Cairnwood Estate located within the Bryn Athyn Historic District, surrounded by some of the most remarkable architecture in the Philadelphia Area including the world renowned Glencairn museum and the Gothic-Romanesque style Bryn Athyn Cathedral.

To learn more about the Bryn Athyn Historic District:

To view a 360 degree tour of the BAHD Bryn Athyn Historic District (

Our Location

1005 Cathedral Road
PO Box 691
Bryn Athyn PA 19009

John and Gertrude Pitcairn ~ Founding Members of a New Church Community

In January of 1874, John Pitcairn and three other members of the New Church met for lunch at a Pittsburgh restaurant. They agreed that New Church organizations were neglecting the religious education of their young people, and they decided to form a “New Church Club” to address this and other issues. Pitcairn wrote a $500 check on the spot to advance the cause. Just three years after this initial meeting the Academy of the New Church was established in Philadelphia and chartered in 1877. Over the next few years the Academy developed a Theological School for training ministers and a college (Bryn Athyn College), a Boys’ School and a Girls’ School (Academy of the New Church)—all of which still operate and recruit students today offering a rigorous academic curriculum with a focus on leading a good and useful life in service to others.

In 1884 Pitcairn married Gertrude Starkey, a woman from a Philadelphia New Church family. The Pitcairns lived in Philadelphia for the next 11 years, and it was here that five of their six children were born. At this time the New Church congregation began to talk about moving the schools and their own homes out of the city to a more healthy and peaceful atmosphere in the countryside. This was part of the national trend toward suburbanization, but it was also motivated by a desire to create an environment where New Christian principles could be carried out in community and social life. Church families wanted to live as neighbors, with their children playing together and walking to the New Church schools. The philanthropy of the Pitcairns was vital to the success of this New Church community. They endowed the schools, purchased land for their relocation as well as lots for church members wishing to move, and paid for the construction of the school and the church buildings—including, eventually, Bryn Athyn Cathedral.

Cairnwood Estate, a Beaux Arts style country house estate designed by one of the country’s leading architectural firms Carrère and Hastings, was planned to be central to social and cultural activities in the community. Correspondence between Gertrude Pitcairn and the architects reveals that she was heavily involved in the design process for both the Cairnwood gardens and the home itself. The earliest plans for the grounds were drawn up in 1892 by Charles Eliot, and later for the entire settlement when the famous landscape architecture firm Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot was formed in early1893. Frederick Law Olmsted is regarded today as the father of American Landscape Architecture, best known for Central Park in New York City. Ground was broken for Cairnwood in 1892, and construction continued until the home was finished in 1895. The Estate included formal gardens with a Garden House, green houses, stables, and several acres of farmland providing the community with milk, eggs, produce, fruit, and grains.

The most striking feature of Cairnwood when viewed across the spacious lawn is the octagonal tower with a high-pitched roof. At the top of this tower is the family Chapel; placed at the highest point in the house and designed so that worshipers face east. A quotation in Latin from Swedenborg’s book True Christian Religion is inscribed in gold lettering above the doorway to the Chapel: “Now it is permitted to enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith.” The New Church emphasizes that in order to understand one’s own faith, it is important to actively engage in the study of the Bible and doctrines for ourselves, applying our reason and intellect and not merely accepting the authority of others. Through the generations, the Pitcairn family and household staff would gather every evening in the Chapel (or later as the family grew, in the Living Room) for short readings, prayer, and song. Gathering for family worship was inspired by one of Emanuel Swedenborg’s “Rules of Life:” Diligently to read and meditate on the Word of God.  In Swedenborgian theology true faith is not just a matter of belief. The biblical commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” translates to living a life engaged in service to the neighbor in the form of one’s family, community, nation, and church. These teachings were the practical foundation of the lifetime efforts and legacy of John and Gertrude Pitcairn.

Who is Swedenborg and What is the New Church?

The inspiration for John and Gertrude Pitcairn and the community of Bryn Athyn begins in 18th century Sweden more than 100 years before Cairnwood was built. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was born in Stockholm, the son of a prominent Lutheran bishop. He was educated at the University of Uppsala and spent much of his life as a well-known Swedish scientist and philosopher. However, in 1743 at the age of 55, he experienced a series of religious visions that completely changed his life. He shifted his focus away from his scientific work and published 25 volumes of theology before the end of his life. The books present a unified system of theological thought, a new approach to Christianity. Swedenborg called this the New Church, and after his death his readers founded a number of New Church organizations in both Europe and America. Swedenborg’s writings were well received in 19th century America, and his ideas were familiar to leading intellectuals of the day.

For more information on Emanuel Swedenborg and the teachings of the New Church:

The New Church

Swedenborg Foundation

“You are not made happy by the true things you believe from your faith, but by the goodness which comes from your faith.” 

~ Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia 4984