Unity Lutheran Church began meeting in 1905 in a storefront at 1136 W. Argyle Street in Chicago, after a neighborhood canvas by the General Synod of Northern Illinois found many unchurched Lutherans in the Edgewater neighborhood. Financial assistance from the Synod’s Board of Church Extension and First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Altoona, Pennsylvania, helped Unity’s 43 charter members build a chapel in 1906, at the corner of Balmoral and Magnolia. On June 22, 1917, Unity was the site of the merger of the General Council of the Lutheran Church and the United Synod in the South into a new synod, the United Lutheran Church in America.
In 1924, Unity opened the Lutheran Christian Girl’s Home, a Christian place for young women coming to Chicago to seek work. A Lutheran Social Services of Illinois day care center operated at Unity from 1970 until 1996. That space is now used for after-school tutoring by the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministry, which is funded by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Unity’s neighborhood connections are deep. The Edgewater community gathers here for worship, fellowship, volleyball, Boy Scouts, tutoring, pancake breakfasts, concerts and plays. Church members participate enthusiastically in local street fairs and garden walks. Many members have been local PTA presidents and Boy and Girl Scout leaders.
Unity’s connections to the world are also strong. Unity began sponsoring its first missionary, Miss Edith Eykamp, in 1924 in Guntur, India. It now helps sponsor Ms. Judith Perry, who serves in Taiyuan, China.
Now, under the leadership of the Rev. Rebekah Swanson Wagner, Unity is celebrating 100 years of service to the Edgewater community.
The sanctuary at Unity was designed by Ivar Viehe-Naess in 1916. Viehe-Naess was a member of the congregation and had designed the original 1906 “Sunday School Chapel” immediately adjacent to this building.
Born in Nord-Osen in Oesterdalen, Norway in 1870, Viehe-Naess grew up in close proximity to church architecture. The parish church and school were located on the Naess farm. His mother’s brother was a prosperous builder in Oslo. He heard of the plans for the great Columbian Exposition and decided to go to Chicago in 1891 in order, he said, “that I might be well acquainted with the place before the great celebration.”
In the fall of 1892, Viehe-Naess entered the Chicago School of Architecture. After three years of study, he went to work as a draftsman and continued designing interiors until 1897, when he went to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1900, Viehe-Naess joined the firm of Daniel Burnham, where he remained until 1912. During that period, he worked on several of Burnham’s larger projects, including the Flat Iron building in New York.
Viehe-Naess’s American churches are all in the same neo-gothic style as Unity. Among his other church designs were Buena Presbyterian, Rogers Park Presbyterian, North Austin Lutheran Church and Christ Lutheran Church (Wilson at Spaulding). Other buildings designed by Viehe-Naess include the Lakeview and South Chicago Banks, the Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital and the Elmhurst Hospital.
The original design of Unity included a tower over the corner entryway, extending an additional 33 feet above the existing ramparts. This tower was designed to hold a ring of bells but was not completed.
The sanctuary was remodeled in 1940, again under Viehe-Naess’s supervision. The baptismal font, the pulpit and lectern prayer bench and the communion rail were built to his specifications. Viehe-Naess was a member of Unity and a member of both the 1906 and the 1916 building committees. General contractor for the 1916 construction was Robert Christiansen, also a member of the congregation.
The stained glass windows were installed in September of 1948, at which time the alter painting and two large decorative angels which adorned the chancel wall were removed. The altar, Cristus Rex and the completion of the reredos were done in 1953 by the John Toiler studio in Palatine.