Chestnut Hill on track to get a James Turrell Skyspace building

Northwest Philadelphia is poised to receive a major work of art in its midsts. Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting (CHFM) will be building a new meetinghouse within the next year and a half and the building will feature a Skyspace light installation by contemporary artist James Turrell.

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting announced on Wednesday evening to an audience of about 75 members, neighbors and community leaders that it has raised 88% of the three million dollar capital campaign for their new meetinghouse. CHFM is now launching a fundraising drive for the Skyspace project called Building in the LIGHT, which seeks help from the local public to raise the remaining $370,000. “It’s been a struggle, but it’s been a wonderful struggle”, stated John Landau, CHFM fundraising co-chair, of the three year process.

Landau confirmed that the project will break ground at 20 East Mermaid Lane in March 2012, with completion expected by July 2013. “A new Meeting would not be in the public interest in a usual sense, ” noted CHFM fundraising co-chair Signe Wilkinson, adding that when the congregation decided to build a new meetinghouse ” we decided to make it not just for Quakers, but a building that would be available for many uses by the community at large.”

Unique building planned

The project has centered its design around a Skyspace by James Turrell, a renowned international artist who also happens to be a Quaker. Turrell’s works concern light, space and slow contemplation. His Skyspaces utilize an aperture in the ceiling via a retractable roof to let in skylight within an enclosed chamber.

These site-specific installations complement, and are perhaps influenced by, the Quaker concept of Inner Light. Turrell has created several of these Skyspaces throughout the world, including the Live Oak Meeting in Houston. Signe Wilkinson, CHFM fundraising co-chair, disclosed that the plans for Chestnut Hill’s new meetinghouse are modeled after Live Oak Meeting’s design. “It’s a hole in the ceiling. A very expensive hole in the ceiling. ” joked Wilkinson before turning over the event to three guest speakers.

Rabbi George Stern, former director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, spoke to the religious significance of incorporating a Skyspace into the new meetinghouse’s plans. Stern reflected on his own discovery of the importance of an interrelation between inside and the outside world to spiritual experience. ” I know that being able to connect interior and personal with nature is going to be extremely wonderful for everyone who uses it as a worship space.” he stated.

Jordan Bastien, Chestnut Hill resident and former director of the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, remarked upon the cultural impact of having work from an artist of Turrell’s magnitude within Philadelphia. “Every major city has its Picassos, its Kandinskys, its whatever, and very few of them have an experience like this.” Bastien stated. The Chestnut Hill Skyspace will be the open year-round to the general public. In a nod to its artistic merit, the project received a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

However, Wilkinson emphasized, “This building is not just for the art. We also need the space for our many social programs here at the meeting.”

Friends need more space

CHFM states it has outgrown current meetinghouse at 100 East Mermaid Lane, located just two lots away from the future site which sits behind the Mermaid Inn. Seventy to one hundred people attend Sunday worship services in a meeting room with a third of the capacity of that of nearby Germantown Friends Meeting.

Glenn Bergman, General Manager of the Weaver’s Way Co-op, who also was among the guest speakers noted that when Weaver’s Way held its general membership meetings at the current meetinghouse two years ago he found “it was just too small.” Currently, the Meeting shares the grounds with the United Cerebral Palsy headquarters, both being housed in the converted former factory site of the Yarnall Waring Company. The organizations have enjoyed a good relationship, but CHFM claims that the close proximity hampers Meeting accessibility during weekdays and its hopes to expand community services.

The new eco-friendly building will be 50% larger and plans on achieving LEED Platinum certification.

In addition to the new meetinghouse, the project plans include an increased community connection to the Cresheim Valley portion of Fairmount Park. Native plantings, gardens, and pervious pavement are part of the Meeting’s desire to serve as both a conservation stewart and an entry point into the park. Wilkinson asserted, “the grounds will be both environmentally sensitive and beautiful.” There is also a proposed foot path which will lead from Winston Road and through the property into the park’s under-used walking trails. “We’re really looking forward to collaborating with Friends of the Wissahickon and others to make that a reality.” stated Wilkinson.

Linking Chestnut Hill to Mt. Airy

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the new meetinghouse will be its potential to bridge the gap between Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy by transforming that portion of the area into a destination spot. “We will be a gateway to Chestnut Hill and a link between Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.” Wilkinson declared. The expansion of CHFM’s ability to provide community services and to host events or gatherings may serve to provide a dynamic meeting point for the two neighborhoods and increase pedestrian traffic along that portion of Germantown Avenue. Glenn Bergman mused, “When I think about this place and how it’s going to look, tying together both Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy, I can definitely see having [Weaver’s Way] general membership meetings here.” The potential draw of visitors both local and from afar could be a major boost to Philadelphia tourism. “We hope we’ll be on Pennsylvania’s ‘bucket list’.” enthused Wilkinson.

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