“How are we to get a sense of duration and permanency into our national consciousness? Is it whimsical to believe that a building material which is beautiful and lasting, and yet inexpensive, might have a considerable influence? That a medium for sculpture which is as flexible as plaster and ultimately as hard as rock might in time not only give a new character to our building arts but very greatly assist in crystallizing American ideals? Replace our ephemeral structures with monoliths as lasting as the Roman Pantheon; give them a plastic treatment of design suited to the material; and American architecture will sound a new and hopeful note.”
—Sculptor Lorado Taft, Introduction to John J. Earley’s “The Concrete of the Architect and Sculptor,” 1926
It is hard to recapture the unbridled enthusiasm the world had for concrete, when, in the early twentieth century, it first became widely available. The material then had not yet spread to ubiquity, or become so commonplace that it is unseen in plain sight. Today, when concrete makes the news, it is often on account of the carbon emissions associated with its core ingredient—cement—and its role accelerating the Earth’s dangerous, warmer tomorrow. Yet in the years when the Panama Canal and the Ingalls Building in Cincinnati, the world’s first concrete high-rise, put the innovative potential of the material on display, the possibilities for concrete were seen as endless and noble. Concrete—pourable, moldable liquid stone—could build a future that carried forward centuries of design tradition at the speed of the machine age, minus much of the inescapable toil that went with building with stone, bricks and wood. Concrete could also push design and engineering forward, creating new forms for the future. Where the past and future needed to come together, they could be wed by strong, sculptable, economical concrete.
For the small collection of American adherents of the newly established Bahá’í faith, concrete turned out to be the only material suitable for the monumental backward- and future-focused house of worship they envisioned on the shore of Lake Michigan in Wilmette. The temple, a masterpiece of intricate, shimmery, seemingly delicate decoration, pioneered concrete construction techniques that changed the way the world sees and uses the material.
In late summer, the fragrant gardens that surround the Bahá’í House of Worship reach their peak, lushest beauty. The garden’s mix of tall blooms, flowering herbs and long reflecting pools evokes the order and colors of classical Persian paintings. Bob Armbruster, who greets me at the temple, tells me that the gardens are as important a part of the House of Worship as the main building. Armbruster, a practicing Bahá’í, is a cheerful, sturdy man with a white chin-puff beard, energetic smile and a ready laugh. He has degrees in art and design and in civil engineering who brought a scholar’s curiosity to his long career restoring historical structures. He is one of the world’s top experts on restoring decorative concrete and a published historian on the topic, too. Armbruster was also a leader of a major restoration of the Bahá’í House of Worship in the 1990s, a role that required a deep dive into the history of its construction and into the secrets kept by John Joseph Earley, the pioneer in decorative concrete whose firm created the vast expanses of lacy concrete that cover the edifice inside and out. Armbruster no longer works full time managing restoration projects, though in his semi-retirement he still consults on many.
The history of the building, Armbruster stresses, is tied to the early history in America of the then-nascent religion. The Bahá’í faith took shape in the mid-to-late nineteenth century as its foundational leaders were persecuted—jailed, exiled, killed—and pushed from Iran to Iraq and Turkey. The religion teaches that the other major faiths are all expressions of the same Lord and that God calls all to a global civilization that honors the world’s many religious sources. One cause of the persecution that led to the serial exile of Bahá’ís from Muslim countries is their faith’s belief that one of its most important figures, Baháʼu’lláh (d.1892), was a prophet. A central tenet of Islam is that Mohammed was anointed by God as the last prophet, and that believing otherwise was heretical. Yet, Baháʼu’lláh’s teachings on unity likely eased the new religion’s introduction to the United States, in Chicago, at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. American Unitarian Universalists, whose adherents were shifting toward a more inclusive practice that stressed unity among religious traditions, were instrumental in organizing the conference, which brought many non-European religions to the United States for the first time. (Yoga and several sects of Buddhism were introduced to the United States at the Parliament.)
The Bahá’í House of Worship is the faith’s official, and indeed only, center in North America. Though Bahá’ís describe their faith as one of the world’s fastest growing, it is growing from a relatively small base. Fewer than 180,000 adherents live in the continental United States. Nevertheless, it’s a big enough group to support the challenging upkeep and occasional restoration of the Wilmette complex. And it’s a giant group compared to the total 1,500 to 2,000 Bahá’ís in the United States in 1906, all of them recent converts, when the efforts to build the temple began. At the time it was first discussed, there were only a few dozen in Chicago. The effort to build, he says, was led largely by a group of fifteen, helmed largely by capable, determined women. (Equality of the sexes is a tenet of the faith.)
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, houses of worship in Chicago were rising at a furious rate to keep up with the city’s expanding enclaves of domestic and foreign migrants. Designs for the city’s churches harked back to the traditional architectural styles and building techniques of the denominations and ethnic groups that built them. Regional limestone, pink stone quarried in Joliet, gray from Indiana, were the materials of choice for columned and steepled churches and synagogues that often faced each other on the same streets and intersections. The Bahá’ís had a wholly different building in mind. The stone of the nostalgic churches wouldn’t serve it.
By 1913, the Bahá’ís had raised enough money to purchase the site in Wilmette. The search for architects had begun a few years earlier, and a contest was held to pick a design. World War I interrupted the effort, but ultimately the temple project was awarded to Louis Bourgeois, a French Canadian Bahá’í with work experience in New York and Paris. “Bourgeois studied for some time at the École des Beaux-Arts, he traveled throughout Europe and studied wonderful buildings of the past, such as the Taj Mahal,” says Armbruster. “He worked briefly with Louis Sullivan and later went to California where he may have worked with Frank Lloyd Wright.” Bourgeois had been honing his design for the temple for years. Though he was a highly skillful draftsman, Bourgeois decided early that a drawing could never do his design justice. He decided to build a plaster model of his intricate design instead. The final model rose nine feet and had a diameter of twelve feet. It weighed 1,200 pounds. The model’s size showed off every detail.
Bourgeois melded Beaux Arts and—certainly to Midwesterners—more exotic forms of grandeur. Highlighting the number nine, which is exalted as God’s perfect number in Bahá’í numerology, he designed the building with nine sides that mirror one another. The whole building complex radiates symmetrically and axially from the center of the building’s main, tall tower, under which stands a great hall for meditation and worship. Bourgeois’ design pulled from multiple sources, from the Beaux Arts to the Persian. It recalls, among others, Mughal shrines, Daniel Burnham’s imposing Administration Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition and, with a nod to the future, a rocket à la Jules Verne. In a great act of faith, Bourgeois designed the building’s fabulously decorated skin so that during the day God’s light of truth would stream in and at night its interior illumination would stream out, making the temple a holy lantern. The finely worked details were featured on the model, but Bourgeois had no plan for how his lacy, delicately skinned dome could be built. That did not stop the architect from touring with his giant model. Throngs came to view it at a Persian rug gallery in New York City and at the Wrigley Building in Chicago. “Everyone loved the design,” Armbruster says, “but no one knew how to do it. Carved stone certainly wouldn’t do.”
Standing in the gardens, Armbruster points out some of the many motifs on the building. There’s curly calligraphy in Roman and Arabic scripts. Some, clearly inspired by the decorative work of Louis Sullivan, draw on nature. There are repeats of Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist symbols and the Bahá’í nine-pointed star. For all its exoticism, the temple’s mix of international and local styles could have only come together in Chicago. In and around the city there remained the durable spirit of the World’s Columbian Exposition which ignited interest in global culture. The region’s ethnic melting pot was growing in size and diversity. In Chicago, the arts and architecture were at the vanguard of technology and the creation of an American design vocabulary. Perhaps as importantly, the city and its northern suburbs was a place where powerful, dauntless women—suffragists, temperance warriors, labor activists, leaders of the settlement house movement, influential art collectors—were successfully leading social movements. And rallying support and funds for the enlightened futures they envisioned. The Bahá’í women at the center of the temple project foresaw their faith—and its ideals of social and gender equality—as a powerful social movement, too.
Structurally, one of the greatest challenges of Bourgeois’ scheme was the decorative symbols and pattern, created as much by the voids in the surface as by what was solid. The architect embarked on a quest to find a material to make it work. “Bourgeois traveled the country visiting one firm after another trying to find one that could build his building,” Armbruster says. “He took with him full-scale drawings of the highly detailed sections of the building. Everyone said the building, because of its lacy skin, would be impossible to build. Certainly not of cut stone. In 1920, few saw concrete as a candidate material either. An architect speaking at that year’s convention told delegates that a ‘concrete building… is the most repellant object imaginable… it has no beauty of surface… no translucence… and it is an exceptionally ugly color.’”
Sometime in the 1920s, Armbruster says, Bourgeois called on the workshop and studio of John Joseph Earley outside Washington D.C. As a young man, Earley apprenticed in the studio of his sculptor father. He learned to make models and scale them up into stone carvings, including the sort often incorporated into the architecture of the day. When Earley was twenty-six, his father died. Earley took charge of the studio and ran it with his father’s one-time apprentice, Basil Taylor. Earley and Taylor shifted focus of the business to plaster and stucco. They attracted prestige clients, including the White House. Around 1910, Earley’s excitement over concrete as a superior material for stone architecture and decoration caused him to shift the business again. Concrete is created by mixing portland cement with gravel, sand and water. Portland cement is produced, in part, by heating crushed limestone—which is largely calcium carbonate—to around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, carbon is driven out of the stone which becomes clinker, a pebble-like substance that is then crushed to powder and mixed with small amounts of other minerals to make portland cement. When mixed with the other ingredients, the portland cement undergoes a chemical change and binds all the ingredients into concrete. Cement manufacturing was then, and remains today, the world’s most heat-and-energy-intensive heavy industry. Around 1900, Thomas Edison invented a long rotary kiln that turned cement production into a continuous process. Edison’s kiln ensured cement-making could run day and night and feed the rapidly growing demand. Greater supplies also led to abundant innovation.
Earley saw the material as a medium that could be molded for sculpture and architectural decoration, and save workers from backbreaking stonework. Earley pioneered concrete in two ways. His studio invented ways to add vibrant textures and colors to concrete. He accomplished this with the careful selection of stone, sand and gravel. He scoured the country for stones and sand—collectively known as aggregate—that could achieve the finishes his jobs demanded. And Earley refined techniques to expose and finish the aggregate so that its beauty shone through. Though there had been some forerunners of a more basic concrete mosaic technique in Europe, the refinements in Earley’s American version in which the finishes on the surface allowed the decorative potential of the component sand and stone to stand out was new.
Earley had worked in Chicago before Bourgeois called on him. In 1907, Lorado Taft, Chicago’s premier sculptor, won a commission from the Ferguson Monument Fund, the city’s newly established endowment to support public sculpture, to create a large fountain. Taft produced a plaster model, thirty-yards long and twenty-feet tall, of “The Fountain of Time,” an allegorical parade of figures representing various stages of history and of life. Taft straddled the traditional styles and techniques of the nineteenth century and the emergence of less representational art in the twentieth, and “Fountain” is his ambitiously figurative and abstract masterpiece. It was envisioned to be the crowning work at the western extreme of the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, and part of an arcade of Taft sculptures that ran the length of the park. But funds could not support such a grandiose plan. What’s more, Taft, who had planned to execute “Fountain” in granite, ultimately had to turn to concrete, which was far cheaper.
John Earley came to Chicago in 1913 to help Taft complete the “Fountain.” His job was to imbue the newly abundant industrial material with a finish worthy of stonework. Together, the two men pulled off the world’s first major work of art made in concrete. “In sculpture Mr. Earley reproduces with precision the light and shade of the model, but more than that, without the fatigue and expense of carving, he puts into [artists’] products the ‘hint of eternity’ which is the greatest possible asset of monumental art,” Taft wrote of his collaborator. “Add to this his triumphs in color—the potentialities which are opened to the imagination are dazzling and limitless!”
Alas, the “Fountain of Time” has struggled to stay eternal. Even after several rounds of repairs, its concrete cracks and crumbles. Armbruster cautions against faulting Earley’s contribution. “The sculpture is steel-reinforced concrete around a hollow core that gets very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter.” That thermal roller coaster leads to cracks that let in water that further degrades the structure.
Following its conception, the Bahá’í House of Worship took nearly five decades to complete. Once Bourgeois and his fellow Bahá’ís selected Earley to create the exterior’s concrete decoration, the architect created minutely detailed cartoons—full-size drawings—for Earley to work with when creating his molds. It took Bourgeois six years to complete the set. Some of the drawings were huge. One, which sketched out the decoration that climbs up the ribs of the tower, was over ninety feet long. Like Louis Sullivan’s more complex ornamentations, Bourgeois’ were deeply dimensional. Bourgeois died in 1930 at age seventy-four. He left behind all the drawings Earley required to create the molds for the exterior decoration.
The cast pieces that came out of Earley’s molds would be fastened to the steel frame of the domed tower. In the first half of the century, much concrete work in the United States was trial and error. When the material was used structurally, builders could compensate for their uncertainty by overusing the material, with the extra amounts of concrete providing enough strength to compensate for a possibly wrong calculation. Earley did not have that luxury. His decorative concrete—now commonly known as either architectural cast concrete or architectural cast stone—required that its properties be fully understood. If it cured too quickly, or shrunk even slightly once in place on the temple, the material as well as the whole assembly could come apart.
Armbruster tells me that one of the challenges he faced on the restoration of the building was that Earley kept many of his techniques secret, and recreating them required difficult forensic engineering. One discovery showed just how meticulous Earley worked. When Earley faced a problem with how well his concrete set, he swapped out sand he had been using with new sand that had a diameter one-fifteen-thousandths of an inch smaller. One of Earley’s most important innovations was leaving narrow, imperceptible spaces between the concrete panels to allow them to expand and shrink without cracking. That’s similar to the now-ubiquitous practice of separating sidewalk and driveway slabs with a break, but done with far more precision to preserve the uninterrupted beauty of Bourgeois’ design.
The ingenuity of molds allowed the surface to meet three of Bourgeois’ top goals. He wanted the surface openings to be sufficiently small so that they did not look like stars, large enough to highlight his filigree patterns and to realize his two-dimensional drawing in three dimensions. Beyond the shape and dimensions, however, the building had to radiate a bright glimmer. Large concrete buildings of the day were usually dullish gray, and tended to deaden light, not radiate it. It was up to Earley to deliver a surface that had none of the tonal dullness of previous large concrete buildings. In other words, to save it from being likened to a gussied-up grain elevator.
To accomplish that, Earley filled his concrete not with the plain stone typically used, but with reflective quartz rock. He polished its surface so the stone shined through like a bright mosaic. The quartz also lent his concrete more strength than the standard-issue material. Armbruster tells me that when the building gets one of its periodic cleanings, “The surface is almost too bright to look at.”
Amazingly, once they got to work, Earley’s men cast every piece in the studio outside Washington. They erected a full-scale wooden replica of one of the nine faces of the tower. Since the proportions of every section were alike, that was enough. Each completed cast panel was fitted to the partial model of the dome to ensure it perfectly conformed to the structure in Wilmette. Armbruster says that every piece the studio created fit perfectly and of the thousands created, only one had to be remade. Once they were cured and tested, the cast sections were shipped to the construction site by train and truck. Armbruster, speaking with the authority of a man who has had a part in long, complicated projects, still sounds astonished to report that Earley completed all his work in nine months. He adds that the Bahá’í House of Worship remains one of the most complicated concrete buildings ever created.
To realize the hopes of the Bahá’ís for a building that serves, celebrates and announces their faith, Bourgeois, in a professional act of faith, created a design that relied on materials technology he had not imagined. John Earley, at the time the only concrete craftsman in the world who could have met the Bahá’ís needs, honed a decorative element—architectural precast concrete—that he invented. Today architectural precast concrete adds sculptural decorations to buildings everywhere and the mosaic concrete Earley pioneered adds either or both color and a refined finish resembling precious stone.
West of Chicago, in Oak Park, stands Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1909 Unity Temple, built for that city’s congregation of Unitarian Universalists. Though far smaller in size than the Bahá’í House of Worship, it also changed the way the world uses concrete. Wright chose the material, in part, because of its economy, but also because Wright and the congregation he served embraced a transformational way to build with it which also relied on casting the material. Wright’s design drew on his beloved ancient religious models—Mayan and Japanese temples—and propelled his exemplars into the future. Concrete is often demonized today, seen as a threat to the future. Yet hope, aspiration and dreams for a unified humanity at peace with our diversity can be strong engines for change, even for materials.