How a James Turrell Ended Up at a Manhattan Quaker School

One of the vaunted Light and Space artist’s trademark “Skyspaces” has found an unexpected home—at the top of a Quaker school in Gramercy Park.

“Leading,” a new Skyspace at Friends Seminary in Manhattan. Photography by John Galayda

Cushy, over-the-top amenities are standard fare at Manhattan’s elite private schools, but few can even dream of boasting museum-caliber contemporary art. Friends Seminary, an independent Quaker school in the borough’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, has entered these ranks thanks to one of James Turrell’s mesmeric Skyspaces that was recently installed on its sixth floor. Inspired by square-shaped Quaker meeting houses but with an oculus cut open to the sky, the rooms are bathed in atmospheric LEDs that gradually change color with time. Experiencing one verges on hallucinatory—visitors recline on teak benches surrounding the room’s perimeter and lose themselves in the light, much like how Turrell’s grandmother once instructed him to “go inside to greet the light” as he sat in Quaker silence.

The installation, titled Leading, came about after head of school Robert Lauder invited Turrell, a practicing Quaker, to create a site-specific artwork there. Though he now lives in Flagstaff, Turrell and Friends Seminary share a lengthy history—he used to live nearby and worship every Sunday at the 15th Street Meetinghouse, now a part of campus. When he toured the school, he noticed the unobstructed view from its rooftop would ideally suit a Skyspace. Building a two-story intervention on the towhouse’s top floors was a more ambitious project than Lauder had in mind, but Kliment Halsband Architects, the firm behind the school’s expansion and redevelopment, was up to the task. They convinced the city’s Department of Buildings to bypass the landmarked district’s stringent zoning regulations by designating the Skyspace as a “house of worship” tower, and construction got underway.

Now that Leading is complete, Friends Seminary students are free to take “field trips” there. Third graders sketch objects that come to mind as the illumination shifts; high schoolers studying graphic design explore “how color combinations impact how we perceive color,” one teacher explains. While the installation technically belongs to the school, the public can make reservations to visit on a first-come, first-serve basis on select Fridays, including a 40-minute viewing at sunset. With only a few spots available, entry may be difficult to secure at first. Art enthusiasts (and avid Instagrammers) go to great lengths to experience Turrell’s work, and Meeting at MoMA PS1, the only other Skyspace in New York City, continues to be one of the museum’s most-visited attractions. Hopefully no new high-rises peek through the oculus this time.

Photography by John Galayda
Photography by John Galayda
Photography by John Deptulski
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