Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Day 45 - Visiting the First Unitarian Society Meeting House

I have never been the First Unitarian Society Meeting House. In fact, I was completely unaware this building existed until I started my “I have never…” journey. During my research of things to see and do around Madison, the building consistently appeared in lists of recommended places to visit. Curious as to why this was the case, I finally decided to search for some more information on the building. I was surprised to find that the First Unitarian Society Meeting House was a building designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1940s and built during the last decade of his life. Further research also indicated the building is now classified as a National Historical Landmark and is widely considered to be one of the most innovative examples of church architecture in the world. Intrigued by these findings, I knew I needed to make a visit to the First Unitarian Society Meeting House a part of my “I have never…” journey. After all, I was already a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and the building’s location was only a few miles from my home. With some relief from the seemingly endless rainy weather we have had as of late, I decided tonight was a perfect night to visit the First Unitarian Society Meeting House for the first time. Little did I know the experience would provide me an intimate experience with one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen in quite some time.

The hall
Today’s trip to the meeting house began immediately after finishing my workday. Looking forward to the experience, I hurried home after completing my tasks for the day to make sure I had time to complete my “I have never...” objective for the day. Anticipating the building would not be open into the evening hours, I rushed around the house grabbing a quick snack and my camera equipment before I hopped back in my car. Minutes after arriving home I was en route to the Shorewood Hills area of the city to make good on my intentions to see the First Unitarian Society Meeting House. On my way to the building I drove through downtown Madison taking note of the unfamiliar clement weather. With my car windows down, I ran my fingers through the passing air and focused on the warm feeling of the sunlight striking my skin. It was clearly a beautiful evening, which boded well for my intentions to experience a piece of architecture known for its outward appearances.

The plaque
The cornerstone

After a short trip through town I arrived at the meeting house. I pulled in and parked next to a small group of vehicles in a corner of the parking lot. Upon exiting my car I turned to face the building and was immediately struck by its unique features. On my right a low, angular roof resting atop stone walls jutted toward the sky. On my left a long, sweeping arc of windows supported a two-tiered flat roof that served as a flowerbed for groupings of small plants. Together the features came together in a central point to my front, tying the whole of the meeting house together. At first finding it hard to take in the subtle details of the beautiful structure before me, I stood in the parking lot for a minute and looked over the exterior of the building. After snapping a few pictures of the sun resting heavy over the center of the building, I decided to walk the exterior of the building face. Looking over the structure one more time, my eyes were drawn to a small stone supporting a plaque near the building entrance on my right. I walked over toward the feature, inspecting the plaque as I approached.  Attached to the stone, the plaque provided a brief history of the meeting house and its landmark status. I read the paragraph quickly before a small red square in the wall to the left of the stone caught my eye. I leaned forward to take a closer look at the glossy red surface and noticed the letters “FLW” engraved on the block’s surface. Much by accident, I had located the cornerstone of the historic structure before me.

The Atrium
I ran my fingers over the engraved letters before taking a few steps to my left and peering through the set of doors just beyond the cornerstone. Appearing to be locked, I decided to cross the parking lot to the opposite side of the building nearest the group of parked cars. A sign labeled “Atrium” came into view as I walked up to the doors and grabbed the handle. I pulled the door open and entered into a small vestibule that smelled of old, rich wood. With the faint sound of voices on its other side, I grabbed a second door in front of me and pulled it open. I was greeted by an open two story space with a small walkway running over a large meeting space beneath me. A small group of people milled about in the lower room as I walked through the building, taking in the natural elements of the expansive space around me. Windows lined the ceiling and walls of the massive room, with natural timber supports and simple metal fixtures holding the structure together. The evening light poured into the facility as I slowly walked across the second story platform toward the center of the building. Acknowledging my presence, one of the people in the lower portion of the room looked up at me and smiled as if understanding my purpose for being in their assembly hall. Unimpeded, I proceeded down the walkway’s slow arch and found my way to doorway near the heart of the building.

Inside the Atrium
After passing through several doors, I entered the opposite side of the building and came upon a long hallway. Angular points accented the hallway as part of a zigzag wall on my right that was lined with watercolor works of art and simple seating. Walking down the hall, I glanced at each painting hanging on the wall and periodically looked out the rows of windows on my left. Eventually, the hallway opened to a large congregation space with a large, peaked ceiling climbing high above me. On the furthest wall a collage of triangulated windows occupied the entire space, letting light flow freely into the otherwise unlit area of the building. I spent a few minutes taking in the space before I began working my way back to the atrium, making sure to take in subtle features of each room I passed. Everywhere I looked there was something worth noting, which gave made me feel as though my choice for the day’s event was a wise one.

The Congregation Hall 

Eventually making my way back through the atrium, I exited the building through the same doors I entered some 30 minutes earlier. Realizing the wall of windows I saw in the congregation space had to have an exterior face, I walked back across the parking lot and around the right side of the building. Following a brief walk along an exterior wall, a towering wall of glass came into view. I continued walking as my eyes remained fixed on the bifurcate windows climbing high into the sky and culminating at the sharp point of the building’s highest roof. With the evening sun shimmering off of the wall’s surface, I found myself captivated by the simple beauty of the glass and wood that made up the uncommon feature of the building. I walked back and forth in front of the structure as my eyes followed the shifting lines of the triangular fixture. The appearance of the structure seemed to change with each new vantage point I encountered as I walked across the meeting house lawn. It was as if I was looking at a new building, albeit with a similar design, each time I stopped to look. The genius of Frank Lloyd Wright before me, I struggled to understand the foresight and artistry required to make such a masterful design. It was strange, beautiful, and well worth the evening trip.

I spent a few minutes more examining the exterior design of the building before returning to my car. On my drive home I thought about the building and the experience I had exploring its grounds. Realizing I was lucky to have gained access to the building during my visit, I retraced the interior design of the structure and recalled the intricate details that came together to make the highly unique space. As I worked through the details of the experience in my mind, I knew it would be a challenge to accurately describe the features of the building when I wrote about it this evening. As a result, I decided I would let many of the pictures I took of the building do the majority of the talking in my blog entry. While I still made an effort to describe some of the features I encountered at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, I know full well my efforts (and even my photographs) don’t do the building’s presence and beauty any sort of justice. I can only say this was a worthwhile “I have never...” trip to a place well-deserving of its National Historical Landmark status. I haven’t been many places like the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, but I definitely hope I encounter more like it in my ongoing “I have never...” journey.
One last look...

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