The site where Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting is building a new meetinghouse was damaged by arsonists during Christmas week, and police are now "absolutely" sure the attack was the result of a dispute between members of a Philadelphia construction union and the project's nonunion contractor.
Although no suspects have been identified in the Dec. 21 incident, Lt. George McClay of Northwest Detectives said Friday that he was certain the small Quaker building on East Mermaid Lane was targeted because it is being built with nonunion labor.
"I absolutely think it is a union issue," McClay said.
If union members were involved, the attack would be the second violent incident in Philadelphia this year related to the use of nonunion construction workers. This spring, union protesters clashed with nonunion workers renovating the former Goldtex factory tower at 12th and Wood Streets for Post Bros., an apartment developer.
Unlike that high-profile development, the meetinghouse is a modest undertaking. The total cost for the building, which will include a work by the nationally recognized light artist James Turrell, is expected to run just over $6 million. Of that, about $3.5 million is being spent on construction.
Police nevertheless believe that it is unlikely that a random vandal carried out the attack on the Chestnut Hill site, where the steel outline of the future meetinghouse is visible. The vandals used an acetylene torch, which requires a skilled operator who must wear a special mask and gloves.
Employees arriving for work Dec. 21 said they found the site in disarray. The cab of a large, mobile building crane had been completely burned. Vandals had also used the torch to shear off the steel bolts on nearly a dozen columns. Three others were hacked halfway through at the base, as if someone were trying to cut down a tree.
McClay said police had no leads. "There is not a whole lot to go on. There were no witnesses, no video," he said. The attack has been declared an arson.
Contractor Robert N. Reeves Jr. said he was convinced union members were involved.
"I don't think this was a spontaneous group of kids who did this," he said during a tour of the site Friday. "We're really talking about the bad behavior of union bullies."
He estimated that the cost of the damage could run over $500,000.
His company, Abington-based E. Allen Reeves, is one of many suburban firms that maintains an open shop, hiring both union and nonunion subcontractors. He said he had tangled with union members over his hiring practices.
There had been no organized picketing at this site, Reeves said. But several days before the attack, he said, representatives of several construction unions appeared at the site to discuss hiring their members. They were rebuffed, and afterward the representative from the ironworkers union "basically said to the superintendent that 'he would do what he had to do,' " according to Reeves.
Ed Sweeney, business manager for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, could not be reached for comment Friday. He told the Philadelphia Daily News last week that he had not heard about the arson.
"I was up there last week and said hello to the guy, and asked if he wanted to hire any ironworkers, and he didn't even talk to me," Sweeney said.
The project is believed to be the first new Quaker meetinghouse in Philadelphia in more than a half- century. A statement by Chestnut Hill Friends said that the project was insured and that the damages were likely to be covered.