Friends of the Meeting House is a 501 (c)(3) organization affiliated with the First Unitarian Society of Madison.  It was established in the 1970s to help educate the public on the significance of the building as part of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural canon; to raise funds to help fund the ongoing preservation of this National Historic Landmark structure; and to serve as the building's preservation advocate. The organization is open to all Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts whether church members or not. The proceeds from our tours all go towards preservation work. 

The First Unitarian Society’s Meeting House

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1951 when he was 84 years old, is recognized as one of the world’s most innovative examples of church architecture and as one of Wright’s most influential buildings. The Meeting House received National Historic Landmark status in 2004 and is one of seventeen Wright buildings designated by the American Institute of Architects as a significant example of his contribution to American culture.

 

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The Meeting House is one of ten Wright-designed churches built. Wright tried to incorporate the theology and traditions of each denomination in these designs. In the case of the Meeting House, he used the triangle as the basic shape, an idea that was unique
at the time. To Wright, geometric shapes have special meaning, and to him the triangle symbolized structural strength.
At various times Wright used the work “aspiration” and “praying hands” to describe the soaring prow of the Meeting House.
And in keeping with his belief that buildings should be in harmony with their settings, the Meeting House was situated so that it
lies on the brow rather than the top of its hill.

For groups of 10 or more guests please click here

 

It sits on a small hill overlooking what at the time were university experimental farm fields and Lake Mendota. Over time the setting has became more urban, with buildings and trees blocking the views to the lake.


 

Wright was a member of First Unitarian Society (FUS) and his parents were founding members of the congregation in 1879.

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The Meeting House reflects his beliefs - Unitarianism and Transcendentalism - as well as the principles of organic architecture. Wright selected the names of major nineteenth-century Unitarian ministers and trancendentalists to adorn the hexagonal dome in the Hearth Room, situated at the rear of the auditorium. Like them, Wright said that nature is all we will ever see of the body of God. For this reason, he made extensive use of clear glass rather than stained glass, blurred the lines between inside and outside by fitting glass into stone, and used natural materials inside and out. These were more than aesthetic choices; they were a spiritual expression.

The Meeting House shares many of the hallmarks of
Wright’s other Usonian structures.

 

It is a single-story building featuring a band of clerestory windows on the south side, glass walls on the north side, wide overhanging eaves, a low and unobtrusive entryway, large fireplaces, and a concrete floor with embedded radiant heating pipes - originally the only heating system. The floor is tinted Cherokee red and incised with diamond shapes, reflecting the triangular theme of the building.

 

 
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Like other Usonian buildings it uses the concept of compression-release as both dramatic effect and way finding tool. “Breaking the box,” with spaces flowing into each other, provides a sense of freedom compatible with the Unitarian belief in freedom of thought. In the Meeting House, the main auditorium emphasizes the theme of unity. Traditional churches have a steeple on the outside, a sanctuary, and a community meeting room. The auditorium combines all of these functions with the prow serving as the steeple. Wright believed that all activities of a congregation are sacred, so the Wright-designed pews and triangular tables are easily moved to make way for various functions. Wright’s primary concern was the effect of a building on those who use it, and all of Wright’s church designs have a seating arrangement in which members of the congregation can see each other. Wright believed this helped to build community. He said, “A building is not a place to be, it is a way to be.”

The ceiling of the auditorium undulates. This effect was created by varying the height and length of the trusses as they head to the prow. Wright compared the shape to a mother bird lowering her wings to shelter her brood.

The use of the same building materials inside and out helped to create a strong sense of unity of design. The roof is made of copper. All the exposed wood in the Meeting House is oak. The walls are made of 1,000 tons of dolomite quarried about 35 miles north of Madison and hauled to the site by church members. Wright wanted the walls to look like the cliff walls of the quarry. Marshall Erdman was contractor for the project and William Wesley Peters, Wright’s right-hand man, closely supervised it. The two conspired to ensure the Unitarian Meeting House was engineered better than Wright ever knew.

Heading down from the auditorium is the Loggia. Its walls echo the triangular angles of the building. The Loggia originally housed church school classrooms, but now functions as the church’s offices. On one wall of the Loggia hang the Japanese prints which were a gift from Wright as well as a portion of the drapery that originally separated the Auditorium from the Hearth Room. Designed by Wright, it was woven by the women of the church from a sample created by Olgivana Wright. The opposite wall consists of glass floor-to-ceiling windows. At the end of the Loggia is the Gaebler Living Room. Because of the huge project cost over-runs, construction terminated with this room. With its low ceiling, large fireplace, and wall of glass panels spanning two walls, the room is intimate while still reinforcing the building’s connection to nature.

The Meeting House was built by a congregation of only 150 people,

 

with an auditorium that seats just 200. In 1964 an education wing, included in the original design but unaffordable in 1950, was added under the direction of Peters. In 2008 the most recent addition was built to accommodate a parish that has grown to over 1,100 members with 400 in church school. The Atrium addition has an auditorium that seats 500 and includes music rehearsal spaces and other meeting rooms. It was designed by Kubala Washatko Architects in consultation with a panel of Frank Lloyd Wright experts who stipulated that the new building be built in the spirit of the original but without mimicking or over-shadowing the historic Meeting House, that the Meeting House and the addition form a coherent whole, and that the addition use a geometry that reinforces the iconic power of the original. The result is an award-winning building that represents the best of twenty-first-century Usonian architecture.

In keeping with the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle of “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” the Atrium building is also very green, with geothermal heating and cooling and a green roof. It has achieved a “gold” rating from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Sunday services are now held in the Atrium auditorium, but the Meeting House is still used for the smaller Saturday services and for many special services, meetings and musical events.