National Historic Preservation Trust’s "2009 11 Most Endangered List" Includes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple

This year marks the 22nd annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has used this list as a powerful alarm to raise awareness of the serious threats facing the nation’s greatest treasures. It has become one of the most effective tools in the fight to save the country’s irreplaceable architectural, cultural and natural heritage. In the days leading up to and during the National Preservation Trust’s Nashville Conference, Nashville Past And Present will highlight the historic buildings, structures and places on this years most endangered list.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, designed for a Unitarian congregation in Oak Park, Illinois, is widely acknowledged as an icon of 20th-century architecture. Dedicated in September 1909, the cubic, flat-roofed structure is also one of the earliest public buildings to feature exposed concrete, one of Wright’s signature design elements. Reflecting on his career shortly before his death in 1959, Wright described the building, now a National Historic Landmark, as one of his greatest achievements, calling it “my contribution to modern architecture.” 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 commission for Unity Temple came from Wright’s own Unitarian congregation, and the architect responded with an experimental design that broke the rules for Western religious architecture with its deliberate omission of a central nave and iconic steeple, and use of innovative materials. The building’s cubic four-level sanctuary and adjoining social hall feature monumental art glass skylights. When it was completed a century ago, architecture critics praised the design for its strong geometric massing, use of modern materials and intricate manipulation of space.

Unity Temple is the only surviving public structure from Wright’s prolific Prairie period. Widely recognized as one of the world’s most inspiring sacred spaces, it is also a popular tourism destination and serves as a space for performances, lectures, conferences, and community events.

Despite many repair attempts, the temple’s concrete structure and interior finishes suffer from widespread damage. 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 Restoration Foundation , is committed to saving and restoring this iconic structure, $4 to $6 million is needed immediately to stabilize the structure and complete critical concrete repairs, and $1.5 to $2 million is required to install an interior climate-control system. Cost of the complete project, including interior restoration, is estimated at $20 to $25 million.

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