Experience The Light Within at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting's New Skyspace

Peter Chawaga, for GPA -- Philadelphia exists as a unique combination of the nation’s early history and its unceasing march towards progress. William Penn stands proud atop City Hall, surrounded by the glass and steel of skyscrapers erected in the wake of his accomplishments. The colonial-era buildings of Old City, the neighborhood that fostered the American Revolution, now house modern businesses and technology firms. Chestnut Hill, once a country getaway for the urban elite, has grown into a sprawling metropolis of its own while maintaining its historical ties.

The Skyspace at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, part of a new meeting house opened in October, is emblematic of this relationship. On the one hand, it is designed simply to make use of natural light and promote silent reflection - a tenant of Quaker tradition - for an institution that has been serving the Chestnut Hill community for hundreds of years. On the other, it is an innovative study of light and space donated by James Turrell, an internationally-renowned modern installation artist.

The first step in accomplishing this new installation was not an easy one, said John Landau, a member of the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting and a chair of the campaign to fundraise for the new space.

“We realized that it’s hard for a bunch of Quakers to find the money to build a meeting house,” he said.

Although the campaign started with an initial $3 million, the available funds only covered the necessary land purchases. The new meeting house and skyspace would require an additional $3 million to be built.

“When we started focusing on fundraising from people in the area around Chestnut Hill, we found that there was a lot of community pride and we were able to find a lot of supporters for the meeting house,” Landau said.

Turrell, himself a Quaker, had already built a skyspace for a meeting house in Houston. Securing his services to design the space was another milestone in the fundraising effort’s eventual success.

“We were able to connect with James in Houston and talk to him about whether he might be interested in doing a meeting house in Philadelphia and he was,” said Landau. “He very generously donated his efforts, so the whole design we didn’t have to pay for. He came to this from a very Quakerly point of view because Quakers believe in the light within.”

By encouraging visitors of all faiths to visit the skyspace, Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting hopes to continue the longstanding traditions of tolerance and spirituality that Quakers have become known for all over the world. A lighting program coordinates meditation with sunrise and sunset.

“For me, the skyspace experience is probably closest to a Roscoe painting, in terms of depth and unity of the colors that you’re seeing,” said Landau. “The pictures are wonderful, but you have to see it in person to appreciate it. We hope people will come.”

For more information, visit the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting website.

Photo courtesy of philly.com.