First Unitarian Church of Chicago


[First Unitarian Church of Chicago (1897) Hull Memorial Chapel, William A. Otis, architect; (1931) Denison B. Hull, architect /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In religious circles the Unitarians have historically stood out from the crowd as one of the more liberal-minded institutions along with their older Universalist brethren. Christian-based Universalism came to the U.S. from England in 1793 with the belief that salvation was universally available to everyone without stipulations. They also took a stand on the more socially liberal side of things by supporting the separation of church and state, women's rights, the abolition of slavery, and numbered Chicagoans like George Pullman among their adherents. Unitarians organized themselves on this side of the Atlantic in 1825, and unlike the Universalists didn't believe that the Holy Trinity was made-up of three separate entities, but instead that the trio were all wrapped-up in the unity of one higher power. Unitarians were considered even more liberal and outside the mainstream of Christian doctrine than the Universalists.


[First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 S. Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Before Chicago became a city in 1837, both the Universalists
and Unitarians had established congregations in the small hamlet. As the city grew, each joined other early-settler denominations and erected houses of worship near the courthouse square. From LaSalle Street east to Dearborn, the First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First Methodist, First Universalist, and First Unitarian were lined-up, steeple to steeple, along Washington Street. But as the Lake Street business district grew southward and started to encroach on the residential neighborhood, the churches began to move further east and south, this time along Wabash Avenue. The Universalists moved in 1857 followed by the Unitarians in 1863. And although their church building survived the Great Fire, the congregation headed even further south soon afterward settling-in on the corner of Michigan Avenue and 23rd Street in 1873.


[First Unitarian Church of Chicago, National Historic Landmark /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Morton and Eudora Hull were long standing members of the Unitarian congregation and like many pioneer families followed the southward trek of their fellow congregants, and their church. In 1897, their son Morton and his sister Eudora decided to build a chapel in memory of their parents and in tribute to the family's longstanding fellowship with First Unitarian. University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper convinced the Hulls to build the parental memorial on a corner lot at 56th and Woodlawn adjacent to the university campus, and architect William Otis was given the commission. The chapel would be placed at the southwestern corner of the lot to allow for a much larger church edifice to be erected in the not-to-distant future - which didn't happen for 34 more years.


[First Unitarian Church of Chicago, Hyde Park /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

As the 1920s were drawing to a close, Morton Denison Hull, Harvard law graduate,  former Illinois gubernatorial candidate, and U.S. Congressman from Illinois' 2nd District, pledged $500,000 to finally finish the job. The congressman's son just happened to be an architect and Denison Hull incorporated Otis' chapel into a "high church" English perpendicular design very much in keeping with the overall look and feel of the university's main campus buildings. Hull Memorial Chapel was now part and parcel of a larger sanctuary, along with a crypt down in the basement that made room for cinerary urns. One of the crypt's future occupants, 60-year-old Morton Hull died on August 20, 1937 and his ashes were placed soon thereafter in the basement burial chamber. In 1961 after a century of espousing similar beliefs while remaining separate entities, the Unitarians and Universalists joined together to become the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. While continuing their long tradition and expansive embrace of liberal tenets into the 21st century, the church building didn't fare as well. In 1991 the congregation spent $300,000 in an attempt to repair and preserve the crumbling brick and stone steeple but to no avail. After a thorough inspection in 2003, the 85-foot-high spire was found to be beyond repair and was dismantled. As the structure's steel framework was exposed during the demolition, it was determined that the decision had been the right one.
Chicago's extreme weather conditions had not been kind to the corner tower's cap, rust had corroded the steel by as much as 3/4 of an inch, and had completely eaten through many of the rivets.

See more of the area's ecclesiastically revived designs at: Foster Hall - University of Chicago.

 
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