The Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse, which was firebombed during its construction, allegedly by members of the Ironworkers Union, has actually become quite a popular tourist attraction.

The Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse, which was firebombed during its construction, allegedly by members of the Ironworkers Union, has actually become quite a popular tourist attraction.

by Sue Ann Rybak

Despite the violent attempts by several members of Ironworkers Local Union 401 to prevent construction of the first new Quaker meetinghouse in southeastern Pennsylvania in almost a century, the Quakers’ James Turrell’s skyscape, “Skyspace: Greeting the Light,” continues to create a space where Friends and fellow community members can feel “the presence of the light,” according to Mt. Airy native Stuart Shils, a photographer and painter who teaches at the University of the Arts.

Coincidentally, as the Quakers celebrate the first anniversary of the meetinghouse, eight members of the Ironworkers union who were charged in a racketeering-conspiracy indictment are expected to plead guilty, including James Walsh and William Gillin, according to an article published Oct. 3 on philly.com.

The article went on to say that according to the indictment, in December of 2012, after a contractor at the site refused to hire union members, Walsh and Gillin “set a crane on fire, used a torch to cut some of the steel beams and bolts supporting the new structure, and caused approximately $500,000 in damage.”

Sadly, the arson and other violent confrontations are the very acts that Quakers routinely work to prevent in their daily lives through peaceful reconciliation and nonviolent demonstrations. The skyscape was donated to the Meeting by world-renowned contemporary American light artist James Turrell, a life-long Quaker, who donated the work free to create a space for silent reflection and meditation.

In an interview in 1985, Turrell recalled how as a young boy waiting to enter a Quaker meeting with his grandmother, he asked her “what he should be doing, and she replied, ‘Waiting ‘to greet the light.’”

Nikka Landau, who helped coordinate the skyscape in October of 2013, said the nearly 200-member Quaker congregation decided to build a new meetinghouse so they could accommodate handicapped visitors and host social service programs. “The new space has opened Quaker worship to the 21st century, in part by offering a larger worship space and in part by including the Turrell Skyscape, which offers people of all faith backgrounds a peaceful place for contemplation and reflection,” Landau said.

Local architect James Bradberry (left) worked with internationally renowned artist James Turrell to design the Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse. (Photo by Terry Foss)

Local architect James Bradberry (left) worked with internationally renowned artist James Turrell to design the Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse. (Photo by Terry Foss)

A member of the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, Landau said the Chestnut Hill Quakers have always been an active and engaged religious group, but “the new meetinghouse has breathed new life into the Meeting.”

Paul Meyer, director of the Morris Arboretum, who visited the meetinghouse this past summer, said, “It’s something you have to experience. You can’t just see photographs. You truly have to be there to experience it.” He recalled looking up at the night sky and seeing the lights change very slowly and gradually. “It’s almost like a ballet of color.”

The piece, which runs for 50 minutes at dawn and 50 minutes at dusk, consists of a retractable roof that opens to the sky, along with a programmed sequence of LED lighting along the perimeter of the vaulted ceiling. They Quakers have had 3,800 visitors to the Skyspace this year, and the Skyspace is ranked sixth among Philadelphia attractions on TripAdvisor.com.

Stuart Shils said the opening in the roof becomes a frame for the sky, transforming it into a canvas of color. “It’s a masterpiece,” he said. “They (James Turrell and James Bradberry) have given the city a great gift by doing this project.”

Myers agreed. “It really is part of the constellation of art and culture (that we have) in Chestnut Hill …that will not only enrich the lives of people in the community but people who live outside the region and even outside of the country.”

Shils noted that the impact the piece has “on each viewer is extremely personal,” and it requires one to “turn off all that external chatter.” He described it as a “communal spirit. You’re never really the same after experiencing it. That’s the whole purpose of art; it transforms your perception of everything. Unlike a painting or sculpture, Turrell’s piece is temporal. It exists only in time, and then it’s gone, but the trick is to hold on to the gift you have just been given. The skyscape forces us to stop for 50 minutes and see the beauty that’s all around us.”

Starting this month, the Skyscape is open Sunday evenings at dusk and the third morning of December at dawn. There will be no dawn openings in January and February. Visitors are encouraged to arrive 15 minutes early to settle in. Guests are also welcome to bring yoga mats or cushions should they want to lie or sit on the floor.

For more information on hours of the openings or to make reservations for sunset openings, visit www.chestnuthillskyscape.org.

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