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.
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.
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.
The nine-sided building reflects the ecumenical spirit of the religion. There seem to be influences both Arabic and Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance.
On columns suggestive of minarets, symbols of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are carved.
Further up the column there seems to be a carving of a cathedral, complete with rose window.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some of the gardens seem planted with a theme in mind. For example, a garden of fragrant roses, thyme, and ornamental oregano.
There was also a garden of North American natives – coneflowers, anise hyssop, swamp milkweed, bee balm, and little bluestem among others.
Apparently these are gardens for strolling, not sitting. There are no benches, though you can sit on the walls of the raised beds.
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.
In the spring the gardens here are full of tulips and flowering crabapple. We intend to come back to see for ourselves.
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.