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Mr. Wright's church turns 50
By Michael A. Schuler

 The ƒprowƒ of the Unitarian Meeting House in Madison
Frank Lloyd Wright's designed his congregation's Meeting House in Madison. Photo courtesy of Edward A. Lynn.
The philosopher Max Otto cautioned his fellow Unitarians against idolatry when they gathered for worship for the first time in their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin, in February 1951. This new edifice, designed by one of the world's leading architects, must be caught up in our aspiration and thought and action, he said; the architect's work of art must be absorbed in the art of life.

Truth be told, 50 years ago most members of the small, struggling Unitarian Society were probably as frustrated as they were pleased with what seemed to have become an interminable project. Five years had elapsed since Society member Frank Lloyd Wright had agreed to the undertaking. Groundbreaking took place in 1949, but construction proceeded slowly as workers strove to fulfill the requirements of Wright's bold design.

Indeed, when the congregation convened to worship for the first time beneath its landmark prow, the Meeting House was still, as Building Committee Chairman Herb Jacobs recalled, "an uncompleted eyesore rather than a show place." Another six months would pass before the stakeholders were satisfied with the results of their considerable investment.

And what an investment! A project Wright initially estimated at $60,000 ended up costing well over $200,000-a huge sum for a congregation of less than 200. The price tag would have been much higher had it not been for the sweat equity of the congregants, considerable sacrifice by the contractor, and Wright's own unwavering commitment to the project. After all, it was "his" church they were building.

Wright was born and raised in Wisconsin and spent the last part of his life there. His mother's family was of staunch Unitarian stock. His uncle, the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, led the Western Unitarian Conference from 1875 to 1884, championing radical directions in Unitarian thought and worship. His father, William Wright, was also a man of the cloth. But life as a Baptist minister did not agree with him and he turned to Unitarianism, becoming secretary of the Madison congregation when it was organized in 1879.

Frank Lloyd Wright's contribution to Unitarianism includes another much-admired building, Unity Temple, completed in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1908. Like the Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Unity Temple has no steeple: Wright believed that human interaction with God was best fostered in the building's interior, on a human scale.

The Meeting House now shelters an active, worshiping congregation of 1,800. A favored venue for public concerts, recitals, lectures, and tours, "Mr. Wright's church" draws thousands of admirers through its distinctive portals each year. Heavy use and the ravages of time have exacted their toll, however. Basking in the reflected glory of Frank Lloyd Wright's genius, the Society's membership has also had to cope with another side of his legacy: the leaking roof.

A major restoration project in the last 10 years required several hundred thousand dollars to repair electrical service, masonry, plumbing, caulking, and the like. Now, kitchen pots no longer catch water seeping through the Hearth Room ceiling on rainy days. Chinks in the great chimneys have been filled; old fixtures and splintering furniture have been replaced. At 50, our Meeting House is clearly showing its age. It has become our home, an irreplaceable spiritual treasure as well as a work of art.

The Rev. Dr. Michael A. Schuler is senior minister of the Unitarian Society of Madison. Editorial assistant Jane Greer contributed to this article.

voices from the past


If there be a feminine side to education and literature, as masculine critics appear to believe, why should it not be expressed, especially as women have now so largely entered the ranks of the educated class? The female half of humanity is a most important half, for women are the mothers of the race, and for their great work should have the most thorough training and the highest culture.

Mary A. Livermore, from the Universalist Leader, June 29, 1901

UU World XV:3 (July/August 2001): 72.

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