History and Architecture of the Bahá’í House of Worship

The Early History

By the early 1900s, nearly one thousand people in the United States and Canada had embraced the Bahá’í Faith. The members of this new religion wanted to demonstrate their devotion to God and raise a temple for all people. Chicago's location in the heart of the continent and the peaceful beauty of the site on the shores of Lake Michigan made it a natural choice for the first Bahá’í House of Worship in the Western Hemisphere.  

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    Soon after the first parcel of the Temple land was acquired in 1907, Bahá’ís began to use the site as a gathering place.

The Architect

Long before he had heard of the Bahá'í Faith, French Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois (1856-1930) believed that his mission in life was to create a universal temple to Truth as a gathering place for all humanity.

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    Bourgeois would stretch sheets of paper up to 70 feet long on his studio floor and draw, at full scale, the lines of the ornamentation—an astounding feat of draftsmanship.

Bourgeois became a Bahá’í in New York City in 1907, and two years later responded to the call for designs for the Temple.  In 1920, delegates to the Bahá'í National Convention unanimously selected his innovative design. Bourgeois traveled to Haifa (in present-day Israel) to consult with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. With ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's encouragement, Bourgeois refined and scaled down the size of his design.

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    Colorized drawing by Louis Bourgeois illustrates his early plan for the Temple.

“There are combinations of mathematical lines, symbolizing those of the universe, and in their intricate merging of circle into circle, and circle within circle, we visualize the merging of all religions into one.”
Architect Louis Bourgeois

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    Interior of dome during construction.

Bahá’í principles are communicated throughout the design. For example, to illustrate the Bahá’í belief in the unity of religion, Bourgeois brought together elements of religious architecture from around the world. The Temple’s arabesque panels embrace natural light during the day and illuminate from within at night, creating a “Temple of Light and Unity."

The Craftsman

Transforming the architect’s intricate designs into a stable structure required innovation in both building materials and construction techniques. Architect Louis Bourgeois consulted with John Earley, an expert in ornamental concrete, about constructing the dome from cast concrete panels mounted on a steel superstructure. To achieve Bourgeois' vision of the whitest possible surface, Earley experimented with white Portland cement combined with crushed quartz.

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    The concrete panels were cast in Virginia and shipped by railway car to the Temple site where workers attached them to the superstructure. (Photo from 1933).

The Gardens

The Bahá’í House of Worship gardens are part of the sacred space. The nine gardens are planted with foliage of various colors and fragrances to convey the beauty of unity in diversity. The nine rectangular approaches to the Temple, some incorporating reflecting pools, are reminiscent of those found in the East. The nine circular gardens, with round fountains, represent Western landscapes and serve as outdoor rooms for prayer.

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    In 1943, Bahá’í landscape architect Hilbert Dahl took on the challenge of creating an elegant, unified garden design.

The Temple Opens Its Doors

The Temple project took 50 years and continued through two World Wars and the Great Depression. The building was financed entirely by voluntary contributions from Bahá’ís around the world. More than five thousand people gathered for dedication services as the Bahá’í House of Worship was opened to the public in May 1953.

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    More than five thousand people gathered for dedication services as the Bahá’í House of Worship was opened to the public in May 1953.