“Of all the works of art created by the hands of men, there are none that seem to live, through the human spirit that breathes within their every part, as do the marvelous churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages,” wrote Raymond Pitcairn, part of the family that founded Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in a 1920 letter. He attributed that quality to the guild system, where artisans’ and crafts-peoples’ lives were deeply intertwined with their projects. “The varying minds of many men whose labor was inspired by love and joy abounding in their work are written in these monuments of Christian art, which may be likened to great symphonies in which a multitude of voices join in sublime and mighty harmonies, full and rich, and well-nigh infinite in their variety. All other architecture is by comparison inadequate and elementary.”
Pitcairn, working with hundreds of workers over nearly 40 years, sought to create structures attaining this level of luminosity in a tiny town called Bryn Athyn, just 15 miles north of Philadelphia in the Huntingdon Valley. The Bryn Athyn Historic District consists of a Gothic Revival cathedral built during World War I and Glencairn Museum, a castle built during the Great Depression, a Beaux Arts mansion from the Gilded Age and a second mansion, currently used as office space. The precision of craft, quality of materials, and blend of design principles resembles few other pieces of American architecture.
“The main part of the cathedral is clearly a Gothic Revival influence, but as the construction goes on, it veers into some weird Romanesque Revival, a little bit of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and a mish-mash of style that we just refer to as ‘Bryn Athyn style,’ because I don’t know how else you describe it,” said Warren Holzman, a blacksmith who teaches at Bryn Athyn College.
Bryn Athyn Cathedral, completed in October 1919, and Glencairn Museum, completed in December 1939, were designed without a traditional architect. Instead, design was hashed out and created in a Ruskinian dialogue between Raymond Pitcairn and onsite shops of stonemasons, blacksmiths, woodworkers, and stained glass artists.
These workers had an essentially unlimited budget and created by hand every piece of the cathedral and castle. They worked off of three-dimensional models co-created with Pitcairn, who lacked formal architectural training, but had obsessively studied medieval art, architecture, and construction methods. For materials they used the then-newly discovered Monel metal, a naturally occurring alloy composed of nickel with some copper that never corrodes, massive quantities of Javanese teak wood, and stone from across the country.
“The cathedral itself is such a jewel-box in terms of all the handwork that’s on display there, from top to bottom, it really is otherworldly,” said Tim Andreadis, a specialist in 20th-century design at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia. “It seems when you first encounter it that it bears this relationship to these other traditions, but because it’s this kind of bricolage, borrowing in a sense from all these architectural styles and all these different craftsmen, it is a purely 20th century creation.”
Roots of Bryn Athyn
Bryn Athyn was founded in the 1890s on land bought by Raymond Pitcairn’s father John J. Pitcairn Jr., both for the family and their Philadelphia-based sect of Swedenborgian Christianity (also known as The Church of New Jerusalem).
John Pitcairn, a wealthy industrialist who in 1883 had founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, was a close associate of Reverend William Henry Benade, the minister of a Swedenborgian sect based out of a church on what would become the corner of Cherry and Lambert Streets between 21st and 22nd Streets.
Philadelphia in the 19th century was one of the centers of religious activity inspired by Emanuel Swedenborg, a successful Swedish inventor, statesman, and philosopher who in his mid-50s, began experiencing visions and spent the rest of his life writing out an interpretation of the Scriptures. His books include descriptions of a vivid afterlife, communication with angels, and describe all religions as reflections of the same divinity. Most of his work was published anonymously, but, after his death, followers cropped up all around the world.
Scotsman James Glen first exposed American audiences to Swedenborg with a 1784 lecture at Bell’s Bookstore on 3rd Street. 34 years later, the cornerstone for the first Church of New Jerusalem temple was laid at the corner of 12th and George (now Sansom) Streets. A Swedenborg-inspired sect called the Bible Christians arrived from Manchester, England, claiming Swedenborg also preached vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol to the dismay of their American brethren and set up their own church in 1822 on 3rd Street above Girard Avenue. Around 1854, when the Church of New Jerusalem began another church at Broad and Brandywine Streets, a dispute over the placement of the cornerstone led Benade to leave, beginning the path that eventually led to Bryn Athyn.
In 1889, Pitcairn bought farmland in Montgomery County near Alnwick Grove Park. In 1897, he moved Benade’s church complex, including a school, north from its Cherry Street location, renaming the area Bryn Athyn. The name, ‘Bryn Athyn,’ is intended to mean hill of cohesion or unity in Welsh. It was later revealed that Athyn is a neologism added to Welsh dictionaries by an overly creative lexicographer, but the name stuck.
“They move up to Bryn Athyn, they move up to Huntingdon Valley, it’s farmland, there’s nothing up there. They buy it to get away. And of course, it catches up with them,” said Chris Barber, a minister and teacher at the Academy of the New Church, which Benade, Pitcairn and others founded in 1876. “There’s always been this kind of almost Swedenborgian retreat, where we have so much to read and so much to study, where, in a sense, the early church was definitely trying to get their footing and some of that seemed like getting distance. It was also in the hope of having distinctive life.”
Creating a New Medieval Church
After buying the land in the Huntingdon Valley, Pitcairn Jr. built Cairnwood, a Beaux-Arts mansion for his family to live in. It is a fine example of Gilded Age architecture, but seems almost traditional compared to what came next. “He decides he’s going to build the greatest monument of the Swedenborgian faith that he can muster, and that’s the Bryn Athyn Cathedral,” Holzman said.
When Pitcairn started the cathedral in 1913, architect Ralph Adams Cram, an expert in Gothic Revival, was leading the design. They decided, at considerable expense, to set up a guild system of artisans working onsite, in part to achieve authenticity by building in the Gothic way, inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, William Morris, and a somewhat sentimentalized vision of the Middle Ages. After Pitcairn died in 1916, his son Raymond, who was trained professionally as a lawyer, took over and began intervening in the design and tweaking details of the project. This led him to eventually fire Cram and take over the project.
“They built this thing without the guiding vision of an architect. They did this by expanding the model shop,” explained Holzman. “Everything they did after that started out as a small plaster model and just got bigger and bigger until they were full-size mockups in stone, wood, metal, until there was consensus and Raymond was pleased with what he saw, and then it was executed. So that was done for the rest of the cathedral. And that is how Glencairn was built.”
As a designer, Pitcairn worked closely with his craftspeople and required them to follow certain rules of design such as that no single component of the cathedral repeat itself, apparently to reflect the diversity of God’s creation. “There are 124 doors in the cathedral,” Holzman said. “Every one of those doors has unique strap hinges, a unique lever and unique set of bolts and nuts that bind all the hardware to those doors. It was a very deliberate effort to reproduce nothing a second time.”
The cathedral was also designed to include “refinements,” or intentional imperfections–curves and skews along what traditionally would have been straight lines–to authentically recreate the slightly crooked style of authentic medieval churches. In 2014, the late art historian Andrew Tallon used a Leica Geosystems C10 laser scanner to measure these “refinements” down to the millimeter. The cathedral’s nave expands in the middle and narrows at each end. The central path almost imperceptibly ascends to the altar. The 150-foot tower of the cathedral narrows as it ascends. The interior walls over the altar expand before meeting in arch, in what Pitcairn called an “attenuated horseshoe curve.” To intentionally capture in a stone structure what scholars today consider naturally occurring shifts in the stone and mortar of centuries-old churches required the workers to develop complex new construction methods. Inward-facing stones in the widening arches were cut trapezoidally to create the desired effect, according to Tallon.
Pitcairn also had his glass workers spend years studying medieval stained glass he had bought on trips to Europe to learn how to recreate it. He employed a Harvard professor to translate a 12th century text by Theophilus on the art of creating pot metal glass. They spent years mixing chemicals and oxides to get the right colors. When I visited, the altar was bathed in ethereal purple light–the effect of sunlight filtered through red and blue stained glass.
Virtually all of the metalwork in the cathedral and the castle is Monel, which was originally discovered in ore in Canada and is most commonly used today in machine rooms on naval vessels, as it almost never ages. Man-made Monel was purchased by Pitcairn for Bryn Athyn craftsmen to work with. “There’s nowhere else in the world where that much of it was used in one building,” Holzman said. “For the first 40 years they used it exclusively. No iron, no steel, a few bits of bronze. Every hinge, every latch, every lock, every screw, every switch plate, every bolt, every guardrail, every grip-rail, every screen–it was all Monel.”
Inside the cathedral the quality and color of the stone changes from floor to wall to pillar to trim: sandstone from Ohio, granite from Massachusetts, and limestone from Kentucky are just some of the types of stone used. Eventually they found a granite quarry right in Bryn Athyn, which was used for exterior stone.
“The use of architectural refinements—the Cathedral of Bryn Athyn was, to my knowledge, the first in the world to have had them incorporated—along with the guild-style construction process, in which artisans were assembled to work under the supervision of an on-site architect, is precisely what sets Bryn Athyn apart from its many Gothic Revival peers,” Tallon wrote. “The fruit of a highly unusual construction process, as nearly antithetical to modern practice as the Middle Ages is distant from the present, it speaks the language of medieval architecture with a degree of idiomatic subtlety rarely achieved elsewhere.”
Building a Castle
Work continued on the cathedral for about a decade after it opened in 1919. After that project was complete, Pitcairn turned to creating a home for his own family: Glencairn. Today it is a museum where some of the Pitcairns’ collection of more than 8,000 artifacts from around the world are on display. The building reflects an even more idiosyncratic amalgamation of architectural styles–part Beaux-Arts home, part castle, part medieval European chapel. “Look at Glencairn. I have no idea what that is,” Holzman said. “I’ve never seen anything like what that evolved into.”
On the first floor, a comfortable 19th century living room with hardwood floors adjoins the stone-lined “Great Hall,” with a floor-to-ceiling mosaic, massive stained glass recreations of the windows at Chartres, some of Pitcairns’ medieval stone sculptures on display in various corners, and a comfy couch, carpet, and bookshelves. Visitors who take the tour can see the Philly skyline from the observatory upstairs, more relics of ancient civilizations Pitcairn collected, and the family chapel, a small stone room with a mosaic ceiling depicting a tetramorph of the Apostles around a solar centerpiece tiled with gold. “The quality of the medieval art is absolutely stellar. It’s one of the best collections of medieval art in the United States,” said Susan Leibacher Ward, an art history professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. “If you look around, you will see other Gothic Revival churches, you will see other houses like Cairnwood, but the actual Glencairn building is unique.” It is difficult to accurately capture all the details of craft in Glencairn and the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, even for craftsmen who have worked there for years.
“The cathedral and Glencairn are just so unique in their construction and their aesthetic style–it’s not been copied anywhere,” said Drew Nehlig, the historic buildings project manager at Bryn Athyn. “He [Pitcairn] wanted a lot of the best material you could get. He wanted to build a building that would stand through the ages, and he loved the uniqueness of all those different materials. For us, it would have been a lot of fun to spend a day with Raymond Pitcairn. It would have been a lot of fun even to meet the craftsmen that were here, just to hear the story of ‘How did you get that there? How did you do it?'”
There are other Gothic Revival and Gilded Age properties around America, like Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Massachusetts and the Guggenheim’s Falaise mansion on Long Island. There are even other communities built by and for artisans, like Rose Valley in Delaware County or Arden, Delaware. There are other obsessively built homes in the region, like Fonthill Castle or the Wharton Esherick Museum. But nothing captures and embodies all the intricacies and ornateness of craft that one finds at Bryn Athyn. Two factors which may explain that are the nearly limitless funds the Pitcairns were willing to devote to these projects and the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the unique religious figure whose visions they were trying to articulate. Even Raymond Pitcairn’s collection of ancient religious artifacts from Mesopotamia and Egypt was driven by Swedenborg’s assertion that all of their “individual truths are mirrors that reflect the Lord,” as he wrote in True Christianity.
“In a certain sense, you’re stepping back in time, in this case to this reconstructed idea of what a Swedenborgian church is,” Andreadis said. “This is a time when people are bolting together skyscrapers all across the globe and here you have this project emerging in the suburbs of Philadelphia to kind of harken back to a non-existent perceived past, and so it’s a portal, in a sense.”
A Still Living Faith
The New Church is just one of several Swedenborgian sects around the globe, others of which have tried, like medieval church builders, to celebrate the visions he articulated in real world structures. The Wayfarers’ Chapel south of Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is probably the other most renowned Swedenborg-inspired structure.
The teachings of Swedenborg are not as widely known or followed today as they were in the 19th century. But today, Bryn Athyn is also home to one of the most visibly resurgent communities of Swedenborgian thought. Off the Left Eye, a YouTube channel created by the Swedenborg Foundation, is filmed in studios across the street from the Bryn Athyn Historic District. The group has racked up some 17 million views on their educational and plainspoken expositions on Swedenborg. This level of popularity is unusual for anything Swedenborgian and was totally unexpected, said the channel’s host Curtis Childs, who lives in Bryn Athyn.
“It all comes down to Swedenborg himself and the concepts in there. It’s always been this thing that is very powerful to people and yet remains really obscure,” Childs said. “Now, we just get these comments all the time about how this has become the defining thing in their life. Often, I’m shocked at the impact it has.”
Next June, Childs and the Foundation are inviting fans of the YouTube channel to their first-ever conference in Bryn Athyn. “I want to marry the ideas and the space-experience,” Childs said. “Everybody is hungry for some kind of spiritual or philosophical or some kind of serene, deep experience, yet sometimes people have trouble accessing that because they can’t find the right framework to allow the ideas in. “I want to take those spaces and see, ‘Can we take people on a journey that’s both in the mind and in the body?”