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In Chicago, a host of sacred spaces

By Hilary Krieger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 20, 2010; 4:55 PM

Granted, the holiest shrine for many Chicagoans is Wrigley Field. But for those Cubs fans whose faith has wavered after more than a century without a World Series win - or who want a more traditional space in which to pray for the long-awaited baseball salvation - the Windy City hosts beautiful structures for adherents of many different religions.

Chicago's religious diversity and the striking houses of worship it has given rise to go back, as so many things here do, to two seminal events of the late 19th century: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. The former created a tabula rasa for new architectural structures - and an urgent need for their construction - and the latter showcased Chicago's openness and inclusiveness.

The Bahai faith was one of the religions that made the most of its welcome during the multi-faith dialogue held alongside the World's Fair. It was the first time the religion - begun in 19th-century Iran - was mentioned on this continent, and from the interest it sparked grew America's initial Bahai community. When ground was broken on North America's Bahai temple in 1912, it was in an open field far from commercial activity. Now it's nestled in the Chicago suburbs, the stunning setting - up against Lake Michigan, surrounded by manicured gardens of tulips and magnolias - perhaps all the more arresting for springing from such a mundane environment.

It is the alabaster-domed temple itself that is the main attraction, however. It beckons like a majestic, three-tiered wedding cake frosted with an intricately carved stone filigree. It's literally a brilliant gem of a building, the architect having thrown quartz into the concrete to make it glisten in the sunshine. If you're not blinded by the radiance, up close you can make out symbols from a half-dozen religions - all considered holy by Bahais - as well as the lacy Arabic calligraphy that spells out one of the titles for the faith's founder.

While the interior is also breathtaking, what's most lovely about it is how clearly you can hear your own breathing. In this space for private prayer and meditation, the only sound permitted is that of human voices reading scripture. Aside from the daily 30-minute prayer services at 12:30 - when participants read from Bahai, Christian, Muslim and other hallowed texts as the spirit moves them, and the choir sings sacred music ranging from Mozart to Negro spirituals once a week - the only distractions are hushed footsteps and the whir of the wind off the lake.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unity Temple in Oak Park takes the opposite tack in its attempt to welcome all those who enter. Instead of a panoply of religious symbols, the Unitarian church lacks so much as a cross. In place of awe and splendor, it emphasizes modesty and hominess. But the result is still a compelling, harmonious refuge well worth the trip to the neighborhood the architect made famous.

Wright used pioneering techniques to achieve his goal; architecture critics call the 1908 structure the first modern building for its use of exposed concrete. Though what really makes this place feel ahead of its time is the way it seems straight out of the 1970s. Wright employs the light greens, tans and yellows of a disco-era package of M&Ms, and the simplicity and clean lines - and the proclivity for stained wood that included encasing hanging electrical wires in oak - that presages that era's Scandinavian furniture craze. Wright, in fact, aimed to echo the simplicity of ancient temples, asking that the building be named a temple rather than a church.

While the concrete exterior is imposing, the interior attributes help create a low-key, intimate atmosphere. That the sanctuary can hold 400 is surprising. And the sense of intimacy extends to the interaction between the congregation and its ministers. The lectern is placed relatively low to the ground, in keeping with the principle of egalitarianism, and the exit doors are directly behind the pulpit to encourage congregants to cross that space before leaving.

The color scheme in particular produces a warm, transcendent feeling , as sunlight strained through the unusual yellow and brown stained glass suffuses the room. Wright amplified this sense of airy illumination by leading visitors through a dim gray entrance tunnel that gradually broadens and ascends to the sanctuary for maximum emotional impact.

The journey 400 feet up to the Sky Chapel at the Methodist Chicago Temple, which was completed in 1924, also heightens the effect of reaching the destination. Although you can sneak a glance at the soaring skyline through a cranked window in the cozy carpeted chapel, the best panorama is available from the pastor's quarters just above, where the Gothic patio is framed by the Willis (originally Sears) Tower and the John Hancock Center.

When you reach this lofty pinnacle, you may ask whether there's any other worship space so high up. The answer is no. The spire is also the world's tallest, according to the church's literature. It is aided in this achievement by sitting atop a skyscraper, separated from the large lower-level sanctuary by lawyers' offices, one of which was once tenanted by the famously agnostic Clarence Darrow.

The uber-modern setting is somewhat ironic, since the congregation is the city's oldest - in fact, it predates the city itself. Today it takes its role as a Chicago institution very seriously, ministering to businesspeople and the urban poor, depicting the city's history in its stained glass and featuring an altarpiece with images of the surrounding skyline. A companion to a separate altarpiece where Christ cries over Jerusalem, in this one Jesus weeps over Chicago.

Perhaps because of the Cubs' record.

Krieger is a Washington-based writer.

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