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Sunday
Dec072003

'A little castle' for his medieval artworks

By Joseph S. Kennedy | Inquirer Suburban Staff

Glencairn, located in the borough of Bryn Athyn, is a Romanesque structure with a high tower that affords a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside including the skyline of Philadelphia.

Built as a home that would reflect the religious values of the Pitcairn family, it later was opened to the public as a museum that featured one of the finest collections of medieval art and artifacts in the country.

Both the home and the art collection were the vision of Raymond Pitcairn.

"Of all the works of art created by the hands of men... there are none that seem to live... as do the marvelous churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages," he said.

Pitcairn saw the medieval period of history as an era of great Christian faith, which was expressed in the architecture and art of that time.

He wished to combine this concept with his own faith in the New Church that rested on the writing of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, mystic and religious teacher who authored a multivolume commentary on the Bible, seeking to find a high truth in the text. A basic belief of the Church of the New Jerusalem - New Church, for short - is that these Swedenborg writings were divinely inspired and represented the second coming of Jesus Christ into the hearts of Christ's people.

While Pitcairn was the driving artistic and spiritual force in both the Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn, it was his father, John, whose faith and philanthropy created the foundation for these structures.

John Pitcairn, a Scottish immigrant, was a self-made man who accumulated a personal fortune in railroads, coal mines, oil, and in the founding of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. It was through his leadership that a religious and educational community was created in the green area of Moreland Township that is now the borough of Bryn Athyn.

His wealth made it possible to buy property for residences, open space for parks, and ground upon which educational buildings and a cathedral would be built.

His family home, Cairnwood, stands on a hill next to Glencairn, looking down at the cathedral.

In 1912 when Raymond was 27, practicing law in Philadelphia and living with wife Mildred and his children in Cairnwood, he became involved in the planning and construction of the cathedral. John Pitcairn, principal donor to the cathedral, chaired a committee that also included his son, Raymond.

After the committee reviewed the first set of drawings by a Philadelphia firm, Raymond Pitcairn objected to the plan. His father then gave him the authority to come up with something better, according to historian Richard R. Gladish, writing in his biography, John Pitcairn: Uncommon Entrepreneur (1989).

In both the building of the cathedral and Glencairn, Raymond Pitcairn was influenced by the two-volume work, Medieval Architecture (1909), written by Arthur K. Porter. Here, his ideas about the use of master craftsmen, the selection of material, and the use of scale models were discovered and developed.

Work on the cathedral began in 1913. John Pitcairn died in 1916, but a detailed replica of a French medieval cathedral was dedicated in 1919. Still, work continued on various sections right through the 1950s.

In keeping with his interest in the medieval period, Raymond Pitcairn began to travel widely in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom and France. He slowly began to buy small works of art related to the Middle Ages.

"His collection reached a crescendo in the 1920s and 1930s. And by the end of his life, he had amassed a collection of some 1,000 pieces of medieval art with specialization in the 12th and 13th century," according to the Catalogue of the Classical Collections of the Glencairn Museum.

The collection includes manuscripts, sculpture, stained glass, tapestries and weaponry. It was so big that it could not be properly displayed in Cairnwood so Raymond Pitcairn in 1928 began to build "a little castle for his collection."

The name of this structure, Glencairn, was a uniting of the family's name from Raymond and Mildred Glenn Pitcairn.

For the next 11 years, scale models were made; building stone, roof tiles, and wood were selected; cement was poured; and master craftsmen and designers were employed. By 1939, the Pitcairn family was able to move into its new home.

Glencairn has the look of a medieval fortress but with a sense of warmth and modern conveniences. The interior is a place where art, history, faith and patriotism are subtly placed to blend with the design of space.

Raymond Pitcairn died in 1966 and when his widow, Mildred, died in 1979, Glencairn was deeded over to the Academy of the New Church - the education unit of the New Church.

Glencairn opened as a museum in 1982. Under director Stephen H. Morley, it has recently increased the hours it is open to attract more visitors.

Contact Joseph S. Kennedy at 610-3113-8212 or Kennedj@phillynews.com.