The design behind the Meetinghouse

by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally Published July 24, 2002

David Mark Facenda received his master’s degree in architectural preservation from the University of Pennsylvania this spring. He already has another degree in history.

But this grandson of famed television personality John Facenda did something unusual in completing his master’s thesis – he actually added to the history of one of America’s best documented institutions, the Merion Friends Meetinghouse.

This scholarship comes from the preservation of the congregation’s minutes, which date to the earliest days of the Welsh Quakers’ colonization of Pennsylvania. Facenda came to this subject through his professor, architect John Milner. Milner and his firm have expertise in historical preservation and hired Facenda upon his graduation.

“I was looking for a thesis topic, and he suggested I look at this,” Facenda said. He’s referring to the report of the Historic American Building Survey, which did an architectural analysis of the site.

“One of the things that resulted from that was a request for proposals from architectural concerns, one of which was Milner’s Chadds Ford firm,” said Alice Hoffman, who was the clerk of the Merion Meeting at the time.

According to Howard Hoffman, her husband and former clerk himself, “We had a problem that our caretaker, who lives in the caretaker’s cottage built by Joseph Price early in the 18th century, no longer could do the job. But before anyone could move in, there had to be repairs done.”

So with Milner’s firm looking at the project, the professor suggested the subject as a master’s thesis for a student who was from the area. Facenda grew up in the Drexel Hill area and, with a master’s degree in history, would be very effective in working with the informational side of the project, as well as the physical.

Historical preservation is a growing field, one that combines the academic with the practical. “There’s a historical element and also a technical element,” Facenda said. “I see myself as an architectural conservator. There’s some science in coming up with restoration plans.”

In most investigations, there are two parts: the historical background and then a technical analysis. “First of all you have to look at the archive of the work of previous historians. In the case of the meetinghouse, there’s lots of information,” Facenda said. “There are also lots of interpretations of what’s there as well.”

The topic of this part of the evaluation involved looking at the rare Tshaped layout of the meetinghouse. “This is a unique arrangement,” said Alice Hoffman, “and many historians have wondered why it had this design.”

Surprisingly, the development of meetinghouses and their architecture is an American phenomenon. These very recognizable structures, many of which exist and date from America’s Colonial period, tend to have a common architecture. Most of them are rectangular stone buildings with a wide porch.

Quakerism was a persecuted religion in Britain at that time, which is why its practitioners fled to America. The Merion facility differs considerably from other American meetinghouses, having no substantial porch, being shaped as a “T” with a stuccoed exterior.

There’s something else, too. Hoffman said the Merion Meeting is the oldest continuously used religious facility in America. “There has never been a Sunday without a service since 1682,” she said.

Chances are there weren’t many other buildings around for them to copy. “There weren’t any samples for what a meetinghouse should look like because in Wales, these people could only meet in barns or in their houses,” said Hoffman. Because of that, she thinks that the design came from the shape of the Welsh chapels, which would be familiar to the colonists.

This was true for other structures built by that first generation of colonists. “I think that with no other expectations of what a meetinghouse should look like, they went with a design that felt familiar,” she said.

There were some earlier Quaker groups in America, but it’s doubtful they’d established a standard for meetinghouse design. In fact, there’s evidence of just the opposite.

The Third Haven meetinghouse (1682-84) in Easton, Md., predates the Merion Friends Meetinghouse and is believed to have been built with a similar cruciform plan.

According to Kenneth L. Carroll, who wrote a history of that meetinghouse, the building was significantly altered in the 1790s. His determination is that the “T” section was removed and the floor plan was altered to conform to what had become by then the standard American Quaker plan.

If the present Merion facility was designed years later, wouldn’t the Quakers have followed the examples that had become standard for meetinghouses throughout the area? Most accept that there was some sort of structure on the site that the Friends used for meetings as early as 1695 and maybe even earlier.

One of the first to discuss the construction and when it occurred was Dr. George Smith in 1862. He argues in his History of Delaware County that the date stone in the northwest gable was deceptive. Smith believed there was conclusive proof that the meetinghouse was built in 1713.

He view was that the 1695 date “undoubtedly refers to the first meetinghouse, a temporary structure of wood erected on the same site. The present meetinghouse, was erected in 1713.”

Facenda said Smith based his conclusions on two minutes recorded by the Haverford Monthly Meeting in 1713 that referred to transferring money to members of Merion Meeting “towards finishing Merion Meetinghouse.” Later, at the bicentennial of the meetinghouse in 1895, Mary J. Walker produced a history of the building and acknowledged that “a difference of opinion” existed as to the exact dates of the building’s construction.

She believed that the building had stood then for two centuries. Walker examined the minutes kept by women Friends in the early years of the meeting and noticed that beginning in 1695, and for several successive years, there were entries referring to payments “for cleaning Merion meeting-house.”

In addition, the Merion Preparative Meeting minutes from 1702 through 1705 referred to acquiring “hinges, locks, benches, and shutters” for the meetinghouse. To her this meant it was more substantial building than a log or frame structure.

She did, however agree with Smith that the building was not completed until 1713.

So Facenda had plenty of work to start with, and that helped focus his research: He’d look at the physical elements of the site. “We examined the actual material in the building’s fabric,” he said.

For that he needed to work with members of the Merion Meeting to get access to the building and sort out the physical issues, if he could. That meant working with Ross Mitchell.

“He’s the stalwart force behind restoring and maintaining the Merion meetinghouse and its property,” said Alice Hoffman. “Ross has been the instigator of the restoration project.”

For him it just makes sense – they have stewardship of a very important part of Pennsylvania’s physical history. “Just because the meetinghouse has been there for 300 years doesn’t mean it will be there forever,” he said.

That’s why he wasn’t to be proactive in ensuring the preservation of the site. But when you are a Quaker, one thing is required: unanimity.

“The meeting can do nothing without a unanimous agreement on the part of the members,” Alice Hoffman said.

That means slow, deliberate steps, with lots of explanations before anything is done. But the 99 members of the meeting did agree to start the process of truly maintaining and restoring the site.

As a part of that, Mitchell became the conduit to the meetinghouse and its history for Facenda. He was one of those who believed that the structure had been originally built with the T-shape.

“We found no evidence of a foundation between the two sections, which you would have had to have for either building to stand alone,” he said.

Facenda looked into the physical evidence “I looked for remains of a stairway in the southern portion and didn’t find any evidence of differing joists, which you would expect,” he said.

“I did find evidence of old joists and other parts that had obviously been used for a different purpose, but it wasn’t unusual to recycle things in construction at that time.”

But both he and his professor thought there were great similarities in the carpentry work and a consistency throughout the building. He did find evidence of a different configuration of portions of the structure from 1829 to 1830, which was when the meeting refurbished the building.

The other important element was the upstairs loft, which was over the southern portion of the structure as well as the northern “cross” of the shape. The staircase leading to it was on the north segment. But there is also a separate area in the loft that’s over the southern section of the building and no evidence of a separate staircase.

Facenda’s revelations are based primarily on the physical evidence he discovered, although there are lots of historical discussions to evaluate. According to him, framing lumber and joists are consistent in species, size and joinery throughout the building.

“These consistencies suggest that the same carpenters were involved throughout the process and that the framing was completed during a single campaign,” he said.

“There is also evidence of a single, integrated roof structure covering the entire building,” he said. This supports the idea of a single building campaign, which may have taken place over a number of years.

One of the points Facenda makes is that there is a difference between determining if a structure was built as a single entity and determining exactly when that happened. In his view, the building was likely under construction and in use sometime around 1695 while interior finishing continued until completed sometime around 1715.

In addition to presenting his thesis to the university, Facenda also presented it to the Merion Meeting.

For Mitchell, this brings to light the need to be proactive, something Quakers really aren’t noted for. “We want to know that this meetinghouse is safe and secure,” he said. “Then we want to be good stewards of our past.”

But the results may be broader than that, at least that’s what Alice Hoffman thinks. “Growing out of these efforts has been a departure from our insularity,” she said. “We really didn’t think of it as a historic structure, it was where we worshiped. Now we have others coming here, telling us that this is a spiritual space for them as well,” she said. “We have a story to tell.”