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The Unitarian Meeting House

The Unitarian Meeting House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was commissioned by the First Unitarian Society in 1946. Construction began in 1949 and was completed in 1951. It is recognized as one of the world's most innovative examples of church architecture. In 1960 the American Institute of Architects designated it one of seventeen buildings to be retained as an example of Wright's contribution to American culture. THE MEETING HOUSE was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In August 2004 it was officially declared a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

Although now engulfed by the city, when erected, Wright's "country church" was sited on a knoll overlooking university farmland and Lake Mendota. Two later additions were designed by Taliesin Associated Architects: the Religious Education Wing, 1964, and the Lower Meeting House, 1990. A third addition (which replaced much of the 1990 Lower Meeting House) was designed by the Kubala Washatko Architects of Cedarburg, Wisconsin in 2008.

The ENTRANCE [1] is approached under a wide, low sheltering overhang into a small triangular anteroom. Wright selected natural materials of native limestone and oak with large areas of glass, a copper roof and deep red concrete floor.

The LOBBY [2] introduces the basic design element that is repeated throughout the building: the single or double equilateral triangle, which determines the form of the structure and its furnishings. The basic unit of 60 and 120 degree angles is clearly revealed in the incised diamond pattern on the floor. Every feature conforms to this grid: the walls, stone piers, prominent prow and roof pitch. Even the seating plan and triangular tables follow this pattern.

Ceiling heights are varied to help define areas and to create different moods. Horizontal bands of windows with wide overhangs provide a sense of shelter, yet connect the indoors with the outdoors. The unified design components and materials of Wright's architecture express the Unitarian philosophy of integrity and honesty in all relationships.

The AUDITORIUM[3] begins under a lowered ceiling which sweeps dramatically upward to an inspiring light-filled prow of interlacing wood and glass behind the rostrum. The ceiling's graceful curves suggest, in Wright's words, "the wings of a bird in flight" and belie the flat plane of the copper roof above it.

The glass prow creates a majestic exterior which gives the building impressive height without a steeple--another expression of unity in Wright's design. The stone rostrum stands beneath a suspended canopy which deflects sound. Originally copper-green planter boxes stood on each end of the stonework.

The seating is designed to allow parishioners to face each other as well as the minister. This unique arrangement enhances a sense of community. The cushioned double and single benches can be rearranged or removed for varied activities such as dinners, concerts or performances.

The organ, added in 1971, has 15 ranks, 12 stops and 847 pipes which are concealed in the glass prow and small loft designed originally for a choir. Today's large choir occupies the tiered section on the right side of the auditorium.

The HEARTH ROOM [4] is defined by a lowered ceiling at the rear of the Auditorium. The massive stone fireplace is both functional and symbolic. it provides an intimate setting for small gatherings or after-service socializing. One wall of glass opens a view to the outdoors; another has a serving counter that opens to a kitchen. A domed ceiling area displays names of prominent Unitarians.

A bronze tablet taken from the Society's first building hangs on the stone wall to the right of the fireplace. On it is inscribed the Bond of Union which was drawn up by the First Unitarian Society founders in 1879. It remains the Society's statement of principles.

Although the Auditorium and Hearth Room contrast in form, they may function as a unit to provide seating for 340 or enlarged floor space for social events. Originally these areas could be partitioned with a richly colored drapery, handwoven by women of the parish and based on a sample woven by Mrs. Wright. The curtain measured 8 feet high and extended 64 feet. A panel of the original fabric, composed of hand-dyed flax, rayon, jute, heavy sisal rope and metallic threads, remains for viewing.

All rooms are heated by hot water circulating through pipes embedded in the concrete floor, a construction innovation.

The Loggia [5] is a long corridor leading west from the Auditorium. On one side are the original classrooms which have been converted to staff offices and a library. The opposite wall of glass with diamond-shaped stone piers creates an outdoor mural, ever changing with the seasons.

The GAEBLER LIVING ROOM [6] at the far end of the Loggia provides space for social activities. It was originally designed as part of the minister's living quarters, which were never completed.

The RELIGIOUS EDUCATION WING [7] extends at a 120 degree angle from the original building. It contains classrooms which are used on weekdays by the Meeting House Nursery School.

Today the First Unitarian Society numbers several times the membership for which the MEETING HOUSE was designed--a testament to Wright's genius for planning flexible use of space. As stewards of an historic building, the Society strives to maintain the integrity of Wright's design while continuing to use and enjoy a functioning work of art.

Designing a church for the First Unitarian Society of Madison represented more than just a commission for FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT. His father was secretary of the Society when the group organized in 1879, and young Wright himself participated in a church-sponsored discussion club. In 1938 the architect renewed his affiliation and signed the Society's membership register.

The proximity of Wright's home, Taliesin, 40 miles west of Madison, further ensured interest in the Meeting House. Despite numerous revisions and extensive personal supervision, Wright accepted only a modest fee for his architectural services. As funds ran low, Wright offered the labor of his apprentices and a benefit concert with Taliesin talent. The architect himself delivered two public lectures to help raise funds. To further stretch meager resources, parishioners hauled tons of stone from a nearby quarry.

Wright was 78 years old in January, 1946, when commissioned to design a new church for the Madison Society; he turned 84 before the Meeting House was completed in 1951. His productive life continued several more years during which time he designed many famous buildings, including the Marin County Courthouse in California, Monona Terrace Community Center in Madison, Greek Orthodox Church near Milwaukee, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Wright died in 1959 at the age of 92.

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The Commons in the Atrium addition

The Commons in the Atrium addition