Unity Temple

Oak Park, Illinois

Unity Temple, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1907, is an early example of modern church architecture and is one of the earliest public buildings in the United States to feature exposed concrete. It continues to serve its original design purpose as a house of worship.

In 2008, BCA completed an interior finishes analysis of both Unity House and Unity Temple in order to better understand Wright’s original finishes scheme. These finishes included a distinct sand float plaster base with pigmented washes that varied from opaque to semi-transparent. The result was a polychromatic interior composed of geometric forms finished in an earthy color palette. Through a combination of cross-section microscopy, in situ exposures, and instrumental analysis, BCA was able to comprehensively document Wright’s original finishes scheme.

BCA’s research came into play during the 2017 renovation of the Unity Temple complex. Working closely with both the architect and decorative painter, BCA helped to design and review mock-ups to ensure that the correct appearance of Wright’s original decorative palette was attained. Dozens of mock-up panels illustrating various plaster textures, wash applications, and colors were prepared and reviewed. They were compared to the original finishes, both by eye and in cross-section under the microscope, until all attributes of the original finish were as closely matched as possible. Only then could the finishes be replicated on a large scale throughout the building.

The renovation of Unity Temple has been heralded as a great success, even as a “triumph” by The Chicago Tribune, and this project was awarded the “Special Award of Restoration Excellence” in 2018 by do.co,mo.mo_us. A large part of this success is due to the recreation of one of the most critical parts of Wright’s original design—the interior finishes. The replication of these complex finishes is an example of the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration between architect, architectural conservator and decorative painter.

BCA's contribution to the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple can be seen in the new documentary "Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright's Modern Masterpiece." Directed by Lauren Levine and narrated by Brad Pitt, the film is available to stream from October 30 - November 15. Discover the restoration of the Chicago landmark and see BCA's Dorothy Krotzer talk about the intricacies of Wright's finishes. 

Materials: Finishes
Related services: Conditions Surveys, Field Testing, Finishes Analysis, Inspection Services, Lab Testing, Specifications