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Disunity Temple: two wrongs can't fix a Wright

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Unity Temple was Frank Lloyd Wright's first public building: a landmark, and one that attracts thousands to the intersection of Lake and Kenilworth in Oak Park. The boxy structure is renowned for its fine acoustics and wretchedly uncomfortable pews.

The Unity Temple Restoration Foundation was founded by architecture buffs 16 years ago to raise money for the temple's restoration. But Unity Temple is also the home of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Oak Park, the congregation that owns the building. While they appreciate the architectural treasure that houses them, they see it as a place of worship first and a landmark second. Two months ago, 16 years of mutual resentment between the church and the foundation came to a head.

In Unity Temple Wright not only was daring in his use of Japanese-inspired architecture but also made a pioneering use of cast concrete. Today, there are serious questions about the condition of that concrete--particularly about the broad eaves that overhang the sidewalks, and about the general safety of the building. In the midst of an impending financial crisis over restoration, due in part to the concrete problem, in August the board of the Unitarian church cut off relations with UTRF. The congregation objected, and has now overruled the board: relations have been resumed, at least for the next six months.

Another Oak Park-based organization, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation, is also involved. For years the Unitarians and UTRF had what that organization's executive director, Sandra Wilcoxon, calls "an informal agreement": the Home and Studio Foundation's tour center ran tours of the temple as well as of other Wright buildings, and UTRF took the temple's part of the money for restoration. Early this year, negotiations began that were intended to create a formal agreement. The hope was that long-simmering problems having to do with control and use of the temple could be resolved in the process. Instead, those problems boiled over when the church board voted in August to completely sever relations with UTRF.

To make matters worse, at about that same time word got out about a $20,000 study of the temple's concrete, done by the respected engineering consulting firm of Wiss Janney Elstner Associates. Funded by UTRF, the study raised what Wilcoxon calls "the whole issue about whether chunks of the building might or might not fall off." The study concluded that it's a clear and present danger, and that the cantilevered eaves need to be reworked. It suggested taking one off for exploratory surgery, at a cost of $80,000. The church board is skeptical about the study's findings: they believe that there is most likely no problem. But the Home and Studio Foundation has now bowed out of the tours, fearing possible liability. Meanwhile the church is conducting its own tours, and planning to commission a concrete study of its own.

The bad feelings between the Unitarians and UTRF also came to a head several years ago, when the congregation decided to remodel their kitchen--designed by Wright--and bring it up to code. Members of UTRF tried to get an injunction to stop them; apparently they felt that all of Wright's works are sacred, right down to the plumbing. The congregation, arguing that the kitchen was not a public area and that they needed a safe, sanitary, modern facility, went ahead with the renovation. UTRF members "rescued the cabinets from the Dumpster," says one observer. These were put into the basement of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation for safekeeping and used for storage. Earlier this year, the congregation demanded the cabinets' return (for use in their newly renovated church house). The Home and Studio Foundation acquiesced.

"The most significant problems between UTRF and the church are personal problems," says Bob Compton. A ten-year member of the church, he also has an interest in Wright and is an elected member of UTRF's board (the Unitarians have four appointed positions reserved for them as well). "There are problems with the personal relationships between some members of the church and some members of the UTRF governance. There's an antagonistic aura. Some people are a little bit abrasive, on both sides."

The root of the problem is the clash between the needs of Unitarian worshipers and the desires of devotees of the Frank Lloyd Wright cult. With the constant flow of curious passersby and resultant disruptions, the congregation has trouble carrying on church activities. Many in the congregation also consider UTRF inefficient and ineffectual. "The restoration projects were falling behind," says congregation president Rich Pokorny. He also feels that a UTRF summary of the concrete study "sensationalized" the report.

But if the church's relationship with UTRF is severed and the foundation is dissolved, who will do the work of fund-raising and restoration? "There were very specific reasons for [UTRF's] founding," says Wilcoxon. "When you have a building that is this visible, and needs this much attention, and needs restoration in a specific, historic manner, it may be beyond [the congregation's] means.

"UTRF has a 501(c)3, a specific charter that opens up other sources of funding--it's used by museums, educational groups, historic preservation organizations. It means they can accept contributions from corporations and other granting foundations that usually cannot give to churches. The people giving that money want to know that it's going for restoration, not for the church's operating fund or the minister's salary. UTRF was established to access those funding sources not open to the church. UTRF's only job is to focus on the restoration and the needs of the building, making the building accessible."

Some church members have no complaint about UTRF's supposed function. "The question is not, should there be a separate foundation for restoration fund-raising?" says Pokorny. "The question is more, is UTRF the organization to do the job, or should a new organization be found or formed to do the job? There's no question that Unity Temple needs money."

Frank Pond, the current president of UTRF, sighs when asked about the squabble with the church. He says there are good reasons that UTRF might seem inefficient. One is that the foundation has no paid staff; even the tour receptionist is a church employee who is paid to hand out tour cassette players by UTRF. Pond, who works for the village of Oak Park as rehabilitation supervisor for the housing rehab program, does his own typing and filing for the foundation. He and his colleagues take off from work when there's an especially big project for the foundation, such as traveling to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to visit the art-glass firm that's redoing some of the building's lights. Says Pond, "We do not have any vested interest that building other than our love for it."

To charges that UTRF has moved too slowly on some restoration projects Pond responds: "Restoration is not a quick fix. When you're working with a building of the importance of Unity Temple, you just don't rush."

Pond says that the negotiations that began this year stumbled from the beginning because the church's committee started out by suddenly demanding all of the tour money--$30,000 or more a year--for the congregation's own building-preservation fund. He says, "It was a bad-faith gesture--they came in and said, 'We want the money.' We were shocked. It was a unilateral decision of theirs; and in a trusting relationship, you cannot just take an action and expect the other partner to follow. The point from which negotiations begin is usually the status quo."

Pond disputes Pokorny's account of the concrete study and supposedly incendiary summary. "It was presented in a very nonsensational way to the church members. They might surmise that if a restoration organization had spent $20,000 to have the report done, it didn't do it frivolously. The results say as conclusively as possible, without doing exploratory surgery, that one of the eaves should be removed from the temple. I think that if the report hadn't come in when it did, it wouldn't have been a problem."

Another factor is politics within both groups. UTRF past president Lyman Shepard, who has given tours at the temple virtually every Sunday afternoon since 1975 and who is known for his programs on Wright, acknowledges that there is tension between the groups. But he blames the blowup on what he calls "ego, maneuvering, political agendas--some of them hidden" within both groups. "I think the building stands to be the big loser," he says, "because while all this is going on, nothing is being done for restoration."

Others point a finger at the church's minister, the Reverend C. Scot Giles, who is, say a surprising consensus of friends, foes, and neutral observers, a man with a strong need to control. Observers say it was his desire to control the tour money, and every other aspect of the building, that caused the board to break off relations with UTRF without consulting the congregation. This unilateral and undemocratic move is atypical of this congregation and of Unitarians in general. A petition to the board to resume relations, which came from a number of the church's most dedicated members, resulted in two Sundays of discussion of the matter in church. In a vote on September 24, it was decided to resume relations with UTRF for six months.

"I think, in the main, that the church board's intentions are sincere," says David Segal, a church member and five-year appointee to the UTRF board. "In the dialogue that I've heard, their intentions are good. I do not cast any broad aspersions that there was a major power issue here. But I do feel that it should have been brought to the congregation in the first place--it's a sufficiently important issue, and it should have been discussed in a congregational meeting. But there's more at stake here than just the dialogue within the church. This building is so significant, not just to the congregation but to Oak Park, the metropolitan area, and even beyond the nation."

A letter sent to the congregation at large by what an observer calls "stable members of the church, supporters who have been there through thick and thin" pointed out that the congregation is "hard-pressed" for money, and therefore should not break off with UTRF. The letter writers pointed to the fact that the church does not send its "fair share" contribution to the denomination's headquarters and that it has cut back on religious education (parents now have to pay tuition), music, worship, and other programs. Giles maintains, however, that "we ended the year with a substantial surplus," and denies any money troubles. He doesn't think the condition of the building warrants panic, and seems unwilling to speculate on what will happen if UTRF does dissolve and its $300,000 earmarked for restoration is returned to its donors.

No one on either side sees that a return to the status quo is possible. But some accommodation will have to be reached.

"I think it's an extremely serious situation--and it's being dealt with seriously. The money is a very sticky question that the church will have to deal with," says Carol Wyant, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "The money was raised for the property, and it has to be spent on the property. [If UTRF were to be dissolved] it could not be spent . . . and that would be a shame for the building. It takes a lot of time and expertise to make decisions about restoration, and I don't think the congregation as currently structured is prepared to deal with that. If UTRF weren't there, they'd have to invent it--and I think they know it."

Wyant sees a role for herself and LPCI in arbitrating the dispute. She says, "We're a neutral body--that's the best way to keep things from deteriorating into ego conflicts.

"I think this is a sad situation; I also think it's an opportunity for growth, and a stronger end result. There have been a lot of misapprehensions and misunderstandings between Unity Temple and UTRF. The fact that it has come to a crisis means things are out in the open. The building is phenomenally important, and they both understand that. This is a flap over the most efficient way to raise money and maintain that important building."

Meanwhile, the congregation and UTRF have six months to hammer out an agreement. Each side will appoint--the congregation by election--three members to a six-member negotiating committee. They will be instructed to come to the table without preconceptions of what they'll be leaving with. In the meantime the tour money will go into an escrow account. And no matter what else happens, that account will be used only on restoration.

"I'm real positive about working with the congregation to reestablish ourselves, and reestablish ourselves even more effectively than before," says Pond, who promises to send negotiators who are forward-looking. "We're going to put all that negative stuff to rest, and start over with a clean slate."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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