design a new church after their wooden church burned during a storm in 1905. His design was constructed between 1906 and 1908 at a cost of about $60,000. It is one of the earliest public buildings constructed of concrete, poured in place into wooden molds. Wright was led to choose concrete because it was, in his words, "cheap," and yet could be made as dignified as more traditional masonry. His desire to create a house of worship expressing the powerful simplicity of ancient temples prompted his suggestion that it be called a "temple" rather than a church.

Our tour starts outside the west entrance of the Unity Temple (marked with [0] on the schematic below.) Over the entrance doors outside, seen at right, notice the words


These two principles of the Unitarian Universalist faith suggested the plan for the Temple and House. These words and the abstract architectural forms have replaced the traditional pictorial narrative usually seen in religious paintings, sculptures and stained glass.

We proceed inside to the Entrance Hall [1], where you would enter Unity Temple for Sunday services or for one of the many social, educational and artistic events held by the congregation. You arrived here from the street by a series of right-angled turns that emphasize the protected character of the sanctuary. Continuity between outside and inside at the entrance itself is produced by transparent art glass windows and doors that Wright called "light screens." (Click on the schematic to get a full-screen version.)

Wright was restricted to a narrow lot which the congregation bought because of its location. In 1905 Lake Street was traveled by street cars, and to shield the Interior from the noise, the building does not open directly onto it. The Temple building fills the lot, with solid walls that shut out the busy street. At the four corners of the Temple, the shorter blocks contain the stairs. The solid walls between the stairs support a "Crown" of windows and ornamented columns carry the projecting roof slab (seen when we enter the Temple bleow.) These columns afford, in Wright's words, "the necessary ornamentation and beauty to what would otherwise be a severely simple facade." To the right (south) of the Unity Temple building is Unity House (not pictured.) The walls of the house extend past the raised terraces at the entrances and toward the Temple to form a harmonious composition. The two parts of the building are further unified by the similar corner blocks and rows of short columns. A practical purpose was served by such repetition because the contractor was able to knock down the wooden framework after pouring the concrete for one section and set it up again to pour another.

It's now time to enter the Temple, which Wright called his "jewel box." Turning left (north) we go through double glass doors, from the Entrance Hall into the even smaller, darker Cloister [2] below the galleries along the sides. Follow the Cloister to the back, and look out to the interior of the Temple. The shafts of light and the pattern of the art glass windows from the narrow openings are all that break the quiet darkness of the interior, while your eyes are lifted upward by the brightness of the ceiling. (Click on the photo at left for a full size picture.)

Walk down the steps into the cubic space of the Temple [3]. The room seats approximately 400 people, all of whom share an intimate relation to the pulpit. The balconies on three sides create the intimacy for both the spoken word and for musical performances.
Standing in the central space you can see the four comers which contain the stairs and the four large piers which support the roof slab and balconies and also contain air shafts. Behind the lectern, the oak grille conceals the organ pipes. The volumes of space, the piers, the balconies and the ceiling are tied together by continuous and dynamic patterns of thin oak strips.

The art glass panels over the central space, protected outside by a glass shell, create a canopy of amber colored light for the entire room. Each panel recessed in the crossed ceiling structure is composed of four glass modules, each turned a different way. An oak strip connects each panel to the framing strip which, in turn, connects them to the geometric lines of the whole room.
This is only one example of Wright's attention to minute detail. The colors inside the great room all relate to the dominant yellow hue. Whether gray, green, or white, a unifying yellowish hue casts a warm sunny glow throughout. Though they lack the original plaster finish, they are a close match to the original colors.

The hanging light fixtures are reminiscent of Japanese design, but with their exposed electrical cords wrapped in gold silk thread they are an early example of expressing function in an artistic way. The round ball of the globe is a punctuation mark in the dominant rectilinearity of the room.

Above the balconies is a continuous plane of windows under the projecting roof slab. Wright set the windows right into the concrete to minimize the window framing and to create continuity between the inside and outside. Your eye can move through the windows to the columns outside whose geometric capitals abstract naturalistic leaf forms and repeat the cubic shapes of the building. They were cast as part of the column and are an example of ornamentation that Wright meant to be integral with the building, not merely stuck on it.

Fifty years after building Unity Temple, Wright eloquently described the total effect of its design:

"I think that was about the first time when the interior space began to come through as the reality of the building, when you sat in the Temple, you were silting under a big concrete slab that let your eyes go out into the clouds on four sides. Then there were no walls with holes in them. You will notice that features were arranged against that interior space allowing a sense of it to come to the beholder wherever he happened to be. And I have been working on that thesis ,for a long time because it was dawning on me that when I built that building that the reality of the building did not consist in the walls and in the roof, but in this space within to be lived in." (From Caedmon Record TC 1064 interview with Wright in Spring 1955.)

Unity Temple continues to be owned and used by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation that originally commissioned its creation. One of its important secondary uses is for a concert series. Wright compared the way architecture is composed to the harmonious relationship of parts to whole in music. We'd like to invite you to wander up into the Balconies [4] and look around or take photos.

Since 1971, considerable restoration work has been accomplished. Major projects included: resurfacing the exterior, electrical rewiring, roof repairs and restoring the colors in the Temple. Some of the major projects waiting to he done include renovation of the heating system by replacing radiators with unobtrusive heating units more in keeping with Wright's intention and restoration of the art glass windows and skylights in the Temple.

These projects are being underwritten by the congregation and the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation independent of the church. The Restoration Foundation largely depends on private contributions to fund this work. Even though the building seems ageless, we are learning from the recently completed Historic Structure Report that it is growing frail. The Restoration Foundation seeks to follow as many of the report's recommendations as possible to restore the building to its original design and to solve potentially serious structural problems. Extensive funding will he necessary to complete this major effort and then to continue an ongoing program of maintenance. If you would like to contribute to the restoration and future of Unity Temple, please contact us via telephone at (708) 383-8873, or send email to

Thank you for joining us on this WebTour of Unity Temple. We hope you will visit Oak Park to see more of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park. For information on other tours, contact the Oak Park Visitors' Center.

Text by the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, Copyright © 1996-2003 All Rights Reserved.
The interior photographs of Unity Temple on this tour are reproductions of photographs owned
by Judith Bromley, Copyright © 1996-1998 All Rights Reserved. Exterior photos by Steven Hurder.

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URL for this page: -- Posted January 28, 1997 -