Chicago’s Baha’i Temple and Gardens

Have you had the experience of living practically down the street from a major attraction that you never visit, apparently because it’s just down the street? That’s how it’s been with Judy and I and Chicago’s Baha’i Temple, one of only seven in the world.

View of the Baha'i Temple from Linden Avenue in Wilmette.
View of the Baha’i Temple from Linden Avenue in Wilmette.

Technically, the Temple is in Wilmette, a suburb just north of Evanston, where we live. And we had in fact visited it in February a couple of years ago. Nothing was in bloom, of course, but they say winter is a good time to see a garden’s bones. 

image bahai temple

Although in this case, we couldn’t pay much attention to the bones because we were trying to stave off hypothermia. But ever since then we have been meaning to visit the Baha’i Temple when the weather was more reasonable. This past weekend, we finally did.

The Baha’i religion was begun in Iran around 1850. Its theology is built on the concepts of “the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity, and the oneness of religions”, according to the Temple website. Baha’i believe in tolerance, universal education, and equal rights for women. Alcohol is prohibited, though, in case you consider that a deal-breaker.

The Temple was begun in 1912 and not completed until 1953, largely because only funds from adherents could be used for its construction.

image Baha'i temple

The nine-sided building reflects the ecumenical spirit of the religion. There seem to be influences both Arabic and Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance. 

Symbols of Hinduism, Judaisim, Christianity, and Islam on a column of the Temple. The religions are ordered chronologically, with the earliest at the bottom.
Symbols of Hinduism, Judaisim, Christianity, and Islam on a column of the Temple. The religions are ordered chronologically, with the earliest at the bottom.

On columns suggestive of minarets, symbols of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are carved.

image bahai temple

Further up the column there seems to be a carving of a cathedral, complete with rose window.

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Outer walk surrounds the gardens.

Each of the nine sides of the Temple has it’s own distinct garden. All of the gardens are surrounded by an outer walk lined with cedar, crabapple, magnolia, and other trees and shrubs. 

Each of the gardens was surrounded by tall hedges on three sides.
Each of the gardens was surrounded by tall hedges on three sides.

The gardens here, I’ve been told, are influenced by Persian paradise gardens. Paradise gardens were enclosed, and each of the nine gardens at the Baha’i Temple are kept private from one another (though not from the Temple itself) with hedges of cedar and other woody plants.

One of two rectangular pools at the Baha'i Temple.
One of two rectangular pools at the Baha’i Temple.

In an arid country, one could not imagine paradise without lots of water. Each of the nine gardens at the Baha’i temple has its own fountain, and water also flows through two rectangular pools on either side of the Temple.

Yellow snapdragons and red starflower along with low hedges of boxwood.
Tall yellow snapdragons and red starflower along with low hedges of boxwood or yew.

The gardens here are fairly formal: boxwood hedges, geometric shapes, and a limited palette of massed annuals and perennials. Paradise gardens were meant to be calm and orderly, not wild.

Yellow zinnias and pink canna lilies, with white rugosa roses in the background.
Yellow zinnias and pink canna lilies, with white rugosa roses in the background.

You don’t get swept away with the exuberance of the plantings. On the other hand, they do not seem overly restrained. The simple plant combinations can create blocks of color that are quietly joyful.

Roses, oregano, thyme, and hydrangeas.
Roses, oregano, thyme, and hydrangeas.

Some of the gardens seem planted with a theme in mind. For example, a garden of fragrant roses, thyme, and ornamental oregano.

North American natives at the Baha'i Temple.
North American natives at the Baha’i Temple.

There was also a garden of North American natives – coneflowers, anise hyssop, swamp milkweed, bee balm, and little bluestem among others.

You can sit on the beds of the raised walls, but that's about it.
You can sit on the walls of the raised beds, but that’s about it.

Apparently these are gardens for strolling, not sitting. There are no benches, though you can sit on the walls of the raised beds.

Gardens are at a lower elevation, the ground separating them is higher.
Gardens are at a lower elevation, the ground separating them is higher.

Each of the gardens are separated by a stretch of lawn set at a higher elevation, so to move from garden to garden (unless you go by the outer walk) you must ascend and then descend a handful of stairs.

There are seven million Baha’i in the world, about 150,000 in the United States. Adherents are still subject to severe persecution in Iran and some other countries.

image

In the spring the gardens here are full of tulips and flowering crabapple. We intend to come back to see for ourselves.

Water flows over a quite waterfall before recirculating.
Water flows over a quite waterfall before recirculating.

I enjoyed the flowers at the Baha’i Temple. However, it is the tranquility and sense of reverence (whatever your religious beliefs) that comes from the combination of enclosure and open space in the shadow of the Temple that makes this a place very much worth seeing.

56 Comments on “Chicago’s Baha’i Temple and Gardens

  1. I would definitely like to see this one! The architecture alone is amazing! I was laughing out loud when you talked about ” trying to stave off hypothermia” Ha…so true! I am so glad you both got the chance to view this garden as it has many beautiful components. I really like the raised bed with the hydrangeas in the background…what was the purple flower in front of them? Really a beautiful escape that makes you feel as though you aren’t in Chicago. Thanks for sharing! Adding it to my list! Have a great week Jason! Nicole

  2. I really like the peaceful gardens and beauty of the architecture. Would be a nice place to see in person. Hope you will share some spring views if you return.

  3. Fascinating! I’d love to see this garden. Long, long ago, I knew an artist who converted to B’hai, and when he talked about it, I felt the attraction. If anyone understands unity, truly, it’s a gardener.

  4. Hello Jason, the temple is so intricately carved, every last surface has been used, it looks stunning. The gardens look like a more “modern” style of formal (can’t think of a better way to put it) but they complement the building very well.

  5. Wow! An amazing temple it looks like a wedding cake. I love all the lacy carving.
    The gardens are very tranquil, it is lovely how they have several enclosed gardens, each with a different feel to it.
    I wonder why they don’ t have seating.

  6. What? No benches/chairs?!? (I need to read re. the significance of 9 sides/9 gardens, etc. Nine major religions?)

  7. Looks as if it should be in India rather than Chicago! I wasn’t sure how I felt about the gardens, I’d imagined something much more calm and restrained. Chicago is definitely a really interesting city to live in Jason.

  8. Thanks for the reminder about the Baha’i Temple. Weather permitting, we are going to see it and the Botanic Garden this weekend.

  9. Wow. Our word paradise originally comes from Iran and I believe it meant a walled garden. Like one of your commenters, I also have friends who practice Baha’i and our neighbourhood has a lantern walk each spring that they host. These expressions of faith (gardens, architecture, light, hope) can be appreciated even by someone like myself who doesn’t participate in organized religion. This was a real treat to see.

  10. Thanks for visiting and posting this great (and accurate) synopsis! Those little walls are actually benches, created precisely for sitting in the gardens to meditate or enjoy the flowers. 🙂 (fellow resident of Wilmette and member of the Baha’i Faith)

    • I’m relieved it was accurate! I guess wikipedia can be useful after all. Actually I did look at some of the websites associated with the Baha’i Temple. Incidentally, I liven in Evanston not Wilmette – but we’re still practically neighbors.

  11. I like the idea of there being no formal seating and being allowed to sit on the walls in amongst the plants. I can’t think of a time when I have sat on a bench in a public garden, I rarely sit in my own and prefer to perch with a cup of tea on the wall. The gardens are peaceful and the architecture completely ornate, looks an interesting place and an opportunity to understand others.

  12. I’m thinking I’ve been on the outside, but am not sure I have ever been inside of the temple. And always thinking about it whenever I drive by, which has not been lately. Thanks for reminding me of this destination. 🙂

  13. I think you should visit this place a lot or anyway I think I would if it were nearby. So pretty and so different. It’s like traveling to a foreign place. I love the carving and appreciate your explanations of its meaning.

  14. No seats…. that’s odd. What a fascinating building though, and to me any garden is better than another parking lot. Interesting to hear about a religion I never really knew much about, thanks.

  15. We’ve seen it many times from a distance and I’ve always wanted to visit. My husband went to school at Northwestern and visited the grounds several times. He said the building was quite impressive, but he seems a little more vague about the gardens. From your post, it looks very pleasant, but it’s too bad they don’t have a few benches here and there. Thanks for the tour.

  16. Thanks for sharing that with us. It is gorgeous! I like the mass planting of the pink cannas. The building itself, too, oh my, what craftmanship! I look forward to seeing your future post of its springtime flowers.

  17. I really enjoyed this, what a stunning building, I must find out more. Beautiful gardens too. A very interesting post and to think it’s on your doorstep.xxx

  18. So interesting! I understand the just down the road (but I haven’t been there) predicament. This summer I plan to walk the Thousand Islands Bridge because I drive over it practically every day to work! I’m going to do it! I love this post – I have never heard of these temples and love learning about the philosophy behind the garden designs.

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