On ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s extraordinary journey across North America in 1912, He visited Philadelphia from June 8 to 10. While there, He spoke at a hotel and two churches, as well as at a private Bahá’í residence, a house rented by Mary Jane Revell where she and her four daughters lived. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited every room in the modest rowhouse and, sitting on a rocking chair, addressed the fifty Bahá’ís crowded inside. He praised them as brilliant “pearls,” exhorting them to serve Bahá’u’lláh.
The Revells had been devoted Bahá’ís since 1906, with their home serving as a hub for the young Philadelphia community. Mother Mary and daughters Jessie and Ethel were particularly dedicated teachers of the Bahá’í Faith. In fact, Shoghi Effendi recognized Jessie and Ethel’s capabilities by appointing them to the International Bahá’í Council in 1951, and the sisters remained in the Holy Land until their deaths.
In Philadelphia, the Bahá’ís remained conscious of the spiritual potency of 1429 West Mayfield Street. But, according to the community’s historian and archivist Joe Bolton, it was a 1976 visit by Hand of the Cause Dr. Rahmátu’llah Muhájir that spurred the community to secure it for posterity. “Dr. Muhájir said it was the holiest place in Philadelphia and we needed to work to get it,” Bolton says.
However, the owner was not interested in selling. The Local Spiritual Assembly had to wait until 2003, when the property was available through a sheriff’s sale, to buy it. By that point, the rowhouse was in severe disrepair, having stood uninhabited for years. Efforts to protect the building from weather and intruders immediately began, but complete restoration required a dedicated fund.
Bahá’ís from around the world gave to the Revell House Fund. In a particularly touching donation, a group of Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran sent the Philadelphia community forty handmade bracelets to be sold as a fundraiser.
In 2011, the Assembly appointed Bahá’í architects Roya Taheri and Massoud Mohadjeri as the renovation’s managers. They led an investigation to dig through layers of building materials applied since 1912—for instance, seeking the locations of the original walls, analyzing paint colors, and unearthing the wood floor from under linoleum.
Taheri and Mohadjeri relate, “The construction contract was executed in 2014, and work started slowly, while fundraising efforts continued. A substantial part of the restoration work, including demolition, stripping the paint off all wood trims, management of orders, securing of beams, etc., was performed by volunteers.” In fact, the volunteers brought as much original woodwork as possible to the Philadelphia Bahá’í Center to painstakingly restore it.
Through the team’s loving efforts over years of work, the formerly dilapidated house was reborn into a gleaming historic site. But it still needed to be furnished. While the rocking chair ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sat in had been preserved, most of the Revells’ possessions had been dispersed when Jessie and Ethel moved to Haifa.
The Local Spiritual Assembly charged Melanie Etemad with furnishing the house, and she invited Joe Bolton to collaborate. As Etemad explains, they had several parameters for the pieces they purchased. First, they needed to be era-appropriate—“we tried to choose furniture from 1880 to 1920.” Second, the furniture needed to be usable, aligning with how “‘Abdu’l-Bahá always wanted to make people comfortable…. We wanted it to feel real, not like a museum.”
Third, the furnishings had to be within the Revells’ modest means as a working-class family. For example, Bolton recounts, “when Melanie found a light fixture for the dining room, it wasn’t a multi-pronged affair, it was two gas jets, and it mirrored one of the photos from William Revell’s wedding.” (The Philadelphia Bahá’í archives also had photos of the house taken from 1914, which proved very useful.) Though fully furnishing and decorating the house is an ongoing project, Etemad and Bolton had acquired enough furniture for the house to feel like a home by the dedication ceremony in February 2020.
The outbreak of the pandemic delayed the Revell House’s full opening to visitors for some time. Nevertheless, the Local Spiritual Assembly successfully appointed a resident caretaker, JoAnn Pangione Arcos.
By serendipity, Pangione Arcos started living in the house on June 10, 2020, exactly 108 years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited it. She coordinates and hosts visitors—nearly 150 so far—giving tours and providing tea service. Says Pangione Arcos, “I touch the staircase ‘Abdu’l-Bahá climbed every day. I pray in the room where He gave His talk. A lot of my prayers are directed to Him. It’s humbling. I ask, why was I chosen to do this? ….I feel very blessed.”
Even as it honors the home’s sacred past, the Revell House team is looking toward its future. For instance, Pangione Arcos is laying the groundwork to teach a children’s class there for kids in the neighborhood, which today is predominantly Black. Meanwhile, architects Taheri and Mohadjeri are working toward getting the home designated as a historical site with a placard.
The Revell House now stands as a true home, a spiritual refuge, ready to welcome people of all walks of life inspired by the examples set by the Revell family—and, of course, by the Perfect Exemplar who chose to visit them, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
If you wish to visit the Revell House, please contact the caretaker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in The American Bahá’í (vol. 54, no. 2, Mar./Apr. 2023, pp. 32-33).