Golden anniversary for temple of light

June 3, 2003
Illuminating the interior... (Photo: Francisco Gonzalez)

WILMETTE, IL, United States — It was partly a celebration of architecture. And partly a celebration of the spirit.

In ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Baha'i House of Worship here in May, participants spoke of the building's beautiful and unique design and of the great sacrifices that were made to see it realized.

"It was such a dream of the Baha'is of the world to build this temple," said Fariborz Sahba, telling of how contributions, many of them very small, came in from Baha'is in many nations in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, when the building's main structure was erected.

An architect himself, and designer of the Baha'i House of Worship in India, Mr. Sahba gave the keynote address at the official 50th anniversary commemoration at the Temple on 17 May 2003.

"This is the Temple that all the Baha'is of the world claim ownership of," said Mr. Sahba, "and they love it. But this is not only for the Baha'is -- it is a Temple that belongs to the people of the world."

That ideal is reflected in the fact that the Temple is one of the most visited buildings in the greater Chicago region, receiving more than 230,000 visitors a year.

"The Baha'i Temple is nationally recognized," said Maria Berg-Stark, executive director of Chicago's North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And it is one of the most prominent tourist attractions in the area."

A springtime celebration for the House of Worship. (Photo: Vladimir Shilov) Slideshow
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A springtime celebration for the House of Worship. (Photo: Vladimir Shilov)

Much of the reason for the interest is the Temple's unique and beautiful design. The architect was Louis Bourgeois, a Baha'i of Canada.

Sited on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan north of Chicago, the House of Worship is shaped like a large circular bell, with nine sides and nine doors. Some 58 meters in height, and with a seating capacity for nearly 1,200 people, the Temple is built of white concrete, much of it cast in ornamental patterns that allow light to stream in from every angle.

"The design represents the first time an architect was able to bring light in through the walls and dome of a building with ornamentation," said Robert Armbruster, an architect and engineer who is currently managing a project to repair the monumental steps that ring the Temple.

The design is also highly symbolic, with nine doors open to every direction and light streaming in from all around.

"It is one of the fundamental symbols of unity that we have," said Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, vice chair of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States. "It is a symbol of unity because it is open to everyone to pray there.

"And the architecture itself symbolizes unity with its nine entrances, drawing people in from all directions to a central point," said Ms. Left Hand Bull.

In addition to the public commemoration on 17 May, which was attended by more than 250 people, the 50th anniversary was also celebrated in a ceremony for Baha'is on 3 May. That day more closely marked the date -- 2 May 1953 -- when the Temple was completed and opened to the public.

The National Spiritual Assembly also commissioned a video/multi-media presentation, titled "The Dawning Place," which recounts the long process of building the Temple.

One of seven Baha'i Houses of Worship in the world, the Wilmette Temple is the oldest of them all, and the first Temple to be built in the West. The world's first Baha'i House of Worship was built in Ashkhabad (also known as Ashgabat and Ishqabad), in Russian Turkistan (now Turkmenistan), but it was later confiscated by the Soviet government, and, in 1962, destroyed after severe damage in an earthquake.

The cornerstone for the Wilmette House of Worship was laid by 'Abdu'l-Baha in 1912.

"Temples are the symbols of the divine uniting force," said 'Abdu'l-Baha, who led the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921. "That is why Baha'u'llah has commanded that a place of worship be built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions, races and sects may come together within its universal shelter."

A design for the building was chosen in 1920 and confirmed by 'Abdu'l-Baha in 1921. Over the next three decades, as Baha'is raised funds, the building was gradually constructed.

Today, it stands as a beacon of multi-religious and multi-cultural unity, a fact testified to by the many visitors it draws each year.

"We think that God is one in the world and you can talk with Him in other churches too," said Iryna Turshyn, a Christian from Ukraine, who visited the Wilmette Temple with a friend in May. "This church is like a 'union' church. It's for everybody."