Jim Bradberry of James Bradberry Architects points to several features the new Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse will offer, including a rare James Turrell Skyspace that he believes will drive tourists to the area on East Mermaid Lane.

by Barbara Sherf

The architect overseeing the new Chestnut Hill Friends meetinghouse gave a walking tour of the 1.8-acre site on East Mermaid Lane to several journalists this weekend and spoke of the impact the new art installation will have on the area.

James Bradberry, founder of the 20-year-old firm James Bradberry Architects, of Bryn Mawr, spent more than an hour outlining details of the 8,500-square-foot “green building” that will be home to a nearly 10-foot-square James Turrell Skyspace. As winds blew leaves onto the tabletop model, Bradberry and the small entourage stood near the existing 4,000-square-foot Quaker Meetinghouse built in 1925.

Described as a light artist, Turrell began his series of “skyspaces” or enclosed spaces open to the sky through an aperture in the roof in the 1970s. Inside, viewers sit on benches along the edge to view the sky through an opening in the roof.

A lifelong Quaker, Turrell designed the Live Oak Meeting House for the Society of Friends in Houston, Texas, with an opening or skyhole in the roof, wherein the notion of light takes on a decidedly religious connotation.

Campaign co-chair Signe Wilkinson and her daughter, Nikka Landau, who is assisting with outreach on the project, joined Bradberry for the tour.

To date, $2.8 million of $5.8 million has been raised among the Friends and private benefactors, and the group has just embarked on a public campaign to raise $400,000 from the community. Groundbreaking is set to take place this spring and construction will take between 12 and 18 months to complete.

Bradberry noted the impact the new Skyspace will have on bringing visitors to Northwest Philadelphia.

I don’t think people in this area fully realize the impact this will have in terms of tourism,” Bradberry said while walking up a steep slope on the property adjoining Fairmount Park. “There will be buses full of Japanese tourist and art enthusiasts coming to visit and experience this significant art installation. I think 100 years from now people will look back and see how exceptional this was, similar to what happened with the Barnes Museum.”

Bradberry has worked on more than a dozen Quaker projects throughout the Delaware Valley. On a personal level, he noted that the current project has been the most spiritual in nature. While he and his firm designed the drawings for the L-shaped structure, Turrell had input at every stage.

It has been a collaborative effort,” Bradberry said. “He would say ‘that looks good, but have you thought about this?’” adding that Turrell “was very easy to work with in the spirit of artists and architects working together.”

The two-story section of the building will contain four classrooms, a large social room, kitchen, bathroom and shower facilities, office space and a gathering room/library that will be open to the public. A garden with flowerbeds, a playground, and woods will be sited adjacent to Fairmount Park.

Landscape architects and Chestnut Hill residents Carol and Colin Franklin and their team at Andropogon Associates will design the outdoor areas.

A circular driveway coming off of Mermaid Lane will serve as a drop-off point for visitors, with ample parking to the rear of the property. The main meeting room will be just one level situated to receive the southern sun. It will be surrounded on three sides by windows and a covered porch with a partially retractable roof.

The site is about a block from Germantown Avenue and is located near three bus routes and two train lines. Ten secure bicycle parking spaces and four parking spaces reserved for fuel-efficient vehicles and carpools will be near the meetinghouse entrance.

Wilkinson noted that the tree mulch and trunks on site are there because the lot is currently used as a staging area by a local tree care firm.

We really didn’t take out many trees and the one’s we did were non-native species,” she said, adding that the beauty of a Skyspace is that you see nothing but sky. In inclement or severe weather, a covering electronically slides in place over the opening. The Skyspace will be open several days a week for the public to sit in quiet meditation.

While Bradberry is following platinum-level guidelines for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating for sustainability, the Friends have decided not to get the actual accreditation from the Green Building Council. Bradberry noted the costs could be $20,000 to $30,000 extra.

Many nonprofits and institutions follow the guidelines, but don’t actually go through the process and get the plaque on the wall for budgetary reasons,” he noted.

The site will have state-of-the-art storm water management systems installed and a lawn outside of the meeting room linking it to a stand of 60-year-old pine trees.

According to Wilkinson, the Friends hope to have solar panels installed on the steel roof “down the road.” Bradberry noted that the split-heating system would have eight separate zones.

It sounds like a lot, but it will really be more efficient to just heat up the spaces that are in use,” he added.

According to a statement put out by the Friends, “the 21st Century meetinghouse will continue a 350-year-old tradition begun by William Penn by offering a safe and welcoming place for people of all faiths to gather in quiet reflection, worship and fellowship.”

Two public meetings have been held recently, and two more are scheduled to discuss the project with the public. The first will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov 30, at the Chestnut Hill Library, 8711 Germantown Ave. The final meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, at the Springfield Township Library, 1600 Paper Mill Road, Wyndmoor.

For more information go to www.quaker.org/chestnuthill.