Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of “What’s That Building?” stories this summer that focus on Chicago’s most iconic buildings.
No matter how many times you’ve biked or driven past the majestic Baháʼí House of Worship on Sheridan Road in Wilmette, the structure never fails to grab the eye.
The soaring, lacy building is “powerful and beautiful, one of my favorite spots on the planet,” Rainn Wilson, the actor best known for playing Dwight Schrute in The Office, said in an Instagram post in July. In the post, Wilson walks around the outside of the building and reminisces about being a security guard there when he was 17 in the early 1980s. His late father, Robert, was a Baháʼí, and Rainn is still involved with the faith.
Sheridan Road curves around this nine-sided building, which is wrapped in intricate carvings and stands amid verdant landscaping. The temple is commanding and elegant at the same time. It looks like nothing else in Chicago or North America. This building is the only Baháʼí House of Worship on the continent — and one of only eight in the world.
Baháʼí is a worldwide faith that focuses on unity — of god, of all the world’s religions and of people. That’s expressed in the florid ornament on the exterior, where you can easily spot the six-pointed Star of David, the crucifix and the left-pointing Swastika that was significant to eastern religions — including Hinduism and Buddhism — long before the Nazis in Germany appropriated it. You can also see nine-pointed stars, a symbol of the Baháʼí faith. Because it’s the highest single-digit number, nine is a symbol of completeness. The Baháʼí faith is held out as the successor to Islam, Christianity and Judaism that synthesizes these religions and completes them.
The faith’s governing body is based in Israel, though the North American headquarters is in Evanston.
The Baháʼí notion of completing all religions dates to 1844 in Iran, when Mirza Ali Mohammad of Shiraz, a Shi’ite Muslim began preaching that a new prophet who would succeed Muhammad was coming. In 1852, one of his followers who took the name Baha Allah announced he was that prophet.
Baháʼí arrived in Chicago in 1893, when a speaker at the World Parliament of Religions, a sidecar to the World’s Columbian Exposition, discussed its proposition that all religions will one day unite. By the year 1900, there were about 700 Baháʼís in Chicago, and one of them, Corrine Knight True, led the effort to get a temple built here.
As one historian of the faith has written, True and her husband Moses were spiritually bereft because four of their eight children had died. Corrine began corresponding with Abdu’l Baha, son of Baha Allah, about her grief and the faith’s standard of having men and women worship separately. After her fourth child died, she went to visit Baha in Haifa, in what’s now Israel, and he put her in charge of building a temple in the U.S., something a men’s committee in Chicago had been trying to do for four years.
The idea at the time was the seat of the sect would move to the temple that Corinne True was going to build in Chicago. She told a reporter for the Chicago Inter Ocean in 1908 that “we believe there is soon to be a universal religion and language.”
The project took longer than expected. The cornerstone was laid in 1912, seven years ahead of the first completed Baháʼí House of Worship in Ashgabat in what’s now Turkmenistan. But construction in Wilmette went in fits and starts, and the building wasn’t completed until 1953.
While people refer to it as a temple, this is really more of a retreat or a sanctuary, a place meant primarily for quiet meditation. And what a sublime place to meditate, beneath that dome that soars up 167 feet, or about 11 stories.
The concrete lace that lines the exterior is also inside, though they’re separate panels with weather-proof plexiglass between them so daylight can pour through.
Most visitors don’t go up above the first floor, but walkways run all the way around the interior, providing up-close looks at the frilly concrete work.
The building’s main design is by Louis Bourgeois, an architect who was also a Baháʼí. Bourgeois, who was part of a team in the famous Tribune Tower design competition, had proposed an eight-sided building for a Palace of Peace in The Hague, Netherlands. He adapted that unbuilt plan to a nine-sided plan for the Wilmette building. The concrete lace was the work of John Earley, a Washington, D.C., plaster and stucco artist who also worked on Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time at the west end of the Midway in Hyde Park.
The patterns on the inside and outside are different, reflecting the long time it took to complete this tower. Bourgeois designed the outside. He died in 1930 and later Alfred P. Shaw, the architect of one of the city’s other icons, the Merchandise Mart, designed the interior.
People come and go all day, some to meditate and some just to admire the building. That’s exactly what it’s there for, George Davis, director of the Baháʼí House of Worship, told WBEZ’s Reset.
“It’s designed to be a place of beauty and simplicity for all people to come and enjoy,” he said.
There’s no proselytizing, no worship service — and no admission fee, ever. The Baháʼís operate the place at their own cost, an amount Davis wouldn’t divulge, purely out of “our desire to share this with the world.”
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.
K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @true_chicago.