PHS plants a new hub for the city’s urban forest at Awbury Arboretum

by Carla Robinson
Posted 9/20/23

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society will cap off its three-year project focused on growing the urban forest with the opening Friday of “The Lightning House."

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PHS plants a new hub for the city’s urban forest at Awbury Arboretum


The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society will cap off its three-year project focused on growing the urban forest with the opening Friday of “The Lightning House,” a new public art space at Awbury Arboretum in Germantown. The ceremony starts at 10 a.m. and features drum making and block printing as well as celebratory remarks. 

Designed and built by international art collective Futurefarmers and its lead architect Lode Vranken, “The Lightning House'' was constructed with collaborating Japanese woodworker Nobuto Suga. Other volunteers contributed to the building of the structure, including Philadelphia architectural studio O Z Collaborative and Hanson Fine Building, with roofing donated by Kurtz Construction Company. 

The project, “S(tree)twork,” seeks to build awareness of the importance of Philadelphia’s tree canopy through art. The new space, a collaborative project that incorporates the ruins of a former stone carriage house dating back to 1783, will serve as an ongoing community project and performance space.

Arboretum director Sara Stephenson notes that “the Arboretum is delighted to host this exciting new project as an integral part of the many activities at the Farm, including our partners the Philly Goat Project, Fuugs Woodworking, Weavers Way, and The Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild. The Farm at Awbury is a perfect setting for innovative programs that activate a connection to nature.”

“S(tree)twork exemplifies the vital importance of art and culture in urban ecology restoration efforts,” said interdisciplinary arts curator Marina McDougall. “As a community project space, the Lightning House is an invitation to join a growing movement of friends and neighbors to imagine positive futures, and revitalize our neighborhoods in joyful ways.” 

“The Lightning House” name and S(tree)twork’s percussion instrument building program were inspired by the “Ancient Infinity Lightning Wood Drum,” created from a tree struck by lightning on Morton Street in Germantown. 

James Jacson of the iconic futuristic jazz band, Sun Ra and His Mythic Science Arkestra, created this unique musical instrument from the fallen tree. In this spirit, the main support beam and all wood used in the construction were collected from fallen trees in Awbury Arboretum. 

Futurefarmers founder and lead artist Amy Franceschini said the idea is to link the life of the tree to the life of the city through the art that the tree can support. 

“A fallen tree is essential to regenerating the complex ecosystem around it,” said Franceschini, adding that it can also regenerate the city’s cultural landscape through “the transformation of fallen trees into percussive instruments.” 

The Lightning House project was informed by an extensive community engagement and design process that began at the inception of S(tree)twork. PHS and the S(tree)twork creative team met with Awbury neighbors, community partners, and leaders to develop creative ways to connect people to trees and the urban forest.

Augmented by engagement through the city’s Philly Tree Plan, which cited storytelling, arts, and cultural initiatives as promising ways to promote interest in trees, the S(tree)twork team spent two years uncovering themes that resonate with the community. 

That research led to programs that included “Summoning the Future Forest with the Sun Ra Arkestra,” a concert with the Germantown-based Sun Ra Arkestra in the fall of 2021 at Awbury Arboretum and a “Form and Function” workshop that highlighted the community’s interest in music-making and woodworking. 

The building is built up against a hill, and features an angled roof that meets the existing ground level on the high side, which means people can walk directly out onto the roof – which can be used for public programming or as a community gathering place. 

The lower level, accessed from the low side of the hill, features a barn door that can be opened for public programming or enclosed in inclement weather. The design encourages people to congregate both inside and outside, surrounded by the natural environment of the Arboretum. 

PHS and Awbury are developing ongoing programming at the new space, including PHS Tree Tender events throughout the year, such as the bi-annual Tree Tenders’ “Picnic with a Purpose.” 

The opening event on Friday will be at the Farm at Awbury Arboretum (enter either at 6336 Ardleigh Avenue or off Washington Lane), starting at 10 a.m. and will feature the S(tree)twork Drum Corp and Block Printing. S(tree)twork Drum Corp musicians Rich Robinson, Karen Smith, and Coby Haynes will play instruments created from fallen trees by Philadelphia drummers and woodworkers.   

PHS’ decades-long involvement in expanding tree canopy in the Philadelphia region promotes health and well-being for hundreds of communities, and its cadre of tree volunteers named PHS Tree Tenders now numbers over 6,000. Since the program’s inception, PHS has helped plant over 30,000 trees in the Philadelphia region. 

A culminating publication will document the project’s key phases and capture the contributions of the project’s many collaborators, including microbial ecologist Ignacio Chapela, and anthropologist Michael Taussig. 

Additional community sites and partnering organizations for the project include UC Green, Nicetown CDC, and Heritage CDC.

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