Beauty and the Bowels

The Grand Toilette of Wilmette

“Many people would no more think of entering journalism than the sewage business – which at least does us all some good.” – Stephen Fry – English Comedian (1957 – Present)

Did you ever hear the joke about what kind of engineer was God?  It goes something like this:

Three engineers are having lunch and discussing what kind of engineer God is. The mechanical engineer says, “God must be a mechanical engineer, look at the complex structures of the body!” The electrical engineer says, “No, look at the electrical processes of the body, which the brain could not operate without, he must be an electrical engineer.” The civil engineer says, “You’re both wrong, he had to be a civil engineer. Who else would run a waste line through a recreational area?”

I was drawn to the area to visit the magnificent domed Bahà’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois and taking a walk in the neighborhood I could not help but have my mind drawn to that old joke.  Next to Gillson Park in the affluent suburb of Wilmette is swanky Wilmette Harbor filled with all manor of sailing boats used by the moneyed elites in the all-too-short Chicago summer.

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Wilmette Harbor
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Sailing past Gillson Park

Once you stroll past what is reminiscent of a picturesque American seaside town, you can see the great dome jutting out of the horizon like a photoshopped image showing a clash of East and West.  You can faintly see the intricate detail that engulfs the place of worship that screams it’s influence from it’s birthplace in the Middle East.

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Dome from Wilmette Harbor

As I walked past the Coast Guard station  I had a more pronounced view of the 9-sided dome jutting over the rather smart looking Sheridan Road Bridge.

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Behind this bridge sits one piece hardware that is a part of what the American Society of Civil Engineering calls a “Monument of the Millennium.”  During the end of the 19th century Chicago experienced a phenomenal growth, in 1850 the city of Chicago had roughly 30,000 inhabitants, by 1860 the population tripled in size to 109,000 people, and by the turn of the century the population grew to a staggering 1.6 million souls.  The city of Chicago had been dumping their refuse into the Chicago river since the city was first settled, and at the same time drawing their drinking water from Lake Michigan.  As the population ballooned,  so did the river of excrement and the toxicity of the drinking water.


In 1854 the population of 30,000 lost 1,549 people to cholera, but since Chicagoans have always loved their city, the Chicago Tribune stated “Independent of the Cholera Moribus, and the usual summer complaints, we can assure the public that our city is enjoying good health.”  The city first elevated the city and built two massive tunnels underneath it, but when a massive storm flooded the sewer system, they city was near disaster.  In 1892  the city invested 30 millions dollars, which was oversaw by the chief civil engineer Isham Randolph (1848 – 1920) and started construction on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC) to reverse flow the Chicago river from dumping into Lake Michigan but through the channel and into the Des Plaines River (which feeds into Mississippi.)

The reversal of the river was completed in 1900 and was commenced by the hero of the Spanish-American War – Commodore George Dewey (1837 – 1917).  The North Shore Channel which starts at Wilmette Harbor and ends at the Chicago River was built from 1907 to 1910.  It has a sluice gate at the mouth and is used as a giant water valve to flush the Chicago River clean.  Randolph was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1900 for his efforts, and later, by the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, was a consultant for the Panama canal.  It was the largest Earth moving operation undertaken in America up until that time.

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Sluice gate at mouth of North Shore Channel

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From Martyr’s Tomb to the Nine Sided Dome

Can’t you see that whatever goes into the mouth passes through the stomach and is discharged into the sewer? – Matthew 15:15-17

At the end of the 18th century in modern day Iran, a religious movement began and formed a new sect from the Shi’a Muslims that were dominant in Persia.  Shaykh Ahmad (1753-1826) preached and expected the coming of the Qa’im of the House Muhammed (think the second coming of Jesus Christ if you are a Christian).  This movement became know as the Shaykhis.  In 1843, the Shaykhis disciples were told to leave their homes and seek the Lord of the Ages.  Mullá Husayn-i-Bushru’i (1813 – 1849) traveled to Shiraz, Iran were he met a 24 year old Sayyid Ali Muhammad (1819 – 1850).  On the evening of May 23, 1844 Muhammad asked Husayn what he was doing in Shiraz and he replied that he was searching for the one that was promised.  Muhammad asked how he would recognize the Promised One.  “He is of a pure lineage, is of illustrious descent, is endowed with innate knowledge and is free from bodily deficiency” replied Husayn.  Sayyid Ali Muhammad boldly declared “Behold, all these signs are manifest in me.”   After that night Muhammad was forever known as The Báb (Gate).  

The Báb’s following quickly grew, he and his disciples went to Mecca and Medina with his claim of prophet-hood.  The Imams were none-too-pleased and prompted the Governor of Shiraz to order the arrest of The Báb.  There were persecutions led by the Prime Minister Amir Kabir (1807 – 1852) to squash the growth of the new sect and he successfully quelled the Babi Upheavals from 1848-1851.  In 1850, after The Báb’s influence was waning, Kabir ordered his execution by firing squad.  His remains were later removed to the Shrine of The Báb in Haifa, Israel.  Only 15 months after the execution of The Báb, Prime Minister Amir Kabir was himself was executed as he had lost favor with the Shah of Iran Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896).

After the death of The Báb, his follower Mizrá Husayn-Ali Nurí (1817 – 1892)  claimed to be the prophetic fulfillment of Bábism, a Manifestation of God, and the eschatological (ultimate destiny of humanity) expectations of the nine major religions of the world.  He became known as Bahá’u’lláh (Glory to God) and claimed to be a direct descendant of the prophet Abraham.  Bahá’u’lláh preached a tolerance of other religions and incorporated more of the socially progressive tenets that it has today.  It did not fully incorporate feminism, internationalism, and racial equality until the religion spread to America.   His faith however was still an irritant to the Islamic authorities and he was cast into exile from Iran and confinement for all of his life under the Ottoman Empire, where he finally died in Acre in modern day Israel.  He is buried at the Shrine of the Bahá’u’lláh.


The number nine is very important in the Bahà’í religion.  It is a considered a perfect number, Bahá’u’lláh is considered the ninth prophet, nine is the highest single digit number, Baha means “glory” in Arabic and corresponds to the number nine in the Abajd system, and all of the eight Bahà’í temples in the world have nine sides.

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In 1920, the Bahà’í National Convention universally chose French-Canadian Architect Louis Bourgouis (1856 -1930) design for the temple in Wilmette, IL.  The circles merging into circles is a visual representation of all religions merging into one.

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The Temple stands at 138 feet tall and is topped with a great dome that represents unity and welcoming of all.

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The construction of the grand temple is quite fascinating, at first glance it looks like intricate carved quasi-Arabic stone, like something out of the Old World.  But, under close inspection, you can see its ingenuity come to life.

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All of the ornamental exterior is made by crushed stone set into white Portland cement, then poured into precast panels (precast is a construction method where a form is made in a shop, the concrete is poured and finished, then it is shipped to site to be installed.)  I found this to be truly remarkable, because concrete is rarely ever used as ornamentation.  Architect H. Van Buren Magonigle thought the same when he addressed the convention in 1920 stating that concrete was “the most repellent object imaginable. . . . Re-enforced concrete does not weather at all, it merely gets dirty, and it has no beauty of surface, it has no translucence of surface, and it is an exceptionally ugly color. It is almost impossible to get anything but an ugly color, and if it is painted it looks worse than it did before.”

Bourgouis was a Bahà’í convert and went through painstaking detail in the design of the exterior panels.  His studio sat across the street from the construction.  As the steel rose from the Earth he poured over every detail making Architectural drawings so large that “he would climb up on a tall stepladder and view [them] through binoculars to see [the design] as a whole.”

Around the perimeter of the building are nine pillars that have a hint of the Islamic minaret. On these pillars are many symbols from the world religion – a Christian cross, the Star of David, the moon and star, and even a swastika (sign of the Buddhist religion before it was usurped by the Nazi’s.) Unfortunately for Bourgouis, he did not live long enough to see his masterpiece completed.  Construction of the temple began in 1912 and was not complete until 1953.

Around the exterior of the temple you will find what is another mandated ubiquity of the Bahà’í faith – it is surrounded by gardens.  There are nine gardens to convey the beauty of the world.  The circular gardens are to be reminiscent of gardens found in the West. While the rectangular gardens with the reflecting pools are reminiscent of those that are found in the East.

The Bahà’í faith is estimated to have between 5 and 7 million adherents.  Parking and entrance to the temple are free.  All are welcome.



William McElwee Miller. 1974.  The Baha’i Faith: It’s History and Teachings


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