In the Beginning

Sometime in the late Spring of 1975, I began leading tours at Unity Temple. It was shortly after what is now the Frank Lloyd Trust had begun restoring the Home & Studio. In a leap of faith, they had asked for volunteers and organized the first training class. After it was over, we were given the choice of leading tours at the Home & Studio – very much a work in progress – or at Unity Temple. Although I did volunteer to do some unskilled labor at the Home & Studio, I opted to give tours at Unity.

As things happened when organizations are still run largely by volunteers, I soon found myself not only giving tours, but doing the scheduling as well. On a typical Saturday, four volunteers would be scheduled. Visitors could buy a ticket for the Temple only; or one that also included a walking tour and the Home & Studio. The Temple tour started at 10:00 am and you had to have the group at the Home & Studio by Noon. And, as I recall, the Unity only ticket was $3, and the package, $5.

Here’s how a typical Saturday went for me. I had a key for the Temple. After I opened the door, I used another key to open a closet in the northeast corner of Unity House. In it, placed by some mysterious hand, was an envelope with tickets and some change. Remember, this was 45 years ago, and we did a cash only business. To be on the safe side, I always tried to have about $20 in small bills of my own.

Before letting the public in, I went down to the lower level and did my best to turn the lights on. Now, of course, the electric system has been modernized, but then you were faced with a panel of switches which had taped-on tags that were faded into inky smudges. Eventually, I more or less memorized them, but spent many months turning on a switch, then going up to see if the light or lights had indeed gone on. If another volunteer had arrived, this could be simplified. Then, you could yell “is it on? no? how about now?” Well, you get the idea.

On an average day, 20 or 30 people would show up. I remember one Saturday when we had about 70. Each, of course, paid in cash. “Do you have exact change?,” I would ask hopefully. It was also that day when only one other volunteer deigned to show up. Each of us had to do a walking tour with 35 people. “Can you hear me now?” Of course, there was one day when only three came. It was 10 below and windy. They got a driving tour instead.

I stopped doing the tours when the Temple and the Home and Studio terminated the relationship for reasons that I have long forgotten. My love for the building eventually led to my doing a book about its history and architecture in 2009. Since the restoration, my partner, Jim Caulfield and I have been revising it, but the pandemic and other issues have gotten in the way. But as soon as we finish the book we’re doing now about residences in the Chicago area from 1830 until today, we’ll find a way to get it done.

By Patrick F. Cannon