Original Article: “West Hartford Landmark, Leaky Unitarian Church At 50”


Sometimes the Hartford Unitarian Meeting House looks like an opening lotus blossom in a green pond. Covered with snow, maybe it’s a futuristic igloo. The distinctive building, which marks its 50th anniversary this month, is one of the landmark religious works by Modernist architect Victor Lundy, now in his 10th decade.

Having nearly outgrown its 250-seat meeting house in downtown Hartford by the late 1950s, the Unitarian Society of Hartford set on a long-range plan to relocate. Lundy, then practicing in New York, was chosen in April 1961 to design the new meeting house in an open meadow on Bloomfield Avenue on the northwest edge of the city. By that time Lundy was making a name for himself in boundary-pushing church design. A drive-in church in Florida was completed in the early 1950s, followed by Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Sarasota, Fla. His First Unitarian Church of Fairfield County in Westport won an award from Progressive Architecture magazine in 1960.

Rev. Payson Miller, then Hartford Unitarian’s pastor, reportedly told Lundy that the new church should be something that “came up out of the ground and represented the human belief that all religions are but so many paths to a single, all-pervading reality” — a bedrock Unitarian tenet. In an article in the February 1962 issue of Architectural Record, the architect described the design as expressing the concept that “many points of view draw together and become united in the center,” with numerous paths to spirituality.

Lundy’s idea for the church is straightforward: A sanctuary at the very center of the plan, capable of holding 350, is encircled by an ambulatory completely surrounding the sanctuary, providing circulation for all the support spaces — offices, meeting rooms, a chapel — arranged along the periphery. This first outer layer of spaces is divided by free-standing, concrete fin walls that radiate from the center but do not intrude upon the sanctuary. The main entry is between two walls that open to the southwest; another two entrances are framed by walls to the north and to the southeast. The placement of the walls is staggered, creating generous portions between for meeting spaces and offices. A day chapel at the back of the church, on axis with but concealed from the sanctuary, looks into a nearby woods.

Lundy presented his design to the congregation in June 1962, and not everyone was pleased. Several members objected to a building that looked like anything but a church. There was also concern about the roof, which was supported by steel cables draped across the concrete walls. The expressive roof forms and cables were a point of pride for Lundy. After all, provocative roofs were part of his signature style. Soaring pinnacles, Gothic-inspired profiles, generous overhangs — Lundy’s roofs were inventive even during a period when roof design was pushing the envelope. Lundy’s expressive roof designs made him a natural for designing religious buildings, which in the post-war period saw more experimentation with single volumes enclosed by an all-encompassing roof. The classic A-frame churches of the 1950s are the architectural cliches of this approach.

The Hartford Unitarians’ apprehensions about the roof and its structure were prescient. Almost immediately after the dedication in December 1964, the roof began to disappoint. The architect had specified that the roof sections be covered with wood shingles. Leaks led to remedial efforts (according to a history of the building written by W. Robert Chapman), which included the installation of an adhered rubber membrane roof in 1970 (which didn’t work), followed by a loose-laid, single-ply rubber membrane (also a failure). According to folks at the church, the roof is an ongoing problem, primarily because Lundy designed it to move with the wind-induced sway of the cables — an invitation to leaks. Lack of insulation in the walls and roof, along with single-pane glass, contributes to a building that is often too cold or too hot.

But what is a little shivering for the pleasure of worshipping in such a work of art?

Essex architect Michael J. Crosbie is chair of the University of Hartford department of architecture and drives past Lundy’s Unitarian meeting house on his way to the campus.