Bryn Athyn Cathedral: The remarkable history of an architectural wonder

Posted 3/25/20

The main complex of Bryn Athyn Cathedral, constructed between 1913 and 1928. Editor's Note: In the time between the reporting of this piece and publication and the present, Bryn Athyn closed its …

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Bryn Athyn Cathedral: The remarkable history of an architectural wonder

The main complex of Bryn Athyn Cathedral, constructed between 1913 and 1928.

Editor's Note: In the time between the reporting of this piece and publication and the present, Bryn Athyn closed its campus to the public.

by George McNeely

One of the more remarkable architectural and historic sites in our area is the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, a short, 30-minute drive from Chestnut Hill.

The cathedral complex includes a number of connected buildings, constructed in a range of styles between 1913 and 1928. It is the episcopal seat of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, better known as a denomination of Swedenborgianism.

The main church building and its tower are the dramatic center of the complex, designed in the English Perpendicular Gothic style by the important and prolific architect Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942). He designed churches in many major cities in the early 20th century, the largest being the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York.

Curiously, the south wing of the cathedral complex is in the French Norman style, while the north wing is in an early Romanesque style. Yet together they offer an engaging ensemble that suggests it was constructed gradually over the centuries, as most English and European ecclesiastical complexes were.

The buildings are picturesquely sited on rolling hills that combine open fields and woods with lovely views out over the surrounding countryside, all designed by Olmstead Brothers. The complex also features three huge houses that were originally built for the Pitcairn family, who paid for pretty much everything within eyesight.

To understand how this remarkable group of buildings came to Bryn Athyn, we need to go back in time to yet another of the non-conformist denominations that emerged during the Protestant Reformation in Europe and eventually came to shape our country.

The “New Church” emerged in Sweden in the 18th century out of the Swedish Lutheran Church, inspired by the writings of scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). At age 53, he started experiencing dreams and visions that lead to a spiritual awakening and the writing of his magnum opus, The Heavenly Doctrine (1749) and over 20 other volumes.

He did not intend to break away, but rather to help others understand the teachings that he believed where communicated to him by Christ. He believed that religion required a life of engagement with family, community, church and country. He referred to this as living “the new church.”

As we have seen with other early spiritual leaders, he faced persecution. He moved to Amsterdam and then London, attracting followers, including John Glen, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1784. The New Church was gradually established along the East Coast and his writings were widely read.

In the mid 19th century, the New Church attracted a young Moravian minister, William Henry Benade. He had grown up in Nazareth and Bethlehem and had completed a full Moravian education when he became a minister in 1841. But he was drawn to the writings of Swedenborg, which led to his ejection from the Moravian church. In 1845, he became pastor of the New Church congregation in Philadelphia.

Around that time, the young John Pitcairn started attending services at his church. Benade and Pitcarn formed a life-long bond.

John Pitcairn (1841-1916) was one of those young men in the 19th century who had the pluck and smarts to embrace the potential of the Industrial Revolution and make things happen. He started as an office boy at age 14 in the Pennsylvania Railroad. He moved up in that business but switched to oil in western Pennsylvania and then switched again in 1883, joining various partners to found Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG). By 1900, the “glass trust” produced 65% of the country’s plate glass, and the company expanded into paint, coatings, and chemicals. He remained involved with PPG until his death and became very rich.

Benade believed strongly in the educational mission of the church. With Benade’s energy and Pitcairn’s money, they founded the Academy of the New Church in 1876 in Center City. They later moved the whole operation out to Bryn Athyn.

At that new location but before the current cathedral, Pitcairn built his own house, Cairnwood, in 1895 in a stodgy Louis XIII style to the designs of the New York architectural firm Carrere & Hastings.

John Pitcairn’s choice of Carrere & Hastings is curious. The firm is best known for its commercial and institutional commissions in the Beaux Arts style, including the New York Public Library, the Standard Oil headquarters in New York, the Senate and House office buildings in Washington, D.C. and various luxury hotels in Florida commissioned by industrialist Henry Flagler.

The firm also designed grand country houses for other industrial tycoons as Henry Flagler, Averill Harriman, Alfred I. DuPont and Henry Clay Frick. So, along with Pitcairn’s strong religious convictions, his choice of architects suggests his affinity with his piers in the Robber Baron stratosphere.

Pitcairn had three sons, Raymond, Harold and Theodore, who each took different paths in the family. Raymond (1885-1966) trained as a lawyer but followed his interest in architecture and involved himself in the construction of the cathedral complex. He eventually took over from Ralph Adams Cram.

Cram later politely wrote that "in its inception and its working out, it has been unique, not only in my own experience, but I believe in the architectural history of the last 400 years." What did he mean?

It appears that Cram decided to withdraw from active involvement and let the boss’s young and untrained son take the lead. It is unclear why. It also appears that the stylistically incongruous north and south wings resulted from young Pitcairn’s particular interests. Cram was also referring to Pitcairn’s inability to read architectural drawings and his insistence on the construction of full-scale architectural models in wood and plaster as tools for deciding how to proceed.

With the completion of the cathedral complex, young Raymond Pitcairn decided to use his on-the-job architectural training to design his own house, Glencairn, sited advantageously up the hill from the cathedral. It is an awkward Romanesque conglomeration, constructed between 1928 and 1939, proving that sometimes those with money and power do not themselves make the best aesthetic decisions.

Pitcairn filled the house with the extensive collection of religious art and antiquities that was originally started by his father and Benade on their trips around the Middle East, the Holy Land and Europe in the late 19th Century. Pitcairn continued that collection and the ensemble is now an engaging if eccentric museum that reflects the Swedenborgian belief that all religions are connected.

There is so much more to tell about the Pitcairns in the 20th century. We could explore the causes of the various schisms within the church or the family’s early, enthusiastic opposition to vaccinations. Or their support for such questionable conservative organizations as the Sentinels of the Republic or the American Liberty League, which fought against the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is complicated.

But instead let’s appreciate the architectural glories of the Bryn Athyn campus and its surrounding landscape. Even if the Cathedral and the Glencairn Museum may be closed, it is well worth a short trip out to wander the beautifully maintained grounds, breathe in the fresh country air, and ponder the various religions that have played such a key role in the development of our country.