Frank Lloyd Wright and Church of the Divine Unity

Photo of Unity Temple, by Ivo Shandor – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2181412

This is the text of an address by Maurice Large, Acting Church Secretary, on 21 January 2018, about the links between the design of our building, the Church of the Divine Unity, and the pioneering work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

“In 1905, a lightning strike started a fire which destroyed the wood-framed Gothic style Unity Church, in the village of Oak Park, just west of Chicago, Illinois. The next morning, Oak Park resident and Unity Church member Frank Lloyd Wright offered to design a new church, now known as Unity Temple. I say village – we would regard it as an inner suburb of Chicago – but it has had its fair share of notable people. With a population today of less than 52,000, Oak Park was the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and Bob Newhart, the comedian and actor. Dan Castellaneta – the voice of Homer Simpson – went to school there.

“The Unity Church minister asked for a modern but affordable worship space that would embody the principles of “unity, truth, beauty, simplicity, freedom and reason.” The budget was $45,000, a modest amount even in the early 20th century. Building materials had to be inexpensive and as Wright said, “concrete is cheap.” The same concrete moulds were used multiple times, as Wright had designed repeating walls with similar dimensions. In that era, bare concrete walls were typically used for industrial buildings, such as factories or grain elevators. But here, Wright uses smooth concrete in new ways – creating a form unlike any other faith-based or religious structure in the country.

Photo of Unity Temple Interior by Theodolite at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons
“Despite the austere and radical façade, Wright delivered on the minister’s request by designing a beautiful, truthful, simple and rational building. When approaching Unity Temple from Lake Street, no entrance is immediately apparent, which creates a pathway of discovery for the visitor. Wright used this architectural technique often in his Prairie Style structures from that era, including at the Robie House. Visitors enter from a quiet side street, pass under wide eaves and walk up steps to the entry doors. Brass letters above the door announce the building’s purpose: “For the worship of God and the service of man.” Guests pass through a low-ceilinged foyer before entering the sanctuary, where they are bathed in honey-coloured light from coffered art glass skylights. This use of tighter, low-ceilinged “compression” moments followed immediately by large open spaces that provide a “release,” was another common spatial technique Wright used to heighten the drama for visitors discovering a space. Although the main ceilings are high, the space is intimate, offering seating for 400 congregants on three levels. And unlike a traditional worship space where the congregation all faces the same direction, the square sanctuary at Unity Temple has three levels and allows a more democratic space where everyone has sight-lines to everyone else.

“The textured, earth-coloured plaster walls have a luminous sheen—a stark contrast to the unadorned concrete exterior. Unity Hall is located on the other side of the foyer. The room was designed for the congregation’s social activities and features a wide hearth. Balconies flanking the hall are used as classrooms and special purpose rooms. And again, high glass skylights fill the space with all-encompassing warm light. Wright’s unique design broke almost every existing convention for religious architecture. Yet the temple immediately became an icon for modern architecture, and a building the congregation was immensely proud to call its own.

“The famous architect identified with Unitarianism and believed in its rational humanism. His mother’s family was Welsh Unitarian, from a Unitarian church in Llandysul, and his uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones became a distinguished American Unitarian minister. The Lloyd Jones family, including Jenkin and Anna, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother, had emigrated to the USA in 1844 to form a Welsh-speaking community in Wisconsin. They felt that they had to flee Wales, because of their belief that God is a single entity and that Jesus was purely human. That sense of being an outsider, and standing firm in his belief in the face of crushing criticism, was something which defined Wright. From an early stage in his career, he was always looking to do things differently, so much so that he refused to join the American Institute of Architects.

“The family had settled in the village of Spring Green because of the similarity of the landscape to that of home in Wales. Indeed the area was known as “The Valley”. Frank was born in 1867 and it is said that when she was expecting him his mother declared that her child would grow up to design wonderful buildings.

“What he designed for the congregation by 1909 was unorthodox in both form and materials, reflecting his freethinking radical brand of the Unitarian Christianity which had been preached in Llandysul. As articulated by the present minister of that church, Rev. Wyn Thomas the Unitarian philosophy then and now was founded in the individual’s ability to decide for themselves. Another aspect of his Unitarian influence was the belief in God’s constant innovation through the agency of humankind.

“Frank Lloyd Wright left the Valley to train as an architect in Chicago, where he met Kitty Tobin, whom he married in 1889. He then bought a plot of land in Oak Park (where the suburbs ended and the chapels began) where he designed and built his first house – open plan before the idea existed. Free flow through the house reflected an idea of family life learned in the Unitarian values of his early life, where the space was honest, equal and communal. It was after the family had moved to Oak Park and been worshipping in the old chapel that the fire came which made Wright’s reputation. He designed about 50 houses for other residents in the village. Indeed it is said that there is a greater concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings in Oak Park than anywhere else, although his most famous buildings are elsewhere, notably the headquarters of the Johnson’s wax company in Racine, Wisconsin and pre-eminently the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He died in 1959, widely regarded as the foremost American architect of the 20th century.

“His private life came in for much comment. He had a reputation for liking the company of women. Having fathered six children he began an affair with Martha Cheney (known as Mamah), the wife of a client, and he abandoned his family when the two of them fled to Europe. Kitty, however, refused to divorce him and they returned to the United States in October 1910 after less than a year. He persuaded his mother to buy him a plot of land in the Valley where he built his home, which he named Taliesin, named after a 6th Century Welsh poet, magician and priest, and where he set up home with Mamah Cheney.

“On August 15th 1914 a male servant, for reasons unknown, set fire to Taliesin and murdered the occupants, including Mamah Cheney and the two Cheney children, and subsequently drank acid and could not be saved. The building was restored. In 1922 Kitty finally gave Wright a divorce, and in 1923 he married Miriam Noel. She was addicted to morphine and the marriage lasted less than one year, by which time Wright had met his third and last wife, Olga Hilzenberg, a Montenegrin ballet dancer with the Petrograd ballet. She was already married, her husband coincidentally also being an architect.

“Taliesin had been destroyed by another fire, this time accidental, in 1925. Wright had it rebuilt and he and Olga established a Fellowship there, inviting students to come and train under Wright and learn not only architecture but also spiritual development, an interest of Olga’s. 23 students came in 1932, the first year of its operation, and the Fellowship is now the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. When Wright died in 1959 Olga continued to run the Fellowship, which she continued to run with an autocratic hand until she died in 1985, aged 86.

“Jonathan Adams, the Welsh architect who designed the Welsh Millennium Centre in Cardiff and who presented the BBC programme on Frank Lloyd Wright last year said, “His mother’s family felt that they had to flee Wales, because of their belief that God is a single entity and that Jesus was purely human. That sense of being an outsider, and standing firm in his belief in the face of crushing criticism, was something which defined Wright. From an early stage in his career, he was always looking to do things differently, so much so that when he refused to join the American Institute of Architects he was accused of being an old amateur he replied, “Yes, the oldest.”

CDU Church Exterior

“This church building, the Church of the Divine Unity in Newcastle upon Tyne, was opened in 1940. It has stood on this site, providing for the needs of this congregation, for 78 years. It is built, as many of you will know, on the site of a former parish church, St Peter’s, which the Church of England declared redundant in the 1930s. St Peter’s church, like our previous Church of the Divine Unity in New Bridge Street, was a typical Victorian Gothic edifice, totally different to our present building. I believe that the first time we ever had a formal church anniversary service was in 1990 when the building was fifty years old.

“The architects, Cackett, Burns-Dick & McKellar, were a local firm, certainly not Unitarians. When you think of Unity Temple and its redevelopment, it is a bit like having Norman Foster or Richard Rogers in our congregation in the 1930s offering to design a new building for us to replace the old one. But though they may not have been Unitarians, Cackett Burns-Dick must certainly have been influenced in their design of this building by the 1909 Unity Temple. I’ve only given you two comparison photographs with the Order of Service, but just look at the detail – the rectilinear forms and the round globes of the lights; the long narrow windows with their geometric detailing.

“I have no doubt that the Architects were influenced by the nature of the building they were commissioned to design, and by the organisation which they were working for – the minister, committee and congregation. It is not fanciful to assume that they would have looked for ideas by looking at other Unitarian churches of modern design, and it seems likely that they would have been attracted to Unity Temple. Unity Temple opened in 1909 and this church opened in 1940, quite late for its Art Deco design.

“Today is about celebrating our building. You may wonder why, after so many years of worrying about its condition and deciding to sell it to a new owner, we should celebrate it. The answer surely is that, like all buildings, it is of its time. At its opening, exactly 78 years ago today, it was celebrated as apt for the congregation who worshipped here. It was sober in design, rational in form and function and accommodated the number of worshippers who came here. It was, in the full meaning of the words, a Unitarian building. Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect who forged an international reputation. And I would like to think that in some small way his Unitarian values are reflected in this building in which we have worshipped for 78 years.

“Unity Temple has recently been renovated so it is restored to perfect condition. And lest anyone wonder why we can’t do that here, the Chicago Tribune newspaper for 20th May 2017 reported that the project cost $25 million!”