Alleged vandalism at Quaker construction site causes $500,000 in damages

Philadelphia police are investigating an alleged case of vandalism at the construction site of a highly anticipated Quaker meetinghouse in Chestnut Hill.

The suspected arson occurred sometime between 4 p.m. Thursday and 6 a.m. Friday at 20 E. Mermaid Lane, according to police. The incident drew the Philadelphia Fire Department, a bomb squad and representatives from the Police Civil Affairs Unit.

No explosives were found on site, according to police.

No arrests have yet been made.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

About a dozen locations at the site – the future home of a brand new worship space for the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting – were allegedly targeted, said Rob Reeves, owner of the merit shop E. Allen Reeves, Inc., the general contractor for the project.

Vandals cut anchor bolts and took acetylene torches to structural steel columns in the future meeting house’s community room, said Reeves. The cab of a subcontractor’s crane also suffered significant fire damage.

“I have a strong suspicion its union people,” said Reeves as he looked over the site. “The issue here is violence and bullying.”

Reeves noted that the construction site’s superintendent reported that five or six union representatives from different trades had recently come to the building site. One had even made threatening remarks, said Reeves.

The alleged attack, said Reeves, is about power, with the ultimate goal of union control of all construction work being done in the city. He said violent tactics continue because politicians, the business community and the public do not condemn it.

“It’s domestic terrorism,” he asserted.

A union representative with Ironworkers Local Union 401 was not immediately available for comment.

Six bids were considered by CHFM from both union and nonunion shops. A significant price difference factored in the choice, according to Jon Landau, the project’s fundraising co-chair.

Costly damage

While the damages are still being assessed, Reeves said he expects repairs to exceed $500,000.

The project, which generated city-wide attention for its inclusion of a Skyspace light installation by world renowned artist James Turrell, is insured and CHFM spokesperson Meg Mitchell said the structural damages should be covered.

Reeves said it’s unclear how long of a delay the damages have created, but he is confident that repairs can be made.

CHFM broke ground on the $ 6.2 million project May 15, after a successful $3 million capital fundraising campaign, which also garnered grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the William Penn Foundation.

Construction began in late August and was scheduled to be completed by May 2013.

The new meeting house is designed to fuse traditional, understated Quaker architecture with sustainable building practices.

The plans combine functionality for both worship and community gatherings with the incorporation of a monumental work of art. A James Turrell Skyspace, which utilizes an aperture in the ceiling via a retractable roof to let in skylight within an enclosed chamber, is to be the centerpiece of the eco-friendly building.

‘Holding in the Light’

CHFM members took part in Sunday’s meeting as always, with quiet inward contemplation. It was clear though, that the alleged vandalism was on many folks’ minds. Several said they came from other area meetings in a show of solidarity.

Quakers, noted for their pacifism, are dismayed by any sort of violence, said CHFM spokesperson Meg Mitchell.Spirits, though hurt, are not broken. Some of that comes from how little value Quakers place in material things, said John Landau, CFM fundraising co-chair.

“Quakers think more in terms of what comes from within, than they do external structures,” said Landau.CHFM members are now turning to inner light and community to make way for healing.

They are “holding in the Light” of their future meeting house, the contractors and even the perpetrators of the crime. Holding someone or something “in the Light” is the Quaker form of prayer or means of expressing hope, healing and love to the intended.

“We want to see a peaceful outcome to all of this,” stated Mitchell.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal