Back in 1946, members of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, selected a visionary architect to design a new meeting space for their congregation. Did they also choose someone who was an early practitioner of “green” architecture?
From This Story
At a meeting of the First Unitarian Society, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of its members (though not a regular attendee), was selected to design the growing congregation’s new Meeting House. His impressive portfolio at the time—Prairie School and Usonian homes, Fallingwater, the S.C. Johnson Wax Administration Building—spoke for itself, and his credentials as the son and nephew of some of the congregation’s founders surely helped as well.
His design—the Church of Tomorrow, with its V-shaped copper roof and stone-and-glass prow—was a dramatic departure from the recognizable ecclesiastical forms of bell tower, spires and stained glass. Wright’s was steeple, chapel and parish hall all in one.
The stone for the Meeting House came from a quarry along the Wisconsin River. Wright advocated for the use of local materials in his writings. In 1939, in a series of lectures later published as An Organic Architecture, Wright shared his philosophy that architects should be “determining form by way of the nature of materials.” Buildings, he believed, were to be influenced by and clearly of their place, integrated with their environment in terms of siting as well as materials.
In 1951, with the congregation’s coffers essentially depleted after overruns tripled the cost of the construction to over $200,000, the 84-year-old architect gave a fund-raising lecture—modestly titled “Architecture as Religion”—at the barely finished building. “This building is itself a form of prayer,” he told the gathering. He raised his arms, forming two sides of a triangle.
What quickly became a local icon was, in 1973, placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2004, Wright’s First Unitarian Society Meeting House was declared a National Historic Landmark.
“Without question, one of the reasons this congregation is as strong as it is, is because of this building,” says Tom Garver, a member of the Friends of the Meeting House. “The principal problem with this building is that we filled it up.”
By 1999, as the 1,100 members had outgrown a space built for 150, the congregation debated whether to expand the building or create a satellite congregation. The decision to keep the community intact and on its original site was motivated by the congregation’s deeply rooted environmental ethic—“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”—contained in the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Their new building needed to be, in Parish Minister Michael Schuler’s words, a “responsible response” to global warming and limits to our resources.
The congregation chose a local firm, Kubala Washatko Architects, to design the $9.1 million green building with a 500-seat sanctuary and classrooms; an additional $750,000 would go toward renovating and remodeling the original structure.
John G. Thorpe, a restoration architect and a founder of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in Oak Park, Illinois, says there are few additions to Wright’s institutional or commercial buildings. He cites the Guggenheim’s addition as one example and notes that the Meeting House actually had two previous additions, in 1964 and 1990.