Bahá'í House of Worship

The Bahá'í House of Worship (or Bahá'í Temple) in Wilmette, Illinois, is the oldest surviving Baha'i House of Worship in the world, and the only one in the United States.

Early plans

In 1903, a small group of Bahá'ís in downtown Chicago first discussed the idea of a Bahá'í House of Worship in the Chicago area. At the time, the world's first House of Worship was being built in Ashgabat, in what is now Turkmenistan. A Bahá'í from Chicago named Corrine True traveled to Palestine in 1907 to visit Abdu'l-Baha, the leader of the faith, and tell him of the growing interest in a local house of worship. Abdu'l-Baha gave his blessing to the project, but recommended that the structure be built away from the Chicago business district, in a more quiet area near Lake Michigan. The Bahá'ís considered building the temple in Chicago's Jackson Park or the suburb of Evanston, but eventually settled on the Grosse Pointe area in Wilmette, Illinois, just north of Evanston. They began purchasing land for the temple in 1908.

Bahá'ís from around the world gradually raised funds to pay for the project. A Chicago resident named Nettie Tobin, unable to contribute any money, famously donated a discarded piece of limestone from a construction site. This stone became the symbolic cornerstone of the building when Abdu'l-Baha arrived in Wilmette in 1912 for the ground-breaking ceremony. The actual construction of the building did not begin until the 1920s, after Bahá'ís agreed to use a design by Louis Bourgeois. The design was seen as a mixture of many different architectural styles.


By 1922, the first part of the building, the Foundation Hall, was mostly finished, and Bahá'ís began using it as a meeting place. Progress on construction soon stalled, however, as funds began to dwindle, and residents of Wilmette began expressing displeasure with the construction site. At this point, many strange rumors about the structure began to circulate. Some people believed that the building was used by the Bahá'ís to keep a live white whale. Others said that the building was a refueling station for captured German submarines that had been brought to the Great Lakes.

Construction resumed as contributions from Bahá'ís began to increase, and in 1930, the George A. Fuller Company was hired to complete the building's superstructure. The superstructure was completed in 1931, and a year later, John Joseph Earley was hired to begin work on the building's concrete cladding. A model of the temple was placed on display at Chicago's 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, and people began travelling to Wilmette to see the building taking shape. The exterior of the building was completed in January 1943.

Work remained to be done on the interior cladding of the structure, as well as the landscaping around the building. Louis Bourgeois' designs for the interior were incomplete. He had died in 1930, before he could finish his plans, so in 1947, Alfred Shaw was hired to work on the interior detailing of the building. A plan for the building's gardens was approved in 1951, based on a design by Hilbert E. Dahl.

Dedication and legacy

The temple was finally dedicated on May 2, 1953. Over 3,500 people attended the services, including 91 year-old Corrine True.Ruhiyyih Kanhum, the wife of Bahá'í Guardian Shoghi Effendi, read a prayer at the dedication. Several prominent figures, such as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and future justice Thurgood Marshall, sent messages of praise to the Bahá'ís.

In 1978, the House of Worship was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The building has become a popular destination for tourists, and the Illinois Office of Tourism has named it one of the "Seven Wonders of Illinois".


The House of Worship is a domed structure surrounded by gardens and fountains on a 6.97 (2.82 ha) acre plot of land. The space between the floor of the auditorium and the ceiling of the dome measures 138 feet (42 m) high, and the interior of the dome is 72 feet (22 m) in diameter. The auditorium seats 1,191 people.

Since nine is the last number in the decimal system, Bahá'ís believe it symbolizes perfection and completion. Thus, many elements of the building occur in groups of nine. For example, there are nine entrances to the auditorium, nine interior alcoves, nine dome sections, and nine fountains in the garden area.

The cladding of the building is composed of a concrete mixture of portland cement and two types of quartz. Many intricate details are carved into the concrete. Various writings of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the faith, are inscribed above the building entrances and inside the interior alcoves. Symbols of many religions, such as the Christian cross, the Star of David, and the star and crescent, can be found in each exterior pillar. The pillars are also decorated with swastikas, which were used by Hindus, Buddhists, and others long before becoming appropriated by the Nazis. At the top of each pillar is a nine-pointed star, symbolizing the Bahá'í faith.

Inside the center of the dome ceiling, one can see an Arabic inscription. This is a Bahá'í symbol called the "Greatest Name"; the script translates as "O Thou Glory of Glories". Bahá'í Guardian Shogi Effendi explained, "By 'Greatest Name' is meant that Baha'u'allah has appeared in God's greatest name, in other words, that he is the supreme Manifestation of God."

Architect Louis Bourgeois' former studio sits across the street from the House of Worship at 556 Sheridan Road.

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