A steady downpour could not dampen the spirits of those gathered to take part in the groundbreaking ceremony for Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting's (CHFM) new worship space.

The inclusion of a James Turrell Skyspace in the design has generated much of the excitement about the new Quaker meetinghouse. Approximately 130 CHFM members, community leaders and government officials such as U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah, and City Councilpersons Cindy Bass and Bill Green celebrated the milestone event.

 

Skyspace: An open window to the sky

A Skyspace art installation by world renown Quaker artist James Turrell is the centerpiece of the project. The work is an aperture in the ceiling that opens to the sky by a retractable roof, which allows it to be closed during inclement weather such as rain. The new meetinghouse will be located at 20 E. Mermaid Lane and is expected to be completed in early 2013.

 

A major asset for Philadelphia

Philadelphia's Chief Cultural Officer, Gary Steuer, who was among the invited speakers, remarked on the significance of the new meetinghouse's Turrell Skyspace. "That piece of it really gives this project not only enhanced importance to the city and the region, but frankly will resonate around the world, " he exclaimed. Steuer called the Skyspace a great gift to Philadelphia in the spirit of public art and said the project is helping Philadelphia to take its rightful place in the world as a city known for having great arts and culture. "This is a big deal," he stressed.

Gail Harrity, President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, echoed Steuer's remarks. "To have a Turrell in Philadelphia is truly extraordinary," she said. Harrity noted that grants the project has received from National Endowment for the Arts, Knight Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation "are testament to importance of Turrell's art and the intention to make it accessible to a very broad and diverse public."

 

The Quaker influence on Philadelphia

Congressman Chaka Fattah (Phila-D) said that while art lovers may focus on the Turrell Skyspace, others such as himself have been inspired by Quaker values and work with "causes that never get the headlines." Fattah recalled how in 1972 the Quaker community assisted House of Umoja, under the leadership of his parents, Queen Mother Falaka Fattah and David Fattah with their "No gang war" campaign to help young people find means other than violence to resolve conflicts. Together they hosted The Peace Conference at the Quaker Meetinghouse at 320 Arch Street, which resulted in a 60-day cease-fire among gangs and ultimately the Imani Pact, signed by nearly 400 gang members in 1974. Fattah asserted that "Quakers here have been the standard bearer" of an uncompromising commitment to a moral compass.

Maura McCarthy, Executive Director of Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW), also shared how she was moved by moral leadership of the Quaker community, which she stated "permeated every aspect of this project." She commented on CHFM's great sensitivity to watershed management as a conservation steward and its desire to connect the new meetinghouse's landscaping, particularly its Peace Garden, with the future Cresheim Trail and adjacent Fairmount Park lands.

Attendees found shelter from heavy rain in the current meetinghouse for much of the ceremony. The tiny meeting room was filled beyond capacity, a partition between it and a reception area was opened to squeeze in more guests. "I guess you can all see why we need a new meetinghouse," joked CHFM Fundraising Campaign Committe Co-chair, Jon Landau. After the speeches, the umbrellas came out as everyone convened on the future building site for the long awaited ground breaking.

 

Next phase

A contract has not yet been signed but, CHFM expects to do so and begin construction within the next two weeks. One of the first steps in the construction process will be the removal of the asphalt, which covers much of the lot.

CHFM still needs to raise $100,000 for solar lighting and landscaping. Landau stated that of the $6.2 million dollar project, two-thirds of the funding came from within CHFM. More than two million dollars in funds were raised from the outside community.