Fun Places to Visit
Glencairn, the Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Historic District and the Swedenborgians
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — November 16, 2010
Several of America’s extraordinary, little-known architectural wonders can be found in what is known as the Bryn Athyn Historic District, a National Historic Landmark situated just a mile north of the Philadelphia border.
Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.
Bryn Athyn (“Hill of Cohesion”), Pennsylvania was founded as a religious community in the late 19th century by members of a Christian denomination known as The New Church, followers of the writings of scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. In 1879 an excursion agent in Philadelphia, M.J. Campbell, improved and promoted as “goodly land” a picturesque property called Alnwick Grove situated along the Pennypack Creek south of Fetter’s Mill bridge. It became a popular location for Sunday school picnics and as a place where people could generally escape hot Philadephia summers, since there was easy access by the excursion trains on the Philadelphia–Newton line. Campbell had provided tables, rowboats, canoes, places to swim, and a pavilion used for both dancing and as shelter during storms.
In particular, members of the Swedenborgian community on Philadephia’s Cherry Street found the area appealing and they regularly traveled to the grove in the 1880s. After enjoying several summers there, they decided that the area would be perfect land on which to build a new religious community. This would become known as Bryn Athyn.
Today’s Bryn Athyn Historic District includes three family residences and a cathedral, all constructed between 1892 and 1942:
- Cairnwood, the Beaux-Arts mansion of John Pitcairn, Jr. (10 January 1841–22 July 1916), the founder of PPG Industries.
- Glencairn, the spectacular castle/cathedral-like residence of John’s oldest son Raymond Pitcairn (1885–1966).
- Cairncrest, the residence of John’s youngest son, aviation pioneer Harold Frederick Pitcairn (1897–1960).
- Bryn Athyn Cathedral, masterfully designed and executed under the direct supervision of Raymond Pitcairn (principal construction completed in 1939; some additional work and windows finished in 1942).
The underlying belief system driving forth the community of Bryn Athyn and its construction projects was the General Church of the New Jerusalem (also known as the General Church, or just simply the New Church) a church of international scope based in Bryn Athyn and based on existing Old Testament and New Testament scripture, along with the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg—often called “the Writings for the New Church” or just “the Writings.” (See the sidebar.)
John Pitcairn, Jr. was a fellow possessed with the Midas touch. A man who skyrocketed up the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass empire and other successful businesses, Pitcairn’s business contacts and social circle included Cornelius Vanderbilt and fellow Swedenborgian Andrew Carnegie.
In 1877 the 38-year-old Pitcairn met 21-year-old Gertrude Starkey. Two years later he proposed marriage, but her strong New Church beliefs instead compelled her to ponder the spiritual dimensions of marriage for a while (Swedenborg had maintained that marriage between a man and a woman is a holy covenant with the Lord that can last for eternity). John Pitcairn pursued Starkey for five years before she finally consented. They were married and lived initially on Philadelphia’s Spring Garden Street.
Starting in 1878, the Academy of the New Church group was visiting Alnwick Grove Park during the summer months. The Academy group began to visit the area very regularly after 1889, when John and Gertrude Pitcairn used their fortune to purchase the Knight and Yerkes farms, which became the location of the principal structures of today’s Bryn Athyn Historic District: Cairnwood, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and Glencairn. Pitcairn could now build a home for his family (wife Gertrude and children Raymond, Vera, Theodore and Harold) and he would be instrumental in setting into motion the fledgling village’s New Church community.
Since he was constructing not just a great home but an entire community based on religious principles, John Pitcairn approached the greatest landscape architectural firm of the time, Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot. (Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York City’s Central Park and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.) The firm’s famous senior partner, Charles Eliot, designed both the Pitcairn estate and the community.
Cairnwood itself was designed by that era’s pre-eminent Beaux Arts architectural firm, Carrère and Hastings, which designed the New York Public Library. Gertrude Pitcairn was intimately involved in both the configuration of the Cairnwood gardens and the plans for the home itself. Construction began in 1892 and continued until the structure’s completion in the spring of 1895 at a cost of $161,638.82.
The original Cairnwood country estate consisted of the main house, adjacent courtyard, and a formal garden with a garden house, green houses and a pergola. Just a few feet from Huntingdon Pike could be found the stable and the estate’s entrance gate. Across the street were acres of farmland that provided Cairnwood and other nearby homes with milk, eggs, produce and grains.
John Pitcairn died in 1916. After the remaining Pitcairn family moved from Cairnwood into the nearly completed Glencairn in 1939, Cairnwood sat vacant from 1981 until 1995. In 1986 Cairnwood’s Garden House was converted to house the John Pitcairn Archives. In 1995, it was time for restoration work.
Cairnwood’s most interesting feature is the highest location in the house: the family chapel set atop an octagonal tower. Worshippers the face east.
This elegant legacy of the Gilded Age is available for events such as weddings, corporate events, fundraising and various types of social events.
After John Pitcairn, Jr. died in 1916, his oldest son Raymond was elected to serve in his father’s place as a director of Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. He held the position for 50 years, founded a family investment company and was its president for over 40 years. Additionally, he was a lawyer, architect, statesman and businessman. One his associates later recalled that “as a businessman, Raymond was an unparalleled motivator of people. He respected each individual employee, while setting high standards and clear expectations.”
Glencairn—built from 1913 through 1942—was the private home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn and their family from 1939, when they moved over from Cairnwood, until 1980. Its 90 rooms on 10 floors now serve as a museum devoted to religious art and history.
While working on the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Raymond Pitcairn would bring over craftsmen from Europe (and sometimes train them) to build the Gothic and Romanesque complex of buildings. (Raymond Pitcairn’s tasteful, scholarly, yet personal interpretation of late Romanesque and early Gothic was sometimes amusing referred to as ‘Raymonesque.’) Glass, wood, stone and metal workshops were on the site, just as in the medieval days when skilled craftsmen lived, ate and worked on the sites of the great European cathedral construction projects.
To inspire the artisans, Pitcairn collected stained glass and sculptures from the medieval cathedrals of Europe, mostly France, that had impressed him during his travels as a youth. Later, he simply assumed the role of the collector, snapping up whatever caught his discerning eye. Some of these items were placed on display at family’s previous residence, Cairnwood, but Raymond’s attempts to exhibit his ever-expanding collection of sculpture and stained glass at Cairnwood spurred him to build an entirely new structure to exhibit his artistic sensibilities. As he wrote on December 11, 1922: “It is quite a problem to find a place to put this glass up even temporarily to obtain a good view of it.”
Creating a repository for displaying the Pitcairn collection of religious art was important to the family, because, since the 1870s, the Academy of the New Church (the church school now in Bryn Athyn) has always maintained some sort of museum and collection to teach students about the mythology and history of religious practices of ancient cultures using art and artifacts.
During the mid-1920s, with the major construction work on the Bryn Athyn Cathedral finished, Raymond Pitcairn’s hit upon the idea of using the same cathedral craftsmen and shops to build himself a “Ramonesque” home on a nearby hill, that just happens to be on the scale of a medieval-style castle. The resulting spectacular home, Glencairn, occupies a park-like setting of 6.2 acres nestled between the Cathedral and Cairnwood, the 1895 Beaux Arts "home in the country" built by Raymond’s parents’ New Church philanthropists John and Gertrude Pitcairn.
After its completion in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Glencairn also became a social center where Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn entertained the Bryn Athyn community for musical, civic and social events. Many of these events were held in the structure’s Great Hall.
Today called the Glencairn Museum, the building is approximately 175 feet from east-to-west and 135 feet from north-to-south with a seven story tower on the south side. In the years since the last of the Pitcairns moved out in 1980, Glencairn has become part of the campus of the Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn. In the years since 1981, when it was first open to the public, Glencairn has become known as one of the world’s great, intimate museums of religious art and history.
Visitors to the museum can take in spacious views of Bucks, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties from the tower deck, with the Philadelphia skyline breaking up the southwestern horizon. Above the deck one can see eight intricately-carved capitals depicting the four areas of service held by the Pitcairn family to be of greatest importance: Church, Family, School, and Country.
Basically Late Romanesque in style, Glencairn has rounded arches and battered outer walls. The stonework is a blend of granite and a ruddy colored stone, hand-cut and ashlar-coursed. The interior support structure is poured concrete: Poured into rough molds and hand tooled, the concrete has the texture and variegation of stone.
Exterior features include carved doorways, pillars and wall insets. The main entrance has an elaborately carved archway. Over the doorway is a carved inset showing a tree and two sheep. The door is made of monel metal, a alloy of nickel and copper that expands or contracts very little even under severe temperature changes (which is why monel metal was used in engine blocks and rocket motors in the early 20th century). The door is cast in a nouveau-style honeycomb pattern—quite difficult to do at the time with monel metal. The door handles have been molded in the shape of stylized lions. Stonework throughout the exterior is carved in accordance with biblical themes, with representations of lambs, lions, doves and various other birds.
The Glencairn Museum’s Collections
Egyptian Collection. The objects in the Museum’s Egyptian Gallery tend to be grouped into religious themes such as Egyptian Gods, Egyptian Mythology, and Mummy Magic. Miniaturized dioramas are also employed to add a sense of realism.
Ancient Near East Collection. A small, though important collection of objects having significance to the history of religion. Smaller pieces include cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals with images of deities, and votive objects dedicated at shrines and temples.
Classical Collection. Over five hundred objects, including an outstanding, nearly life-size marble statue of the Roman goddess Minerva, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena (virgin goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts, magic, and the inventor of music).
Medieval Collection. The Museum’s medieval collection is ideal for learning about Christian religious beliefs during the Middle Ages, since most medieval art was created for churches and monasteries.
Asian Collection. Works of art from China, with a few from Japan and Thailand. About 30 pieces are on exhibit in the Asian Gallery, ranging from the Chinese Han Dynasty (25–220 A.D.) to the 19th century. The objects reflect the beliefs and values of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism as well as the elements of traditional Chinese culture with its Confucian and Taoist influences.
American Indian Collection. This collection is organized according to geographic regions and includes artifacts from tribes in Mesoamerica, the Northwest, the Southwest, the Plains, the Eastern Woodlands, and the Inuit areas.
New Church Art Collection. This gallery displays visual and literary works influenced by the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.
Other Collections. Glencairn Museum holds several other collections that have not been allotted gallery space, but are used decoratively throughout the building or appear in special exhibits.
But Glencairn Still Has That “Homey” Feel…
Although it is now a museum, Glencairn’s amalgam of intricate mosaic work, hand-carved teak balconies and doors, marble floors and oriental rugs still give the visitor the feeling of what it was like when it was a home for the Pitcairns. It continues to resonate with the interests and style of the family that lived in it for so many years. Indeed, the Pitcairn children always thought of Glencairn as a home, not a castle. One of them, Lachlan, once said in an early 1980s interview that the Pitcairn children flew gliders and tossed footballs around the Great Hall and placed hats on the medieval statues. During the annual Easter egg hunt, the favorite hiding place was under the skirts and between the feet of a 13th century life-size limestone statue of the Apostle Paul, imported from France.
The Making of a President
During his lifetime, Raymond Pitcairn remained a private man to the outside world, and yet on at least one occasion he greatly transformed world history: In November 1951, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was in Paris serving as commander at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers in Europe. His name was being bandied about as a U.S. presidential candidate by political parties wanting to leverage his great fame. At the suggestion of Dr. William Whitehead, a group of Bryn Athyn citizens under the leadership of Raymond Pitcairn decided to try direct action, and became the first “Americans for Eisenhower” committee. As reported by the New York Herald Tribune (November 15, 1951):
A little more than two weeks ago a group of citizens of this small community, fifteen miles northeast of Philadelphia, decided to test the sentiment for—or against—General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower as a Republican candidate for the Presidency. Tonight, at a town meeting, the results of a unique poll covering every registered voter were announced to a cheering crowd.
Of 454 persons now eligible to vote for a President next year, 341 have signed cards asking Gen. Eisenhower to declare himself as the party’s candidate. The cards will be sent to him at his headquarters in Paris as preliminary evidence of a ‘grass roots’ movement in his favor.
Eventually, 354 cards reached Eisenhower in Paris, 78 percent of Bryn Athyn’s registered voters. The movement to make Eisenhower the next American President began to spread and gain momentum, with Raymond Pitcairn lending as much support as possible. Six months later “Ike” had received the nomination at the Republican Convention. Six months after that he was President of the United States. In 1961, after he left office, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower spent two days visiting Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn at Glencairn. Eisenhower later addressed a group of Bryn Athyn citizens in the Great Hall, thanking them for the petitions they had sent him ten years previously.
Raymond Pitcairn turned down nearly all requests to view his collection of rare religious art during his lifetime. After the deaths of both himself and his wife, Glencairn and the collections were turned over to the Academy of the New Church, the church school in Bryn Athyn that is affiliated with the General Church of the New Jerusalem. The Glencairn Museum continues to enjoy a close working relationship with Bryn Athyn College and the New Church, the Academy’s Secondary Schools, and the Bryn Athyn Church School.
Cairncrest was the home of Harold Frederick Pitcairn, his wife Clara and their family. Harold’s older brother Raymond probably oversaw the design and construction of the home between 1925 and 1928. Some believe that the Philadelphia architect Wetherill P. Trout was involved in the initial design phases. Following the deaths of Harold n 1960 and Clara in 1964, the property was given to the General Church and is now used by the Church of the New Jerusalem as its international headquarters and is not open to the general public.
cairncrest, Home of Harold F. Pitcairn and his family, is not currently open to the general public.
One can’t really mention Cairncrest without also mentioning the pioneering aviation work of its owner, Harold Pitcairn, founder of Eastern Airways (which later became Eastern Air Lines). Pitcairn was fascinated with rotary wing aircraft, in particular the autogiro—the modern-day gyroplane—which looks like a convention aircraft but obtains its lift not from wings, but an overhead, freely rotating propeller, or “rotor.” Autogiros can take off at a speed of about 30 mph on a very short runway. Pitcairn also founded the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company of America in February 1929, which became the Autogiro Company of America (ACA) in January 1931. (Amelia Earhart set an autogiro altitude record of 18,415 feet on March 6, 1931.) Pitcairn received the Collier Trophy in 1930 for his work on the autogiro, presented by then-U.S. President Herbert Hoover after one of Pitcairn's associates, pilot James Ray, landed an autogiro on the south lawn of the White House.
Bryn Athyn Cathedral
When the Swedenborgian community first came to Bryn Athyn, church services were held in various homes and the clubhouse. After the completion of Benade Hall in 1901, worship services were held in the building’s chapel. Despite the chapel’s great capacity, by 1907 the community had outgown the space. John Pitcairn and Bishop W.F. Pendleton then decided it was time to develop a new house of worship, with Pitcairn as the principal benefactor.
The resulting Bryn Athyn Cathedral is also worth a visit while one visits the Historic District. This basically Gothic structure (with some Romanesque add-ons) can be seen from hilltops for many miles around. Ground was broken for the cathedral in 1913 and it was dedicated for worship in 1919. It is perhaps best known for its stained-glass windows, made in the authentic medieval manner of combining pigments directly into molten glass, a pet project of Raymond Pitcairn.
The Cathedral is also remarkable for the curves, asymmetries and irregularities planned in its construction. Raymond Pitcairn believed that straight lines and symmetry would have a deadening influence on the structure, so the walls in the cathedral bend slightly. Thus, in Bryn Athyn Cathedral there are no right angles or straight lines. The walls of the building are skewed against each other, bowing out in the middle and then returning at the opposite wall. In this respect the project’s de facto architect, Raymond Pitcairn, was evoking building concepts found in the largest temple/treasury of classical antiquity, the Parthenon of Athens. The ancient Greeks had noted that straight lines on a building appear as descending curves when lit by the sun, and so the building was designed by Iktinos and Callicrates as a series of slight, gentle curves.
The Cathedral’s initial design was done under the direction of Boston architect, Ralph Adams Cram, but Raymond Pitcairn realized that the workmen and artisans laboring on the cathedral should be directly employed by the church and that creative changes by artists and builders working together that inevitably happen during the design process should be nurtured rather than thwarted. This led to unorthodox construction practices more in common with the ancient medieval model than a 20th century one.
As the New Church explains it, “Rather than relying on blueprints and plans, almost every aspect of the design was made into scale models where Mr. Pitcairn and the workers could study, review and embellish their ideas before actually constructing them. A studio was established for architectural design, as were shops for stone and metal work, woodcarving, stained glass, and the building of plaster models.”
As mentioned previously, the stained glass windows of Bryn Athyn Cathedral were created using the medieval method—melting various pigment and metallic oxides into the glass itself and then having a glass blower create a disc of glass with varying degrees of thickness and brightness. The first glass for the Cathedral was blown in 1922 and the last created in the early 1940s, though some construction on the windows continued until the 1960s.
The windows can be grouped into three design categories: biblical figures represented in monumental scale, medallions depicting events either in the life of Christ or the Old Testament prophets, and grisaille windows of geometric design and pearl-like translucency which fill the cathedral with light. Most of the metal in the cathedral is Monel metal.
The Ezekiel Tower, located south of the main cathedral, was built between the years 1920-1926. The Choir Hall and Michael Tower lie to the north of the main cathedral. This addition was completed in 1929 and even though this is the last completed portion of the complex, its architecture is from the earliest period.