Driving on Huntingdon Pike, just north of Philadelphia in Montgomery County, only the most jaded driver would not be impressed when Glencairn comes into view. The family home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn, their nine children, and 50 servants, Glencairn was intended to be more than just an ostentatious display of limitless wealth. Designed by Raymond Pitcairn in the Romanesque style of an early European medieval castle, Glencairn was to incorporate, display and bridge the historical continuum in art and design from the ancient world through the Renaissance.
John Pitcairn, Raymond’s father and founder of PPG Industries, started the acquisition of a vast collection of ancient art in the late 19th century as part of his philanthropic support for the Academy of the New Church. John had constructed his own mansion, Cairnwood, in the early 1890’s, but of greater significance was his funding of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral.
Everything in Bryn Athyn is more than it seems. John Pitcairn, and other devote believers in the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, purchased the land that would become the Borough of Bryn Athyn as an enclave for The New Church. With Pitcairn’s vast wealth, the Academy of the New Church, kindergarten through college, was established and, in 1913, a unique building project was undertaken. Raymond Pictairn had not only become fascinated with Byzantine and Early Medieval art, but in the Medieval way of life, especially the interaction between the patron of a great project and the artisans that built and crafted the structure. Collaborating with his father and the architects, Raymond oversaw not only the construction of the Cathedral from 1913 to 1928, but the creation of an entire medieval artisan village on the grounds of the estate. Hundreds of European and American crafts people worked and lived in the village from 1913 until 1939. Craft shops were constructed even for making authentic tools necessary to create every item. Everything from stone cutting to the stained glass was done on site. From a design concept, the Cathedral structure evolves from Romanesque through early Gothic.
1928 marks the completion of the Cathedral – although work continues in perpetuity – and the beginning of construction on Glencairn. The story goes that Raymond was unhappy that the cathedral project was concluding so he decided to continue the process, and the life of the artisan village, by constructing his own castle. Glencairn would rise 9 storeys tall, incorporate within its interior some of the greatest treasures of the old world while reviving such crafts as exquisite Byzantine mosaics. It would take eleven years to complete, 1928-1939.
In 1937, while occupying the almost finished mansion, Raymond and Mildred opened Glencairn to the community for the first annual Christmas concert. Enlisting friends from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Academy and Cathedral choirs, the Glencairn Sing continues to this day. Set in the Great Hall, which seats 300, there are few venues more impressive in which to hear a concert. Leopold Stokowski, who played many concerts at Glencairn, praised the acoustics of the Great Hall. The Glencairn collection of nativity crèche is on display during the Christmas season and spans the centuries from early Medieval to the 20th century.
Glencairn, Cairnwood, and the vast art collection, were bequeathed to the New Church in the early 1980’s. Glencairn today is a stunning house museum professionally administered. Among its collection are rare Southwest Native art and artifacts. Cairnwood hosts special events, but the Cathedral and the beautiful park grounds are both accessible to the public.
If the Pitcairn’s represent the ultimate in what great wealth can devise, the gracious Delaware River mansion of Glen Foerd tells the story of Philadelphia’s 19th century Victorian merchant families. Built when the Torresdale area of Philadelphia was a bucolic enclave along the Delaware River, Glen Foerd was home to three merchant and manufacturing families. Charles Macalester, son of a wealthy Scots merchant, built the mansion in 1850. Charles, a staunch Presbyterian and philanthropist, founded the acclaimed Macalester College in Minnesota and Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, now Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Since 1975, Glen Foerd has been owned by a non-profit conservation corporation. The Delaware River mansions were the ultimate Philadelphia status symbol from the late 18th through the late 19th centuries. Often weekend and summer homes, they afforded a refuge from the hot, humid and disease ridden summers of Philadelphia streets. It was not uncommon for residents to travel by boat to each others’ estates.
Christmas transcends history which makes viewing, and discovering, the holiday through the “eyes” of Philadelphia’s historic houses all the more interesting.