When preservation architect Gunny Harboe received the commission to repair and restore Chicago’s Unity Temple several years ago, it was the first time in the iconic building’s 100-year history that the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece had undergone a major overhaul.
Harboe visits New Orleans and delivers an illustrated talk about the restoration project Thursday, Feb. 22, with registration at 5:30 p.m. and the talk at 6 p.m. at the Newcomb Art Museum’s Freeman Auditorium on Tulane's campus. The talk is free but reserved seats are a must (https://gunnyharboe.brownpapertickets.com). Harboe was invited to New Orleans by the Louisiana Architecture Foundation.
Designed by Wright and built from 1905-1908 for the Oak Park Unitarian congregation to which he belonged, the place of worship and its adjacent community center bear little resemblance to traditional steepled churches and their meeting halls. “Why then the steeple of the little white church? Why point to heaven?” Wright asked, according the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Instead, the architect designed “a temple to man, appropriate to his uses as a meeting place, in which to study man himself for his God’s sake,” as the Foundation describes Unity temple.
Made of concrete poured in place, the Unity Temple and Unity House (the meeting hall) are connected by a loggia and occupy a long, shallow lot on a busy street corner in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Whether it was to stave off the sounds of a city swirling outside, to maximize the $45,000 budget allotted by the congregation to build the structures, or to ensure that thoughts of the congregation were turned inward, Wright designed the buildings without windows at eye level. Nonetheless, stained glass clerestory windows and skylights flood the interior with warm, filtered light (“You feel like you are in a glade in the woods,” Harboe said.) Unity Temple has been described as the “first American building” and also alluded to as Wright’s “greatest public building of his Prairie Era.”
Harboe became involved with Unity Temple in about 2000, when he was called upon to design the repair of the building’s distinctive overhangs, the planar projections that extend beyond the walls of the building. That project led to a commission in 2006 to devise a master plan that could serve as a roadmap to a full restoration of the building.
After a “a chunk of ceiling came down near the pulpit” in 2009, Harboe and his company were asked to perform emergency repairs, he said. Water intrusion from flat roofs and insufficiently sized drain pipes meant that a full-scale restoration of the landmark was urgently needed. The Alphawood Foundation, led by philanthropist Fred Ecyhaner, came forward and provided a $10 million grant. The congregation and its foundations raised another $10 million in matching funds to pay for the work, which began in 2015 and was completed in 2017.
Over the two-year period, all exterior and interior finishes were addressed and mechanical systems upgraded. Art glass and trim were removed, repaired and reinstalled, geothermal wells were drilled to provide heating and cooling, and channels were routed into the walls for electrical conduit. Harboe will discuss challenges faced by the restoration crew and how they were resolved.
“Wright changed the way that people see architecture, and the Unity temple is one of his most important buildings,” Harboe said. “He thought of it as his gift to modern architecture.”