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.