Saving the Wright Stuff Is A Mission for Illinois Church

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By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 21, 2003

OAK PARK, Ill. -- Fundraising is a near constant function at many houses of worship, with one raffle, car wash or bake sale after another to buy new robes for the choir, feed the poor and hungry or make needed, and sometimes costly, repairs.

But when the Universalist Congregation at Unity Temple wanted to bulk up its endowment fund, members decided to sell off some old chairs.

The take? A cool $71,000 for five chairs at an auction last month, because these chairs -- kept under lock and key -- had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed architect. While hardly a record -- some Wright chairs have sold for more than $200,000 -- the sale was a big boost to the upkeep endowment, which had only $59,000 at the time.

"This is a high-maintenance building," said Barbara Moline, president of the congregation, which has called the building home since it was completed in 1908.

To the congregation that worships here, Unity Temple is a comfortable, old spiritual home that needs plenty of love.

But it is also a national treasure that has its own restoration foundation and draws 20,000 visitors annually from all over the world who come to touch the walls, sit in the pews and come face-to-face with what is considered one of Wright's masterpieces. So, while the congregation raises money for daily upkeep and maintenance, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, which opens the facility daily for tours and concerts, has embarked on a campaign to raise $12 million to $15 million to restore the building to the way it appeared when it first opened its doors.

A designated national historic landmark, Unity Temple is the last surviving major public building from Wright's early "Prairie" period.

Wright had a major influence on modern living, including the addition of the living room, the carport and "open" floor plans. He built modest single-family homes and mansions for people like Henry Ford as well as government offices, gas stations and bridges. About 350 of those structures still exist. But Unity Temple is considered one of his most innovative works, along with the open-office concept in the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, demolished in 1950.

"The first public building constructed out of cast concrete, [Unity Temple] also firmly establishes Wright's concept of interior open spaces, where walls disappear and architectural features screen off various functional areas," said Ron Scherubel, executive director of the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which seeks to preserve Wright's remaining structures.

But like many of Wright's older works, it is in sore need of an overhaul.

The poured concrete that forms the walls is deteriorating and needs to be reinforced. Rust spots have formed in some places on the exterior. One of the ornamental columns is cracked. There is no air conditioning and the heating system is inefficient, leading to wild swings in temperature that cause the poured concrete that forms the walls to expand and contract. Those familiar with Wright's work say that while he was a master of design, he was not always as keen on practicality. And many of his buildings have been plagued by structural problems.

"He had an attitude that he's pushing the limits of design and engineering and if it lasts a lifetime, he was successful," said Keith Bringe, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, as he toured the facility recently.

Because of all the work it needs, Unity Temple was placed on the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois's list of 10 Most Endangered Historic Properties in 2000. And so both the congregation and the restoration foundation have their hands full trying to keep the place going. Sometimes, disputes arise because of the varied missions.

The recent sale of the chairs, for instance, was a cause of concern for some who thought the chairs should have been retained. Four of the chairs went to a West Coast collector and the fifth was purchased by a New York dealer for a private client. The chairs, which included a 54-inch-tall, slat-backed model, were made originally for Brown's Bookstore in Chicago; the store went out of business in 1912.

But the chairs were not made for sitting, said John Toomey, owner of the gallery that sold the chairs for the church. "The chairs certainly don't have much function for a church's purpose," he said. "They're just beautiful chairs. They are more cultural than functional." Still, he had hoped they would stay in the Chicago area or gone to a museum.

Moline, however, said that was not practical for the congregation. Since the chairs were not original to the building and had to be kept locked away to prevent theft, they could be of better use by being auctioned to the highest bidder. The congregation needed the money.

"We're not a museum," said Moline, whose congregation has about 350 members.

It is just that, however, to the visitors who arrive daily to take $6 tours and buy souvenirs in a tiny gift shop that sells slides and brochures. But both the congregation and the restoration foundation say they love the building and make every effort to get along so that they can raise the money to ensure that Unity Temple lasts another 100 years.

"I think we're relatively successful at coexisting," Bringe said.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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