by Barbara Sherf
Reaction to the new Chestnut Hill Friends meetinghouse was celebratory on Sunday, as members worshipped for the first time in their new meeting room. The new meetinghouse is the only structure in the Greater Philadelphia region with a Skyspace by world-renowned light artist James Turrell.
Having outgrown the tight quarters of its 82-year-old meetinghouse and after many years of discussion and careful consideration, the 200-member Chestnut Hill Friends congregation marveled at the environmentally friendly building built just one lot below the old meetinghouse near United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia on Mermaid Lane.
Following an unusually talkative meeting, Storm Evans, clerk of the Client (Building) Committee, pushed the button to open the retractable roof in the ceiling at the close of the meeting.
“I’m thrilled that people were thrilled – it needed to be opened,” she said, noting that what the group witnessed was just a preview to seeing the finished Turrell Skyspace.
The piece will not be complete until Turrell comes in early October to program the interior lights for approximately hour-long cycles at dawn and dusk.
“For it to be a Skyspace, it needs to be the right time of day with the lighting on,” she said.
Turrell also does not want photos of the space taken as he feels his work is to be experienced in person, according to Nikka Landau, Skyspace coordinator.
Turrell, 70, who credits his upbringing in the Quaker faith as the inspiration for his fascination with light, has donated the design for the Skyspace as a gift to the Meeting. Quakerism focuses on a direct relationship with God, sometimes expressed as the “Light,” and discerning this light in all aspects of one’s life.
“The Quakers do what they call ‘going inside to greet the Light,’” explained Turrell in an interview on YouTube. “This ‘going inside to greet the Light’ is like going into self … So it is not dissimilar from going inside in terms of meditation … Shutting off other influences to find this very fine thread, to find this dim light that is so powerful.”
In a Skyspace, Turrell constructs a chamber containing simple seating, lighting and an opening in the ceiling. Most people who enter a Turrell Skyspace – be it in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England, or the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in Brooklyn – naturally fall quiet as they look up at the sky, particularly at dawn and dusk, Landau noted.
The contrast between the internal light of the room and the altering outdoor natural light intensifies viewers’ perception of the changing light and deepens reflection.
Wyndmoor resident Jude Brandt, a Quaker for 40 years, and a member of the Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting for the past decade, was moved to tears in the new space.
“There is an elegant simplicity about the design of the meeting room that brought me to tears for a good portion of the meeting, and that’s not common for me,”she said. “There was a sense of wholeness and energy that was experienced on another plane than the usual consciousness.”
As for her role in the process, Evans, like many of the other Friends, did not want to be singled out.
“God gave me a lot of gifts and I happened to be at an age and a place where there were no little kids and no elders and I am self-employed,” she said. “It was a community effort. It was a perfect storm.”
Following the meeting, Dylan Steinberg, of Chestnut Hill, talked about the celebratory experience.
“It was like being at a Quaker wedding where, after the couple says their vows, everyone is moved to speak and share in the celebration,” Steinberg said.
Dan Evans, who serves as treasurer and has been a member of the Meeting for a dozen years described himself as “giddy” and talked about how the Schuylkill Expressway was projected to solve traffic woes for many years, noting “it was jammed from the first day it opened”
“It would be good if we experienced the same problem here,” he added.
A longtime Friend, who did not want to be identified, was more circumspect, however, in her words, saying that her prayer for the meeting was “that we do not lose connection to the spirit with all of this material temptation.”
Dona Garrettson, who co-chairs the Hospitality Committee with Liz Williams, was in her glory in the shining new stainless steel kitchen, where members were gleefully washing dishes by hand because nobody knew how to operate the new dishwasher.
“We have to figure out how to use this space effectively,” said Garrettson, who along with her husband, George, and their four children joined the Meeting in 1974. “Despite what you see here today, we know this building is imperfect as we are all imperfect. To be a Quaker we need to work every hour of every day to treat each other with love and respect.”
One daughter who lives in Mt. Airy, Carla White, was on hand as she is nearly every week.
“I was really amazed by how many came for their first worship,” she said. “I felt it was a blessing of the space,.
One Friend, who also wished not to be identified, spoke about the morning being “filled with joy, relief and trepidation as well as with the Spirit that will buoy us and guide us to share our gifts with the wider world.”
Mt. Airy resident Margaret Funderburg came to honor Gertrude Fuchs, a longtime family friend and member of the Meeting who has since passed away.
“She left a sizable chunk of money for this purpose and I came to honor her,” she said.
Miriam Fisher of Chestnut Hill talked about the difference it makes being in a beautiful space from her firsthand experience.
“Beauty matters,” she noted.”I do work at the historic Fairhill Cemetery where we try to keep things cleaned up, and I saw a difference in people before that space was cleaned up and after. People look up when they are in beautiful spaces,”
Diane Dunning, who was a leader of the $3 million “Building the Light” fund raising campaign, stood with fellow committee member Mary Day in the new social hall that looks out to a courtyard and a wooded section of Fairmount Park.
“Quakers are often derided for spending so much time making decisions,” said Dunning, an artist. “Many become impatient with the Quaker process, but today we see that taking all of this time has resulted in the making of clear decisions. It was magical to see the light come in the new meeting room. Simply magical.”
Tracey Smith, a member of the Green Street Friends Meeting, lives just across the street on Mermaid Lane and had a firsthand look at the project as it progressed.
“To see it unfold was like a spiritual journey,” she said. “From my bed I saw a vacant lot change into something that is full of life. I hope to see it spread and grow.”
Dennis Wint, who was in the news recently regarding his retirement as president and CEO of the Franklin Institute, talked about how people handle change.
“Life cannot exist without change,” he said. “The question is how does one take advantage of the opportunity that change presents in a meaningful way.”
Once it is finished, the Turrell Skyspace will be open for worship to the public at regular publicized times during the week as well as for special events. For more information, go to quaker.org/chestnuthill.