Unitarianism in the Life and Work of Frank Lloyd Wright
By Max D. Gaebler
Minister Emeritus, The Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin
When I arrived in August of 1952 to take up my ministry in Madison, the congregation of the First Unitarian Society was still settling into its striking new Meeting House designed by its illustrious member Frank Lloyd Wright. The congregation had occupied the still unfinished Meeting House much earlier, having held the first service there on February 4, 1951. On that Sunday morning a special dedicatory address was delivered by another distinguished member of the Society, the philosopher Max Otto, who chose as his title “To Own or Be Owned?” His words were a challenge to the congregation to be worthy of its new Meeting House, to match the imaginativeness and beauty of the building with a quality of congregational life that would reflect intellectual boldness and ethical sensitivity.
During that first year I met Mr. Wright on several occasions. While I have no claims to be an expert on Mr. Wright, surely not on his architecture, I did enjoy the great privilege of knowing him and of having been his minister during the last seven years of his life. Mr. Wright was not merely a member of our Society in Madison; he was part of a family with deep roots in Unitarianism on both sides of the Atlantic. His father, William Wright, was secretary of our Madison congregation when it was organized in 1879. Mr. Wright, a widower with three young children, had been, among other things, a music teacher and a Baptist minister. He had met Frank’s mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, when she was a country school teacher and he the superintendent of schools for Richland County. Frank, their first child, was born in Richland Center in 1867. Three years later, now with a year old daughter as well, they began a series of moves that culminated in Mr. Wright’s acceptance of a Baptist pulpit in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
When William resigned his pastorate in Weymouth after only three years, he did so as a Unitarian. William and Anna and their children returned to Wisconsin to be near the supportive family out in the valley near Spring Green. They soon settled in Madison, and it is scarcely surprising to find them among the little band who organized our congregation. Frank Lloyd Wright credits his mother with bringing the new light of transcendentalism, the work of Emerson and Parker, back with her from their years in Weymouth.
It was Uncle Jenkin and his friends whom the family back in the valley in Wisconsin listened to. Frank Lloyd Wright described listening to his uncle: “When Uncle Jenkin preached there was the genuine luxury of tears. Going gently to and fro in the rocking chairs below the pulpit as tears were shed and, unheeded, trickled down. His sermons always brought the family to emotional state—but then—so did readings from the transcendental classics or the singing of the children. Tears, too, when all rose in strength and in the dignity of their faith straightened themselves to sing—’step by step since time began to see the steady gain of man.’ The faltering, the falsetto and the flat would raise that favorite hymn to the boarded ceiling and go swelling out through the open windows and doors and—to the young mind looking out toward them—seemed to reach far away and fade beyond the hills. This surrender to religious emotion was fervent and sincere!”
Thus did Frank Lloyd Wright honor his heritage from those deeply religious forebears who believed in freedom and in tolerance along with their unshakable faith in the goodness of God. How did he respond to all this, what impact did it have on him in his later career? How was he touched by Uncle Jenkin and his transcendentalist friends, the “Unity men,” who held high the banner of “Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion”?
For one thing, it led him to follow at least some of them to the periphery of the organized church. “I believe religious experience is outgrowing the church,” he wrote—”not outgrowing religion but outgrowing the church as an institution, just as architecture has outgrown the Renaissance . . . I cannot see the ancient institutional form of any churchbuilding as anything but sentimental survival for burial. The Temple as a forum and good-time place—beautiful and inspiring as such—yes. As a religious edifice raised in the sense of that old ritual? No.”
This view didn’t turn out to be quite so radical as it might sound. What he was really voicing was criticism of the kind of fossilized rigidity his father had evidently struggled with in that Weymouth church and the kind of narrow sectarianism against which Uncle Jenkin railed, a sectarianism which then as now could invade even Unitarian circles, a sectarian spirit which William Ellery Channing had warned his hearers to “shun as from Hell.”
In the years I knew him Mr. Wright was not a regular or even frequent church attender, but he did come on occasion. My colleague Dr. John Hayward, who taught for some years at our Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and later at the University of Southern Illinois, spoke from our pulpit one Sunday. Dr. Hayward’s principal professional interest has been in the relationship of religion to the visual arts. On this occasion he chose to describe our building as he saw it. Dr. Hayward spoke that Sunday on “The World of This House.” What view of the universe, he asked, did this Meeting House disclose?
Those familiar with the building will recall that its ceiling thrusts diagonally upward to the prow, communicating a sense of adventure as the ship braves the uncharted sea. That diagonal ceiling, incidentally, is the first one ever incorporated in a religious building. They are all over the world now; whenever and wherever you see one, you’ll know it has been built since 1951. That diagonal line, Dr. Hayward noted, is an active line, inviting the eye not to come to rest but to follow it upward and outward into the unknown. “As a kind of counterpoint to this adventuresome dimension,” he adds, “one need only face in the opposite direction from the pulpit and focus attention on the low-ceilinged Hearth Room, where, as its name implies, there is a home-like atmosphere complete with welcoming fireplace and an adjoining kitchen. ‘Home’ suggests stability and the comfort of familial love.” What a wonderful embodiment of our faith, for ever searching and seeking for the higher and more inclusive vision, while yet retaining its firm anchorage in history and tradition. Mr. Wright sensed this appropriateness deeply. “The Unitarianism of my forefathers,” he wrote, “found expression in a building by one of the offspring.”
Although Mr. Wright did not come often to Sunday services, he stopped by unannounced to visit the building many times. Mr. Wright would come in, not on a tour of inspection but to experience the building yet again. He would sit quietly for a few moments on one of the benches, then go up to the prow and gaze out toward Lake Mendota over what was then a cornfield managed by the College of Agriculture. At such moments there could be no question of his special attachment to that place. It was in every way his church.
Mr. Wright died in 1959, and as minister of his church I was invited to officiate at his funeral. Several longtime associates carried his casket out of the house and placed it on a horse drawn wagon. Wes Peters, his son-in-law and principal assistant, and Gene Masselink, his secretary for many years, got up on the wagon and drove the horses down the hill and along the road to Unity Chapel. The rest of us, led by his wife, Olgivanna, and their daughter, Iovanna, walked behind the wagon. At the chapel a very brief and simple service ensued. The following paragraph comes from my personal tribute:
There is something very right in our gathering here in this chapel to pay tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright. His life and work spanned the globe, yet those most intimate bonds of loyalty and affection by which he was united with his native earth are poignantly focused at this place, a place as dear to him as it is filled for us with precious memories and with living hope. Here we cannot but sense something of that clean simplicity of thought and form, that unflinching honesty of word and deed, that unfailing sensitivity to the monitions of beauty which, like the tranquil loveliness of this familiar valley surrounded by the sheltering hills, provided the true setting for his life.
— From an address delivered before the Friends of the Meeting House, October 27, 1992.
The Construction of the Madison Church
Wright’s parents were among the earliest members of the Unitarian Society when it was organized in 1879. Wright participated in the church’s Contemporary Club as a youth and later signed the membership register. He accepted the commission to design the new edifice in 1946; the church was essentially completed in 1951, often with the help of the Taliesin Fellowship (particularly in the final weeks before dedication), fund-raising speeches by Wright, and an army of parishioners who willingly hauled the limestone from a quarry 30 miles away. Marshall Erdman, who later became involved in Wright’s last prefabricated housing projects became the major contractor because local firms, finding Wright’s construction methods too radical, did not want to bid on the project.
The module employed is the equilateral parallelogram (popularly called “diamond”) with a unit side of 4 feet scored into the concrete floor. This diamond shape is repeated in the largest forms of the building – the main auditorium with the hearth room behind – as well as smaller elements such as the stone piers. The original building covered approximately 11,500 square feet.
The auditoriums can seat 252 on Wright designed single and double benches, removable for concerts and similar events. It faces the morning sun and is triangular in plan, with the minister at the apex, small choir loft behind and above. The hearth room, differentiated from the auditorium by an overhanging low ceiling, which it shares with the entrance lobby, can be employed to enlarge this space when extra capacity is needed. Originally, a drape woven by the women of the Society from a design by Wright after a sample provided by Olgivanna allowed these two rooms to be separated. A bronze tablet to the right of the hearth room’s fireplace, taken from the Society’s first building, proclaims the Bond of Union – the statement of principle of the first Unitarian Society of Madison. On the face of low ceiling over the hearth room, there is an “ancient parable” dictated by Wright; “Do you have a loaf of bread, break the loaf in two and give half for some flowers of the Narcissus for thy bread feeds the body indeed but the flowers feed the soul.”
The copper roof rises from the hearth room to a prow (called belfry on the plans); in later years, Wright would offer that, at the exterior, the belfry suggested hands held together in prayer. This design also obviated the need for a separate steeple. The copper originally laid on was thinner than specified, to save on cost, and thus led to brown rot infection of the supporting wood members of the hearth room, repaired in 1977-78. Trim is oak.
A loggia-gallery with Sunday school rooms has been converted to offices. The last Wright-designed part of the building, the west living room, was originally intended to be the living room of a parsonage, though it was never completed as such. The education wing beyond the west living room is by the Taliesin Associated Architects.
This structure has been designated by the American Institute of Architects as one of the seventeen American buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to be retained as an example of his architectural contribution to American culture.
The Unitarian Abstract: The Modern Essence
by Frank Lloyd Wright
Against threatening forces of Nature and the merciless passions of our fellow men, only a cultivated sense of organic form can build for democratic man an appropriate state, a deeper – therefore stronger- culture than mankind has yet known.
The one word necessary to deal with reality is ‘organic’ – but like the word Nature it is the word least understood of any root-word in English.
The cult of the Unitarian abstraction is now salvation. But if divorced from realities it, too, is bound to produce failures, so let us turn the dogma – “Form Follows Function” – inward. Use both the word organic and the word Nature in deeper sense – essence instead of fact: say form and function are one. Form and idea then do become inseperable; the consequence not material at all except as spiritual and material are naturally of each other.
Should our democracy not determine to build for the freedom particular to itself, our ideology could well serve for the emancipation of humanity. I believe this nation will so build….To be able to work at and for what one most wants to do well should be gospel in our democracy. For a democratic slogan try “what a man does that he has.”
The freedom of the new romance? Well… you will not find it in Grecian art or mythology. Find it inside the modern democratic man : “what a man does – that is his.” His vitality as an individual is his reality in the new romance: his honor and therefore the basis for creation. Organic architecture comes with that romantic reality to you today. As a man is, so must he build. Just as a nation builds – so that nation is. We have the buildings we deserve to have either as men or as man. There are many ways in life to conceal a man’s true nature, but when he builds he cannot hide. You have him as he is.
— Abridged from “The Unitarian Principle as Architecture” in Genius and Mobocracy by Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: Horizon Books, 1971).
The Unitarian Principle as Architecture:
A Gallery of the Works of Frank Lloyd Wright
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection
Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Heinz, Thomas A. The Vision of Frank Lloyd Wright. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 2000.
Lloyd Wright, Frank. Genius and Mobocracy. New York: Horizon Books, 1971.
McCarter, Robert. Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect. London: Phaidon Press, Ltd., 1977.