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Baháʼí House of Worship in Wilmette

Ken Krapf

Why is the only Baháʼí temple in North America in Wilmette?

The Baháʼí House of Worship stands in contrast to its suburban surroundings. Known as the holiest Baháʼí temple, it’s also the oldest in the world.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2023.

The U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois is striking: it doesn’t seem like the three-tiered temple with a Renaissance dome belongs in the neighborhood of large homes where it sits.

Growing up in the area, Curious City listener Annie Carroll said she’d drive by the temple at least once a week.

Details on the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois.

Details on the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois.

Jason Marck / WBEZ

“It never gets old. Every time you look at it, you see something completely new,” Carroll said. “It’s an incredibly detailed, beautiful building.”

She wondered why something so grand and opulent was in a place like Wilmette. Surrounded by nine manicured gardens filled with a bevy of flowers and foliage, the gleaming building stands apart. It is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and it gets hundreds of thousands of visitors annually from all over the world.

The grounds of the Baháʼí House of Worship.

The grounds of the Baháʼí House of Worship.

Jason Marck / WBEZ

 The building that architect Louis Bourgeois formerly used as his home on the grounds of the Baháʼí House of Worship.

The building that architect Louis Bourgeois formerly used as his home on the grounds of the Baháʼí House of Worship.

Jason Marck / WBEZ

Founded in Iran in 1863, the Baháʼí faith teaches progressive revelation — the idea that religions are inherently one and God progressively reveals truth through a series of divine messengers. For Baháʼís, this means figures like Krishna, Buddha and Jesus were all divine messengers. And Baháʼu’lláh, the faith’s founder, said there will be a new messenger about 1,000 years after him.

Constructing the temple took several decades. We consulted Baháʼí National Center Associate Director of Communications Joyce Litoff, Temple Director George Davis, the Chicago Architecture Center and writings on temple architect Louis Bourgeois to construct a timeline on the history of Baháʼís in the U.S. and the completion of the temple:


The first meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religions, now known as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in 1893.

The first meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religions, now known as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in 1893.

Courtesy of the Baháʼís of the United States

1893: The first public mention of the Baháʼí faith in the United States happens at the Columbian Exposition

The World’s Columbian Exposition was the site of the first meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religions. The exposition opened on September 11 that year, with international representatives of global religions present. The parliament aimed to cultivate harmony among a variety of faith traditions. It is considered a watershed moment of interfaith dialogue, and the World’s Parliament of Religions still convenes today.

Reverend Henry H. Jessup, an American Presbyterian missionary in Syria (now Lebanon), wrote a paper quoting the founder of the Baháʼí faith, Baháʼu’lláh. Jessup thought Baháʼu’lláh “gave utterance to sentiments so noble, so Christlike,” that he wanted to use them as closing words.

These words of the religious founder included: “That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bond of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religions should cease and differences of race be annulled.”


1903: Local Baháʼís pitch the idea of building a temple in Chicago

There were about 3,000 Baháʼís living in Chicagoland in the early 1900s, the largest concentration of Baháʼís outside of New York.

ʻAbdu'l-Bahá, son of the faith’s founder, Baháʼu'lláh.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, son of the faith’s founder, Baháʼu’lláh.

Courtesy of the Baháʼís of the United States

A small group of Baháʼís downtown pitched the idea of constructing a temple in the area. A few years later, Baháʼu’lláh’s son ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, then-leader of the faith, gave Baháʼís the go-ahead to construct what is now the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship.

Baháʼís considered building the temple in Jackson Park or Evanston, but Wilmette won out. The land was cheap and undeveloped at the time. Also, it was beautiful and right on the shores of Lake Michigan.

There was also a significant population of Baháʼís in New York, but Chicago had historic significance because of the World’s Parliament of Religions. Plus, it was more accessible because it was centrally located in the U.S.


1906: Louis Bourgeois, who would go on to design the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship, joins the Baháʼí faith with his wife

Architect Louis Bourgeois designed the U.S. Baháʼí  House of Worship.

Architect Louis Bourgeois designed the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship.

Courtesy of the Baháʼís of the United States

Captivated by the teachings of the essential unity of all religions and the relationship between religion and art, Bourgeois became a Baháʼí.

In 1909, the newly formed Executive Committee for the Baháʼí Temple Unity asked North American architects to submit designs for the temple.

Bourgeois made a presentation, and after some revisions, his design would be selected just over a decade later.

Bourgeois dreamed of building a temple dedicated to world peace before he became Baháʼí: the year prior to his conversion, Bourgeois entered a design for the League of Nations Peace Palace competition at The Hague.


The Foundation Hall at the Baháʼí House of Worship under construction.

The Foundation Hall at the Baháʼí House of Worship under construction.

Courtesy of the Baháʼís of the United States

1912: Baháʼís break ground on the temple

Serious construction would not begin for another eight years, but Baháʼís broke ground on the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship in 1912. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baháʼu’lláh’s son, traveled to the U.S. to lay the cornerstone.

Chicago resident Nettie Tobin wished to contribute to the Baháʼí Temple Unity but lacked the funds. She visited a construction site near her home in Chicago and asked for a stone from the reject pile. Tobin had the stone delivered to the future construction site in Wilmette by streetcar and wagon. Abdu’l-Bahá decided that stone would be the dedication stone for the future temple.

The cornerstone was not used in the construction of the building. It is now displayed in the visitors center.


1920: Louis Bourgeois’ design is chosen for the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship

Baháʼí temple dome

The Baháʼí House of Worship.

Jason Marck / WBEZ

Bourgeois revised the design he’d submitted in 1909 and built a plaster model of the future temple. It was unanimously chosen as the design for the temple at an exhibition at the Baháʼí Temple Unity Convention in New York in 1920.

The design for the nine-sided building drew inspiration from famous styles of architecture, including a Renaissance dome and Islamic arabesque tracery. It famously includes symbolism from different major world religions. There are Islamic stars and crescents, crosses, and Stars of David laced into the building’s pillars.

These symbols are included because Baháʼís believe in progressive revelation, the idea that every major faith tradition has contributed to the collective understanding of what is true.

Bourgeois would continue to work on the design for years. He died in 1930, before the temple was completed.


1921: Construction begins

The first part of the building, the Foundation Hall, was finished in 1922.

The dome of the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship under construction.

The dome of the U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship under construction.

Courtesy of the Baháʼís of the United States

However, construction of the rest of the temple faced many starts and stops due to the lack of knowledge on how to build the temple as envisioned, and historical events like the Great Depression and World War II. It picked up more steadily in 1947.

Bourgeois wanted the temple to be as white as possible and gleam in the light. He eventually met John Earley, who was an expert in ornamental concrete. Earley combined white Portland cement with crushed quartz to achieve the desired effect.

The Baháʼí House of Worship is surrounded by nine gardens, each planted with a variety of flowers and plants to symbolize the diversity of humanity. Each garden also has a fountain. They’re based on a design by landscape architect Hilbert Dahl, who was also Baháʼí.


The U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship dedication in 1953.

The U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship dedication in 1953.

Courtesy of the Baháʼís of the United States

1953: The temple is completed and dedicated

The U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship was dedicated in a ceremony on May 2, 1953. Several thousand people attended the ceremony.

The temple in Wilmette is the oldest one in the world still standing. The first Baháʼí temple was in what is now Turkmenistan, near the border with Iran where the faith started. The temple was rendered unsafe by an earthquake in the 1960s and was later razed. Baháʼís in Iran have suffered persecution since the faith’s inception.

Since ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, son of the founder of the Baháʼí faith, laid the foundation stone for the temple in the U.S., it is considered the holiest of the temples worldwide.


Baháʼís temple in Wilmette Illinois

Lauren Herrmann / Courtesy of the Baháʼís of the United States

Today

The U.S. Baháʼí House of Worship receives more than 300,000 visitors from around the world every year. It is located at 100 Linden Ave. in Wilmette, IL. Today, there are about 180,000 Baháʼís in the United States and 3,000 in Chicago.

The Temple Auditorium, which is open daily to the public, hosts programs of prayers and readings. People can also sit in silence there to pray or reflect. At the Welcome Center, people can watch a film on early American Baháʼís, visit the bookshop, or go on guided tours of the space.

The temple was built as an offering to the Baháʼí principle of the oneness of humanity. It’s for everyone, whether Baháʼí or not, to enjoy.

Adora Namigadde is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @adorakn.

Curious City Question-Asker bio: Annie Carroll

More about our question-asker:

Curious City question-asker: Annie Carroll

Courtesy of Annie Carroll

Annie Carroll grew up in Glencoe, Illinois. In high school, she got to go inside the Baháʼí temple for the first time as part of a world religions class. She enjoyed learning about the Baháʼí faith and was inspired to visit the temple for a few services.

Annie has since moved to California. She wanted to know why the U.S. temple was built in the Chicago suburbs when it’s only one of eight continental Houses of Worship globally.

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