With restoration of Unity Temple underway, officials have been trying to balance the old with the new in their restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic structure.
While architects and contractors have focused on reclaiming the original design and aesthetic of the 1909-era building at 875 Lake St. in Oak Park, the church's kitchen, for example, is not one of those things, said Carrie Clark, project manager with Chicago firm Project Management Advisors, Inc.
And although the sanctuary was designed to be dimly lit, church musicians can't read sheet music in such conditions, Clark said. To accommodate this, architects are planning lighting that can be set at historic levels or brightened for practical use.
It's this type of balance that's been sought during Unity Temple's all-encompassing $23 million restoration, which kicked off this spring and is expected to be completed in fall 2016.
Because only $11.5 million has been raised, Heather Hutchison, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, said they're looking for high-profile philanthropists to come forward with significant gifts.
Clark said a bridge loan will be secured, if necessary, to move forward with construction.
"It has needed to be done for decades and decades," Hutchison said of the restoration.
Because it's been decades since anyone saw Unity Temple as it was built, Gunny Harboe, president of Chicago-based Harboe Architects, said the completed restoration will be a revelation to the community.
Past updates haven't focused on restoration, and the cost of an undertaking of this size — always the goal of the UTRF — is significant, he said.
"This is a fulfillment of a long-term dream," Harboe said.
Construction documents for the project were created in December 2014 and actual work began in the spring on the building's exterior, Clark said.
The church held its last service in the space in June before closing through the completion of the project. The congregation is meeting at United Lutheran Church for the time being.
The goal is to have all exterior work, including the roof, skylights, concrete work and more, finished by November, Clark said. Currently, scaffolding and tarps encase the building to contain dust that comes from redoing concrete layers.
"So that's kind of why you see the whole building wrapped as it is," Clark said, adding that architects and contractors spent about six months studying and fine-tuning the concrete needed for the building, to ensure it's uniform.
Inside the building, plans include updating or renovating paint, plaster and woodworking, as well as mechanical and electrical systems. The keen attention to detail includes lowering a skylight to an original level, Clark said.
Approval was needed from three different organizations before moving forward with restoration plans, Clark said. The building was nominated earlier this year to be designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site.
"Anything, when you start touching preservation, it's a longer process," she said. "It's just … a sensitive project. You have to be patient with it."
Harboe has been working with Unity Temple for 15 years; his firm is focused on conservation and preservation. He pointed out that Unity Temple is unique in that the building continues to be used as what it was built for, whereas most Wright buildings today are not owned by the original inhabitant.
"The challenge here is to get it right, no pun intended," Harboe said with a laugh.
He said they've spent a lot of time understanding what the building once was, to get it back to that original look, especially focusing on interior finishes. Being able to replicate original treatments is difficult, however.
There's quite a bit of finesse and a high level of skill needed to get things like the textured plaster to turn out right, Harboe said.
One aspect of the project was done with the goal of keeping all parties on the same page as to the building's makeup. It took TruePoint Laser Scanning about two weeks to do months' worth of work, said Jonathan Rohrs, a regional manager with the Ohio-based company.
"It was a big honor that we got the project," Rohrs said of the historic site.
Laser scanning, or high-definition surveying, takes millions of measurements per second, picking up cracks, any visible object or surface and giving them coordinates.
"It's construction surveying on steroids," Rohrs said. "The application of laser scanning is very broad."
In Unity Temple's case, the process provided architects and contractors an intensely detailed 3D picture of the building and gave them an idea of what they were working with, with the hope of getting all parties on the same page and preventing any mistakes during the process, Rohrs said.
The building as it's seen today isn't necessarily exactly what Wright designed 100 years ago, Rohrs said, so the laser scanning provides an essential picture of the building as it currently stands.
"It was interesting to go through and document the space and actually see what's going on," Rohrs said.
Harboe said there are many challenges with a restoration of this size, including completing it within the time frame set forth. But he knows congregants are eager to return to the temple.
"I think people will be amazed when they are able to come back in and see the building," he said.
Caitlin Mullen is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.
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