By Morgan Christopher Fall 2019
American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) offered an observation about buildings of his time period that rings true today: “What people are within, the buildings express without.” This statement succinctly reflects the wonder a visitor will discover when touring the majestic Bryn Athyn Historic District in Montgomery County, once home to the Pitcairn family.
The district, located across from Bryn Athyn College, is home to three National Historic Landmarks: Cairnwood Estate, Glencairn Museum and Bryn Athyn Cathedral. These meticulously preserved sites, connected by lush grounds filled with 50 specimens of trees, offer visitors and fans of history and culture a magnificent destination to discover in southeastern Pennsylvania’s beautiful countryside.
Cairnwood Estate, completed in 1895 by Pittsburgh Plate Glass industrialist John Pitcairn, is the only existing Beaux-Arts style home in Pennsylvania. Designed by the firm Carrre and Hastings (known internationally for their work on The New York Public Library), this property today is open to the public for tours. Offered Tuesday through Sunday, tours share the story of the estate and the history of the Pitcairn family, as well as offer a peek into the everyday world of what life was like for people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reflective of the life of John Pitcairn and his strongly held beliefs, the estate expresses the man’s life and contributions to the local community.
Visitors will learn that after 1979, the house sat empty for over a decade until renovations and updates began, which earned the property the landmark status that Cairnwood Estate enjoys today. Tours begin in the Garden House (Gift Shop) and proceed to the carriage house, gardens, and main house (including the chapel and service wing). The house also hosts private events like weddings and parties. The grounds were designed by “father of American landscape architecture” Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Charles Eliot. The property’s winding paths, sculpted gardens and the surrounding forest make it an idyllic destination not only for tours, but as a site for special events throughout the year. The holidays bring added activity as Cairnwood Estate transforms into a celebration of a Gilded Age Christmas.
Glencairn Museum (completed in 1939), once the home to son Raymond Pitcairn and his family, now operates as a not-for-profit museum featuring permanent collections of religious art and history. Pieces housed at the museum include medieval Christian, Asian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman works as well as Native American art. The museum’s mission – to share the common human endeavor of finding higher meaning and purpose in our lives – reflects the historic religious theme one discovers touring Bryn Athyn Historic District; the community honors ties to the New Church, a Christian movement inspired by the teachings of theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.
Changing exhibitions at Glencairn Museum highlight themes that celebrate many of our shared stories as Pennsylvanians. Currently on display in the museum is an exhibition showcasing the traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch. “Hex Signs: Sacred and Celestial Symbolism in Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Stars,” curated by Patrick Dunmoyer, is on display through Sunday, Nov. 3. In November, and through year’s end, the Glencairn Museum plays host to an exhibition of World Nativities, featuring pieces from the museum’s private collection as well as pieces on loan from collectors.
The museum offers guided tours for both individuals and groups. Visitors who enjoy touring on their own can use cellphones for a guided tour that offers history and information at various stops throughout the property. In addition to the collections displayed throughout Glencairn Museum, I would encourage visitors to make a point to see the magnificent stained glassed windows in the Great Hall, of note for their unique design and intricate craftsmanship.
The third site for visitors to tour is Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Dedicated in 1919, this stately Gothic and Romanesque-style church continues to serve as a house of worship for those celebrating the rites of the New Church. Tours include points of interest like the Chancel, Small Chapel, West Door and Social Hall, each filled with examples of spiritual symbolism reflected in their ornate design. The gardens at Bryn Athyn Cathedral change with each season, offering beautiful displays throughout the year. The Northern Shade Garden, Chapel Gardens and the Terraces are specific points of interest to stop and enjoy.
To plan a visit to celebrate the art, architecture and lifestyle of the more genteel period of the Gilded Age, find information at www.bahistoricdistrict.org. Note: There is no restaurant on-site, and properties are closed Mondays.
If you’re interested in visiting Pennsylvania’s historic sites, go to Things To Do > Museums & Historical Sites.