Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House: Chestnut Hill Friends
20 E Mermaid Ln, Philadelphia, PA 19118
There is certainly no shortage of Quaker Meetinghouses in and around Philadelphia. With the city’s early Quaker beginnings, this religion has left its mark everywhere. When one pictures these Quaker meetinghouses, they most likely imagine the typical old fashioned room full of benches that hasn’t changed in centuries. The Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting have continually broken this mold.
The Chestnut Hill Friend’s original building, built in 1931, was exactly what one would expect. At first glance, you would notice the typical large room filled with benches facing the center that could be found elsewhere in Philadelphia meetinghouses. Upon close inspection, however, one would notice that this newer meetinghouse was slightly different. The meetinghouse was built without a “facing bench,” the single bench that faces the rest and was typically occupied by a local leader. Instead the benches were all arranged in a round. This simple change in design eliminated hierarchy within the meeting. These benches were also built without any partitions inserted into them, typically used to separate men and women - another feature reflecting the community’s desire for equality among members. These differences reflect the changing and modernizing population of the area.
The Chestnut Hill Meeting was also the first to be formed as a “united meeting”. In 1827, a schism divided Quakers into two sects; Orthodox, and Hicksite. When this meeting was first founded in 1924, it was attended by a mix of Orthodox and Hicksite members, as the surrounding community was a mix of both. The two sects officially reunited in 1955, which is partially thanks to efforts by the Chestnut Hill Friends. Members of the Chestnut Hill Friends were several of the founding members of the American Friends Service Committee, which worked in communities to mitigate the effects of the world wars. Both sects were active in this organization, and it is believed that this cooperation was helpful in reuniting the two.
Unfortunately, this building no longer stands. It became too small for the growing community, and fell into disrepair. Its limited access from the street made it difficult for some community members, and so the community decided to demolish it and start fresh.
In 2013, a new building was built, and continued on the legacy of breaking molds. It was the first new Quaker Meetinghouse in Pennsylvania in over a century. It was intended to meet the needs of the growing Quaker community in Northwest Philadelphia. The meetinghouse was built using environmentally friendly methods and materials. Unlike the old building and most other meetinghouses, this eco-friendly one has a very modern feeling overall. According to the meeting’s web site, the architect, James Bradberry, hoped to create “a modern version of simple, traditional Quaker design”.
Since the Quaker religion is based on the idea of “inner light”, the community decided to raise funds for an art instillation displaying the concept. The final work was created by acclaimed artist, James Turrell. The permanent piece called the “Sky Space” is an opening in the roof of the main meeting room. The opening has a retractable cover, which is opened for sunrise and sunset viewings. The room is also lined with cove lighting designed to complement the natural light from the opening.
The meetinghouse serves the community of Quakers in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, and various other neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia and welcomes any and all visitors. The building is open for meetings every Sunday morning at 10:30 am. The meeting also holds viewings of the Skyspace open to the public on Thursdays and Sundays at sunrise and sunset when weather permits.
This modernized meetinghouse reflects the change in population that has occurred in Northwest Philadelphia. Despite obvious differences, both buildings that were home to the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting were sites of many “firsts” for the Quaker community. This meetinghouse has been at the forefront of change within both the local, and greater Quaker communities.