Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral, tucked well back from Second Street Pike in Montgomery County, is not immediately visible to the passerby. One is intro­duced to the finely chiseled spires, granite towers and sparkling glass in rapid, stop­-frame glimpses through a dense stand of trees. As the full view unfolds, one is at once compelled by the loom­ing one hundred and fifty foot central tower and beckoned by the tranquil, bosky slopes which it dominates. A sign at the edge of the grounds de­scribes the architecture as fourteenth century Gothic and twelfth century Romanesque. Upon closer inspection, it is much, much more.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral houses the Church of the New Jerusalem, a religious sect based on the writings of Ema­nuel Swedenborg. But its stately presence belies its col­orful background. The Cathe­dral was conceived and ultimately designed by an “amateur” architect. While the architecture made use of innovative techniques, actual con­struction was undertaken by a guild of specialized craftsmen, reminiscent of medieval arti­sans. The story of Bryn Athyn Cathedral – and the borough in which it is located – is rich in cultural, as well as architec­tural history.

The borough of Bryn Athyn – a Welsh phrase mean­ing “hill of cohesion” – is lo­cated amid rolling hillsides fifteen miles north of Philadel­phia, just east of the Pennypack Creek. The area was first settled in 1897 by a handful of families devoted to the teach­ings of Emanuel Swedenborg.

Swedenborg, born in Stock­holm in 1688, was a man of science, remarkable for his outstanding work in such diverse fields as geology, chemistry, astronomy and physics. He sketched plans for the submarine, airplane and machine gun. Swedenborg also made important studies regarding the composition and circulation of the blood, and was the first to discover the function of the cerebellum. At the age of fifty-six however, having mastered the world of science, he turned inward to pursue the spiritual self. Ac­cording to his writings, the Third Testament or Apoca­lypse was revealed to him. Swedenborg recorded his theological experiences in more than thirty volumes. This spiritually sensitive Christian philosophy became the Church of the New Jerusalem, founded in London in 1787. In America, Swedenborg’s doc­trines were studied by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and more recently, Helen Keller. A devout Swedenbor­gian, Keller, eloquently re­corded her feelings in her book, My Religion.

Bryn Athyn was founded as the religious and educational center of the Swedenborgian faith and a building fund was immediately established. Meanwhile, the settlers wor­shipped in a series of make­shift chapels, praying for a proper church to house the burgeoning congregation.

The answer to that prayer lay within their very number. Scottish immigrant John Pit­cairn had become a wealthy businessman in America. As a very young man, he worked for the railroad and was named general manager of the Oil Creek and Allegheny Rail­road in 1869. With the discov­ery of oil in the northwestern region of Pennsylvania, Pit­cairn saw opportunities in the refining and transportation of oil. He became director of the H.L. Taylor Refining Co. and often found himself at odds with John D. Rockefeller, who was attempting to establish a monopoly with his Southern Improvement Company. In the third phase of his prosperous career, Pitcairn joined forces with Capt. John B. Ford and founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.

Successful as he was, John Pitcairn’s boyhood religion was a major factor governing his life. He had been educated in the doctrines of the church and had learned Greek, He­brew and Latin so he could read the Bible in its original form. In 1889, he purchased thirty-five acres of ground surrounding the Second Street Turnpike and later bought an additional forty-nine acres at three hundred and fifty dollars each. He built “Cairnwood,” his palatial family home, and with the guidance of Robert M. Glenn, a real estate man and, coincidentally, his brother-in-law, he selected a site for the Cathedral and the Church of the New Jerusalem Academy, its educational facil­ity. In 1908, John Pitcairn made a substantial endowment to the building fund.

Ground was broken for the Cathedral in the autumn of 1913, and the cornerstone laid the following year.

But what form would the building take?

Bishop William Frederic Pendleton was a close friend of John Pitcairn’s and together they planned the new religious community.

Careful consideration was given to the reasons for erect­ing a cathedral at Bryn Athyn. Surely a permanent place of worship was needed but, more importantly, the congregants agreed that the edifice itself should be a monument to their beliefs. The structure must, they thought, represent a new faith in a new land. Represent­ing the solid Christian basis for the Swedenborgian religion, parts of the Cathedral would be traditional in design. However, the vitality of this new faith would be reflected through unprecedented inno­vation and flexibility. Old craft methods would be rediscov­ered and used anew. New ideas would be tested and embraced. The founders be­lieved the building process must incorporate “organic architecture,” the prudent stewardship of the environ­ment and the capacity for growth and change. Their end result must serve as a monu­ment to the glory of God and an inspiring tribute to man’s pursuit of His Kingdom.

John Pitcairn was no stranger to Europe – it is estimated that he crossed the Atlantic sixty-three times – and he was greatly impressed by European cathedrals. He realized the key to achieving a comparable look was specialization. Each de­sign and construction task would be delegated to an ex­pert in the field. The reputable Boston firm of Cram and Ferguson was retained as ar­chitects throughout the first three years of construction. Ralph Adams Cram, noted neo-Gothicist, had been se­lected for what would prove a challenging – and largely exasperating – assignment.

John Pitcairn’s son, Ray­mond, was also intimately involved in the planning of the Cathedral. Like his father, he possessed a remarkable eye for design and an uncanny capacity for translating the concep­tual into the dimensional. An attorney by profession, he was an “amateur architect” in the best sense of the phrase, pur­suing the avocation out of sheer love of line and form. He would later be elected to the prestigious American Institute of Architects (AIA) without ever having made a sketch or taken a single course in architecture!

Upon his father’s death in July 1916, Raymond, then thirty-one, gave up his Phila­delphia law practice to devote himself full-time to his beloved project.

Meanwhile, stonecutters, glassmakers, woodcarvers and metalworkers were hand se­lected and assembled. This guild of more than one hundred artisans, swelling at times throughout the project to nearly double its force, set up shops and studios on the premises and work began.

Raymond Pitcairn envi­sioned the cathedral as a com­munal venture and worked in tandem with the craftsmen. Under him, the Boston archi­tects functioned primarily as consultants. This proved an exercise in frustration for a disgruntled Cram, normally accustomed to far more exten­sive input. An idea, painstak­ingly conceived and drafted in the Boston offices, might well be abandoned on the sugges­tion of a carpenter or sculptor. For instance, the West Porch area was conceived by Winfred Hyatt, chief designer of stained glass, who made a model of it at his kitchen table one evening.

In early 1917 the association with Cram was dissolved. (Ralph Cram would later de­sign St. John the Divine Ca­thedral, New York, and the Princeton Chapel in New Jersey.)

Bryn Athyn Cathedral would consist of a central section and two ancillary wings, the Ezekiel Towers and Council Hall to the east and the Michael Tower and Choir Hall to the north. The architec­ture of the central section of Bryn Athyn Cathedral is four­teenth century Gothic in de­sign. During the late middle ages, the Gothic style was regarded as the highest devel­opment in Christian architec­ture. The construction is logical and characterized by tall, slim masses, pointed arches, pinnacles and ribbed vaulting. Minute attention is paid to detail. The wings, Choir Hall and Council Hall, are twelfth century Roman­esque, evidenced by the solid masses, rounded arches and geometric designs throughout.

Perhaps it was Raymond Pitcairn’s very lack of experi­ence which enabled him to take a new approach and freed him to consider revitalizing long lost methods of design, particularly the use of “optical refinements” or subtly curved lines. Optical refinements were first introduced at Bryn Athyn after Raymond Pitcairn and two of Cram’s original staff attended a lecture on medieval churches given by William Goodyear, curator of the Brooklyn Museum and later a curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The technique was used com­monly by early Greek builders and can be found in French and English cathedrals built early in this century. Use of optical refinements in a New World setting was a bold departure.

“Curves in plan” refer to horizontal departure from the straight line and “bends in elevation” to vertical depar­ture. Both concepts are evident throughout Bryn Athyn. In the nave arcade there is a curve in plan, a variation of five inches on either side and an equal curve back to the tower pier. The nave column arches subtly rise from the western column, a full six inches to the middle, then gently taper. The spacing of the columns themselves is asymmetrical and the sills of the clerestory windows vary slightly. The sandstone pilas­ters along the aisle walls vary in depth to as much as three inches.

Aside from the softening effect of curvature, these inte­rior treatments were also em­ployed for psychological purposes. As one walks down the nave’s central aisle toward the chancel, the floor gently rises, a gradual uplifting as one draws closer to God’s presence. The outward curve in plan of the chancel arcade, brings life to the stone and draws the eye toward the cen­tral altar. The sanctuary arch widens as it rises, creating a feeling of spaciousness and conducting the worshipper’s eye heavenward.

Unusual external refine­ments also exist. The central tower facade has been given a more graceful line by use of entasis, a slightly inward curve. The buttresses are spaced unevenly to compli­ment the irregularity of the arches inside.

Bryn Athyn’s craftsmen labored without specific guide­lines. Original Boston blue­prints had virtually been tossed aside as impromptu changes were made at the building site. Plaster tri­dimensional models were frequently built in full scale to facilitate proposed alterations. Adjustments could be made to satisfaction, at which point the models would be torn down and actual stone set in place.

Intricate detail and infinite variety were encouraged in all aspects of the artisans’ handi­work. The opportunity to create freely in their chosen medium proved irresistible to most. Scottish stone carver Benjamin Tweedale, for exam­ple, arrived in 1916 to work three months – and stayed twenty years, long after con­struction was completed, to specialize in tracery and capital cuttery when needed.

Most of Bryn Athyn’s work­men roomed in Philadelphia and commuted by steam train. In 1914 the train schedule was revised to accommodate their daily trek. The caliber of the craftsmen was matched only by the quality of the building materials.

The exterior stone is meta­morphosed granite quarried about three-quarters of a mile below the Cathedral on the north bank of the Pennypack Creek. It has a high quartz content, making it a very hard stone. The foundation walls are four feet thick and in some places plunge fifteen to twenty feet.

The interior sandstone is variegated Amherst Bluff, quarried in Ohio. Mohegan granite was used in the tower support pillars. Limestone, quarried in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and used in the mouldings, tracery, parapets and pinnacles, was chosen because of its natural oil which whitens the stone with age rather than darkening it. The small quartz and flint-like stones used in the outer chan­cel’s patterned floor were gathered from local fields by the Bryn Athyn school children.

Several types of wood are used throughout. Heavy oak timbers used in various roofs are white oak found in a twelve mile radius of the Ca­thedral, some of which are more than two hundred years old. The trees were hauled to a sawmill near Neshaminy Creek, then to the on-site woodworking shop to be hand-worked by saw and adze. The floor of the Council Chamber, some balconies, and most of the doors throughout the Cathedral were made of teakwood imported from India and Java. All wood carving, including the chancel furni­ture, was executed at the building site. No glue or nails were used; all wood is held together with mortise and tenon. In some instances, square and round pegs, usu­ally made of locust, a closely packed wood, were inserted in opposite directions through the surface. Popular among old Swedish boat buildings, this method helps wood resist the effects of heat expansion. No finish, wax or shellac is ever used on Bryn Athyn’s wood.

All metal used in screens, railings, gate grills, as well as roofing material in the nave, chancel and Choir Hall, is monel. Monel, a natural alloy composed almost entirely of nickel and copper and primar­ily mined in Nova Scotia, possesses a special charm when fashioned into door knobs: naturally dark grey in color, it warms to silver with the touch of human hands.

Perhaps the most signifi­cant features of the Cathedral are the stained glass windows- pot metal glass, not produced since the sixteenth century until the construction of Bryn Athyn. In the pot metal process, colors are intro­duced into molten glass with metallic oxides, rather than being enameled onto the sur­face later. Swedish born glass­makers, John Larson and David Smith, set up their studio opposite the Cathedral in 1922. They experimented with formulas for various glass types and colors and the secret of the incredibly difficult stri­ated ruby, which contains gold, was rediscovered.

During the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral, much research was conducted on the art of stained glass. Window designers translated and stud­ied Theophilus and Vioilet-le­duc, recorders and historians of medieval glassmaking. Craftsmen visited European cathedrals and returned with drawings and photographs.

There are more than twenty-five windows and more than one hundred panels throughout the Cathedral. Pictorial windows are re­minders of a period during which most churchgoers were illiterate commonfolk only able to learn the Scriptures through the glass illustrations. Pictorial windows at Bryn Athyn are situated so they are not in the line of vision when the wor­shipper is seated and are muted so not to distract. Cor­ner and rear windows are crisper and more vibrant in color.

Extra glass was produced for Bryn Athyn to be used in the event of a catastrophe such as an earthquake or bombing. An article in the May 1985 issue of Scientific America re­ported that the great stained glass of Europe, produced at the pinnacle of the art, is in serious peril. The article pre­dicts that within this genera­tion most of that glass will be lost due to natural decomposi­tion and the stress of pollu­tion. The Bryn Athyn glass, in a relatively stable environ­ment, is far newer and a half century from now could well be the only extant pot metal glass in the entire world!

As a younger man, John Pitcairn had worked with John B. Ford, who knew how to make clear glass; together they organized the immensely successful Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. Even the clear glass decorating Bryn Athyn is unique, often the result of experimentation. Glass is often faceted and distorted. The roundel, a disk formed in the glassmaking process which is often melted down or dis­carded, is incorporated in many windows. Nave win­dows are grissaile, a silver­-greyish glass with a pearl-like quality.

Bryn Athyn virtually jumps alive with endless variety in nearly every medium. Each door is different, each handle and lock unique. Of the forty­-seven ornate keys kept in the curator’s hand carved cabinet, no two are alike. No two metal screws are alike; each were fashioned by hand, down to the wire threading. The stone rosettes decorating the nave just below the cornice are all different. There are twelve carved chairs in the Council Hall, each unique, and one actually tooled to simulate the look of leather. The four eagles jutting from the tall central tower are each different and were carved in place. Gate grill swirls are all different; one swirl end was playfully bent in the shape of the craftsman’s dog!

Symbolism, based on Sa­cred Scriptures and Sweden­borgian teachings, is prevalent throughout the architecture and the decorations. One notes the absence of conven­tional ecclesiastical symbols; in fact, there are no crosses, symbolic of the living Christ. Stone cherubs, beasts of the Apocalypse and symbols of the prophet Ezekiel decorate corbels and capitals and punc­tuate friezes and reliefs.

Architectural critiques of the cathedral at Bryn Athyn have been favorable. Kingsley Porter, professor of fine arts at Yale and Harvard universities and consultant on restoration of French cathedrals offered:

The church at Bryn Athyn is an epoch-making masterwork of architectural art, created with joy, full of artistic conscience. It raises our national architecture to a new level of intellectual and artistic attainment. Yet the Bryn Athyn church is far less spoken of than many quite commonplace build­ings. If we had adequate criticism, the value of works would be at once recognized. If it existed in Europe, in France or England, it would still be at once six centuries behind, and a hundred years ahead of its time. Your church, alone of modern buildings in my judgment, is worthy of compari­son with the best the Middle Ages produced.

Jane Hayward, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters wrote:

The Cathedral of the New Church, in its structural perfec­tion and beauty of proportion, affirms not only an understanding of medieval art but also those scrupulous standards of quality that made its construction possi­ble.

Perhaps even greater than John Pitcairn’s gift of the Ca­thedral was his legacy of three sons: Raymond, Theodore and Harold. Theodore, the middle son, a Swedenborgian priest, became the first superinten­dent of the General Mission . He traveled the world as a missionary and published many papers on philosophy. Harold, the youngest, co­developed the autogiro and wheel-less helicopter. Three of his craft are on display at the National Air and Space Mu­seum of the Smithsonian Insti­tution in Washington, D. C. Raymond, in addition to his work on the Cathedral, was a lifelong patron of the arts. Each of John Pitcairn’s three sons had nine children, most of whom are active members of the Bryn Athyn community.

Today, the borough of Bryn Athyn consists of approxi­mately one thousand adults and one thousand children, the vast majority of them Ca­thedral members. Much like the little community surround­ing it, the Cathedral continues to grow and change. Two craftsmen are currently em­ployed – a wood carver and a man who works in metal and stone. Tracery still remains to be cut and new mosaic pat­terns are being designed and tested. Maintenance of the Cathedral grounds is the anon­ymous gift of one man. A lawn of Scotch Bent is meticulously watered and manicured, and five gardens are planted in rotation throughout the year.

The Church of the New Jerusalem Academy, educa­tional facility at Bryn Athyn, is located across from the Cathe­dral on Huntingdon Pike. Adjoining the Cathedral property are “Cairnwood,” John Pitcairn’s estate and “Glen­cairn,” the family home of Raymond and Mildred Pit­cairn. Built between 1928 and 1939, Glencairn houses what is considered to be the finest private collection of medieval art in the world. It currently serves as the Fine Arts Center of the New Church Academy and tours are offered.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral, which began as one man’s dream was, perhaps, best described by Bishop Pendle­ton, in his 1919 dedication sermon as “a place where man may forget the world, its toils and cares, its uncharitable thoughts, its harsh and bitter feelings, its envies and jealou­sies and with a repentant heart go as to the house of God.”

 

For Further Reading

Gladish, Richard R. and E. Bruce Glenn. Pitcairn Patriarchs. Bryn Athyn: General Church of New Jerusalem Publishers, 1985.

Glenn, E. Bruce. Bryn Athyn Cathedral: The Building of a Church. New York: Fine Arts Publishers, 1970.

Kennedy, Roger G. American Churches. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang Publishers, Inc., 1982.

Van Dusen, Richard. The Pres­ence of Other Worlds: The Psychological/Spiritual Fi11d­ings of Emanuel Swedenborg. New York: Swedenborg Founda­tion, Inc., 1974.

 

Carol Beaver, a lifelong resident of the Philadelphia area, currently resides in the city’s Fox Chase section. A freelance writer, her work has been published by the Philadelphia Sunday Inquirer Today Magazine, several devo­tional publications and commu­nity newspapers. She graduated summa cum Laude from the Phila­delphia High School for Girls and has attended courses at Temple University and the Philadelphia Community College. Her appreci­ation of fine art and architecture, accounting for her fascination with Bryn Athyn Cathedral, resulted in this article. Other hobbies include gardening and weaving. She has been employed as a crafter for a shop in the Bucks County village of New Hope, a popular tourist attraction on the banks of the Delaware River.