Scavengers steal the letters from Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece? There oughta be a law.... | WBEZ
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Scavengers steal the letters from Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece? There oughta be a law....

(photo by Lee Bey)

Now this is disheartening: The great Unity Temple heist–the theft of 58 bronze letters that formed the epigraph “FOR THE WORSHIP OF GOD AND THE SERVICE OF MAN” that adorned the east and west entrances of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed landmark–probably hauled in no more than $40.

If the letters were legitimately and properly offered at auction, they might have fetched the five-figure value quoted in news reports of the theft this week. But police and officials at Unity Temple believe the lettering stolen in late September was sold for scrap. And since the thin, 11″ tall, green patina’d letters weighed just 4.1 ounces a piece–Emily Roth, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation was kind enough to weigh one for me on a postal scale in her office–the geniuses who put down this score would have been lucky to get $40 at a scrapyard, what with bronze salvage prices at $2.60 a pound or less.

A landmark building is a structure that the public has agreed is a special place worth recognizing and protecting, either by notice or by the force of law. As such, to rip off a building like this is really a crime against all of us. It’s time to beef up the law to better protect architecturally-important structures.

I propose a Theft of Historic Building Material law that would make it a Class 3 felony in Illinois to steal, or damage during theft, or traffic any part of a building that is locally landmarked, in landmark district, a National Historic Landmark or listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And there is precedent. While theft is usually a misdemeanor, if you swipe more than $150 of fuel from a gas station in Illinois, the Theft of Motor Fuel law kicks in and the crime becomes a Class 3 felony worth two to five years in prison. Vandalizing a house of worship in Illinois is a Class 4 felony punishable by one to three years in jail. My proposed Theft of Historic Building Material law would also carry the possibility of a two- to five-year bid in the jug. That might be enough to deter crimes like the one that happened at Unity Temple. If nothing else, it would certainly give unscrupulous scrap dealers or architectural salvage places second thoughts about accepting good like these.

As it stands now, for want of $40, look at what’s been lost. The photos above and below show the west entrance of the temple where a few letters, mingled with the ghosts of the missing ones, remain.

“My heart aches,” Roth said. “When you look up and you see the building [now], you just get the feeling of the building being stripped.”


(photo by Lee Bey)

(photo by Lee Bey)

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